9.3 Infrastructure Applications

There are some protocols that are essential to the smooth running of the Internet but that don’t fit neatly into the strictly layered model. One of these is the Domain Name System (DNS)—not an application that users normally invoke directly, but rather a service that almost all other applications depend upon. This is because the name service is used to translate host names into host addresses; the existence of such an application allows the users of other applications to refer to remote hosts by name rather than by address. In other words, a name service is usually used by other applications, rather than by humans.

A second critical function is network management, which although not so familiar to the average user, is performed most often by the people that operate the network on behalf of users. Network management is widely considered one of the hard problems of networking and continues to be the focus of much innovation. We’ll look at some of the issues and approaches to the problem below.

Name Service (DNS)

In most of this book, we have been using addresses to identify hosts. While perfectly suited for processing by routers, addresses are not exactly user friendly. It is for this reason that a unique name is also typically assigned to each host in a network. Already in this section we have seen application protocols like HTTP using names such as www.princeton.edu. We now describe how a naming service can be developed to map user-friendly names into router-friendly addresses. Name services are sometimes called middleware because they fill a gap between applications and the underlying network.

Host names differ from host addresses in two important ways. First, they are usually of variable length and mnemonic, thereby making them easier for humans to remember. (In contrast, fixed-length numeric addresses are easier for routers to process.) Second, names typically contain no information that helps the network locate (route packets toward) the host. Addresses, in contrast, sometimes have routing information embedded in them; flat addresses (those not divisible into component parts) are the exception.

Before getting into the details of how hosts are named in a network, we first introduce some basic terminology. First, a name space defines the set of possible names. A name space can be either flat (names are not divisible into components) or hierarchical (Unix file names are an obvious example). Second, the naming system maintains a collection of bindings of names to values. The value can be anything we want the naming system to return when presented with a name; in many cases, it is an address. Finally, a resolution mechanism is a procedure that, when invoked with a name, returns the corresponding value. A name server is a specific implementation of a resolution mechanism that is available on a network and that can be queried by sending it a message.

Because of its large size, the Internet has a particularly well-developed naming system in place—the Domain Name System (DNS). We therefore use DNS as a framework for discussing the problem of naming hosts. Note that the Internet did not always use DNS. Early in its history, when there were only a few hundred hosts on the Internet, a central authority called the Network Information Center (NIC) maintained a flat table of name-to-address bindings; this table was called HOSTS.TXT.[1] Whenever a site wanted to add a new host to the Internet, the site administrator sent email to the NIC giving the new host’s name/address pair. This information was manually entered into the table, the modified table was mailed out to the various sites every few days, and the system administrator at each site installed the table on every host at the site. Name resolution was then simply implemented by a procedure that looked up a host’s name in the local copy of the table and returned the corresponding address.

[1]Believe it or not, there was also a paper book (like a phone book) published periodically that listed all the machines connected to the Internet and all the people that had an Internet email account.

It should come as no surprise that the approach to naming did not work well as the number of hosts in the Internet started to grow. Therefore, in the mid-1980s, the Domain Naming System was put into place. DNS employs a hierarchical namespace rather than a flat name space, and the “table” of bindings that implements this name space is partitioned into disjoint pieces and distributed throughout the Internet. These subtables are made available in name servers that can be queried over the network.

What happens in the Internet is that a user presents a host name to an application program (possibly embedded in a compound name such as an email address or URL), and this program engages the naming system to translate this name into a host address. The application then opens a connection to this host by presenting some transport protocol (e.g., TCP) with the host’s IP address. This situation is illustrated (in the case of sending email) in Figure 229. While this picture makes the name resolution task look simple enough, there is a bit more to it, as we shall see.

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Figure 229. Names translated into addresses, where the numbers 1 to 5 show the sequence of steps in the process.

Domain Hierarchy

DNS implements a hierarchical name space for Internet objects. Unlike Unix file names, which are processed from left to right with the naming components separated with slashes, DNS names are processed from right to left and use periods as the separator. (Although they are processed from right to left, humans still read domain names from left to right.) An example domain name for a host is cicada.cs.princeton.edu. Notice that we said domain names are used to name Internet “objects.” What we mean by this is that DNS is not strictly used to map host names into host addresses. It is more accurate to say that DNS maps domain names into values. For the time being, we assume that these values are IP addresses; we will come back to this issue later in this section.

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Figure 230. Example of a domain hierarchy.

Like the Unix file hierarchy, the DNS hierarchy can be visualized as a tree, where each node in the tree corresponds to a domain, and the leaves in the tree correspond to the hosts being named. Figure 230 gives an example of a domain hierarchy. Note that we should not assign any semantics to the term domain other than that it is simply a context in which additional names can be defined.[2]

[2]Confusingly, the word domain is also used in Internet routing, where it means something different than it does in DNS, being roughly equivalent to the term autonomous system.

There was actually a substantial amount of discussion that took place when the domain name hierarchy was first being developed as to what conventions would govern the names that were to be handed out near the top of the hierarchy. Without going into that discussion in any detail, notice that the hierarchy is not very wide at the first level. There are domains for each country, plus the “big six” domains: .edu, .com, .gov, .mil, .org, and .net. These six domains were all originally based in the United States (where the Internet and DNS were invented); for example, only U.S.-accredited educational institutions can register an .edu domain name. In recent years, the number of top-level domains has been expanded, partly to deal with the high demand for .com domains names. The newer top-level domains include .biz, .coop, and .info. There are now over 1200 top-level domains.

Name Servers

The complete domain name hierarchy exists only in the abstract. We now turn our attention to the question of how this hierarchy is actually implemented. The first step is to partition the hierarchy into subtrees called zones. Figure 231 shows how the hierarchy given in Figure 230 might be divided into zones. Each zone can be thought of as corresponding to some administrative authority that is responsible for that portion of the hierarchy. For example, the top level of the hierarchy forms a zone that is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Below this is a zone that corresponds to Princeton University. Within this zone, some departments do not want the responsibility of managing the hierarchy (and so they remain in the university-level zone), while others, like the Department of Computer Science, manage their own department-level zone.

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Figure 231. Domain hierarchy partitioned into zones.

The relevance of a zone is that it corresponds to the fundamental unit of implementation in DNS—the name server. Specifically, the information contained in each zone is implemented in two or more name servers. Each name server, in turn, is a program that can be accessed over the Internet. Clients send queries to name servers, and name servers respond with the requested information. Sometimes the response contains the final answer that the client wants, and sometimes the response contains a pointer to another server that the client should query next. Thus, from an implementation perspective, it is more accurate to think of DNS as being represented by a hierarchy of name servers rather than by a hierarchy of domains, as illustrated in Figure 232.

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Figure 232. Hierarchy of name servers.

Note that each zone is implemented in two or more name servers for the sake of redundancy; that is, the information is still available even if one name server fails. On the flip side, a given name server is free to implement more than one zone.

Each name server implements the zone information as a collection of resource records. In essence, a resource record is a name-to-value binding or, more specifically, a 5-tuple that contains the following fields:

(Name, Value, Type, Class, TTL)

The Name and Value fields are exactly what you would expect, while the Type field specifies how the Value should be interpreted. For example, indicates that the Value is an IP address. Thus, A records implement the name-to-address mapping we have been assuming. Other record types include:

  • NS—The Value field gives the domain name for a host that is running a name server that knows how to resolve names within the specified domain.
  • CNAME—The Value field gives the canonical name for a particular host; it is used to define aliases.
  • MX—The Value field gives the domain name for a host that is running a mail server that accepts messages for the specified domain.

The Class field was included to allow entities other than the NIC to define useful record types. To date, the only widely used Class is the one used by the Internet; it is denoted IN. Finally, the time-to-live (TTL) field shows how long this resource record is valid. It is used by servers that cache resource records from other servers; when the TTL expires, the server must evict the record from its cache.

To better understand how resource records represent the information in the domain hierarchy, consider the following examples drawn from the domain hierarchy given in Figure 230. To simplify the example, we ignore the TTL field and we give the relevant information for only one of the name servers that implement each zone.

First, a root name server contains an NS record for each top-level domain (TLD) name server. This identifies a server that can resolve queries for this part of the DNS hierarchy (.edu and .comin this example). It also has A records that translates these names into the corresponding IP addresses. Taken together, these two records effectively implement a pointer from the root name server to one of the TLD servers.

(edu, a3.nstld.com, NS, IN)
(a3.nstld.com, 192.5.6.32, A, IN)
(com, a.gtld-servers.net, NS, IN)
(a.gtld-servers.net, 192.5.6.30, A, IN)
...

Moving our way down the hierarchy by one level, the server has records for domains like this:

(princeton.edu, dns.princeton.edu, NS, IN)
(dns.princeton.edu, 128.112.129.15, A, IN)
...

In this case, we get an NS record and an A record for the name server that is responsible for the princeton.edu part of the hierarchy. That server might be able to directly resolve some queries (e.g., foremail.princeton.edu) while it would redirect others to a server at yet another layer in the hierarchy (e.g., for a query about penguins.cs.princeton.edu).

(email.princeton.edu, 128.112.198.35, A, IN)
(penguins.cs.princeton.edu, dns1.cs.princeton.edu, NS, IN)
(dns1.cs.princeton.edu, 128.112.136.10, A, IN)
...

Finally, a third-level name server, such as the one managed by domain cs.princeton.edu, contains A records for all of its hosts. It might also define a set of aliases (CNAME records) for each of those hosts. Aliases are sometimes just convenient (e.g., shorter) names for machines, but they can also be used to provide a level of indirection. For example,www.cs.princeton.edu is an alias for the host named coreweb.cs.princeton.edu.This allows the site’s web server to move to another machine without affecting remote users; they simply continue to use the alias without regard for what machine currently runs the domain’s web server. The mail exchange (MX) records serve the same purpose for the email application—they allow an administrator to change which host receives mail on behalf of the domain without having to change everyone’s email address.

(penguins.cs.princeton.edu, 128.112.155.166, A, IN)
(www.cs.princeton.edu, coreweb.cs.princeton.edu, CNAME, IN)
coreweb.cs.princeton.edu, 128.112.136.35, A, IN)
(cs.princeton.edu, mail.cs.princeton.edu, MX, IN)
(mail.cs.princeton.edu, 128.112.136.72, A, IN)
...

Note that, although resource records can be defined for virtually any type of object, DNS is typically used to name hosts (including servers) and sites. It is not used to name individual people or other objects like files or directories; other naming systems are typically used to identify such objects. For example, X.500 is an ISO naming system designed to make it easier to identify people. It allows you to name a person by giving a set of attributes: name, title, phone number, postal address, and so on. X.500 proved too cumbersome—and, in some sense, was usurped by powerful search engines now available on the Web—but it did eventually evolve into the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP). LDAP is a subset of X.500 originally designed as a PC front end to X.500. Today, widely used, mostly at the enterprise level, as a system for learning information about users.

Name Resolution

Given a hierarchy of name servers, we now consider the issue of how a client engages these servers to resolve a domain name. To illustrate the basic idea, suppose the client wants to resolve the name penguins.cs.princeton.edu relative to the set of servers given in the previous subsection. The client could first send a query containing this name to one of the root servers (as we’ll see below, this rarely happens in practice but will suffice to illustrate the basic operation for now). The root server, unable to match the entire name, returns the best match it has—the NS record for edu which points to the TLD server a3.nstld.com. The server also returns all records that are related to this record, in this case, the A record for a3.nstld.com. The client, having not received the answer it was after, next sends the same query to the name server at IP host 192.5.6.32. This server also cannot match the whole name and so returns the NS and corresponding A records for the princeton.edu domain. Once again, the client sends the same query as before to the server at IP host 128.112.129.15, and this time gets back the NS record and corresponding A record for the cs.princeton.edu domain. This time, the server that can fully resolve the query has been reached. A final query to the server at 128.112.136.10 yields the A record for penguins.cs.princeton.edu, and the client learns that the corresponding IP address is 128.112.155.166.

This example still leaves a couple of questions about the resolution process unanswered. The first question is how did the client locate the root server in the first place, or, put another way, how do you resolve the name of the server that knows how to resolve names? This is a fundamental problem in any naming system, and the answer is that the system has to be bootstrapped in some way. In this case, the name-to-address mapping for one or more root servers is well known; that is, it is published through some means outside the naming system itself.

In practice, however, not all clients know about the root servers. Instead, the client program running on each Internet host is initialized with the address of a local name server. For example, all the hosts in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton know about the server on dns1.cs.princeton.edu. This local name server, in turn, has resource records for one or more of the root servers, for example:

('root', a.root-servers.net, NS, IN)
(a.root-servers.net, 198.41.0.4, A, IN)

Thus, resolving a name actually involves a client querying the local server, which in turn acts as a client that queries the remote servers on the original client’s behalf. This results in the client/server interactions illustrated in Figure 233. One advantage of this model is that all the hosts in the Internet do not have to be kept up-to-date on where the current root servers are located; only the servers have to know about the root. A second advantage is that the local server gets to see the answers that come back from queries that are posted by all the local clients. The local server caches these responses and is sometimes able to resolve future queries without having to go out over the network. The TTL field in the resource records returned by remote servers indicates how long each record can be safely cached. This caching mechanism can be used further up the hierarchy as well, reducing the load on the root and TLD servers.

The second question is how the system works when a user submits a partial name (e.g., penguins) rather than a complete domain name (e.g., penguins.cs.princeton.edu). The answer is that the client program is configured with the local domain in which the host resides (e.g., cs.princeton.edu), and it appends this string to any simple names before sending out a query.

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Figure 233. Name resolution in practice, where the numbers 1 to 10 show the sequence of steps in the process.

Key Takeaway

Just to make sure we are clear, we have now seen three different levels of identifiers—domain names, IP addresses, and physical network addresses—and the mapping of identifiers at one level into identifiers at another level happens at different points in the network architecture. First, users specify domain names when interacting with the application. Second, the application engages DNS to translate this name into an IP address; it is the IP address that is placed in each datagram, not the domain name. (As an aside, this translation process involves IP datagrams being sent over the Internet, but these datagrams are addressed to a host that runs a name server, not to the ultimate destination.) Third, IP does forwarding at each router, which often means that it maps one IP address into another; that is, it maps the ultimate destination’s address into the address for the next hop router. Finally, IP engages the Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) to translate the next hop IP address into the physical address for that machine; the next hop might be the ultimate destination or it might be an intermediate router. Frames sent over the physical network have these physical addresses in their headers. [Next]

Network Management (SNMP, OpenConfig)

A network is a complex system, both in terms of the number of nodes that are involved and in terms of the suite of protocols that can be running on any one node. Even if you restrict yourself to worrying about the nodes within a single administrative domain, such as a campus, there might be dozens of routers and hundreds—or even thousands—of hosts to keep track of. If you think about all the state that is maintained and manipulated on any one of those nodes—address translation tables, routing tables, TCP connection state, and so on—then it is easy to become overwhelmed by the prospect of having to manage all of this information.

It is easy to imagine wanting to know about the state of various protocols on different nodes. For example, you might want to monitor the number of IP datagram reassemblies that have been aborted, so as to determine if the timeout that garbage collects partially assembled datagrams needs to be adjusted. As another example, you might want to keep track of the load on various nodes (i.e., the number of packets sent or received) so as to determine if new routers or links need to be added to the network. Of course, you also have to be on the watch for evidence of faulty hardware and misbehaving software.

What we have just described is the problem of network management, an issue that pervades the entire network architecture. Since the nodes we want to keep track of are distributed, our only real option is to use the network to manage the network. This means we need a protocol that allows us to read and write various pieces of state information on different network nodes. The following describes two approaches.

SNMP

A widely used protocol for network management is SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol). SNMP is essentially a specialized request/reply protocol that supports two kinds of request messages: GET and SET. The former is used to retrieve a piece of state from some node, and the latter is used to store a new piece of state in some node. (SNMP also supports a third operation, GET-NEXT, which we explain below.) The following discussion focuses on the GET operation, since it is the one most frequently used.

SNMP is used in the obvious way. An operator interacts with a client program that displays information about the network. This client program usually has a graphical interface. You can think of this interface as playing the same role as a web browser. Whenever the operator selects a certain piece of information that he or she wants to see, the client program uses SNMP to request that information from the node in question. (SNMP runs on top of UDP.) An SNMP server running on that node receives the request, locates the appropriate piece of information, and returns it to the client program, which then displays it to the user.

There is only one complication to this otherwise simple scenario: Exactly how does the client indicate which piece of information it wants to retrieve, and, likewise, how does the server know which variable in memory to read to satisfy the request? The answer is that SNMP depends on a companion specification called the management information base (MIB). The MIB defines the specific pieces of information—the MIB variables—that you can retrieve from a network node.

The current version of MIB, called MIB-II, organizes variables into different groups. You will recognize that most of the groups correspond to one of the protocols described in this book, and nearly all of the variables defined for each group should look familiar. For example:

  • System—General parameters of the system (node) as a whole, including where the node is located, how long it has been up, and the system’s name
  • Interfaces—Information about all the network interfaces (adaptors) attached to this node, such as the physical address of each interface and how many packets have been sent and received on each interface
  • Address translation—Information about the Address Resolution Protocol, and in particular, the contents of its address translation table
  • IP—Variables related to IP, including its routing table, how many datagrams it has successfully forwarded, and statistics about datagram reassembly; includes counts of how many times IP drops a datagram for one reason or another
  • TCP—Information about TCP connections, such as the number of passive and active opens, the number of resets, the number of timeouts, default timeout settings, and so on; per-connection information persists only as long as the connection exists
  • UDP—Information about UDP traffic, including the total number of UDP datagrams that have been sent and received.

There are also groups for Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) and SNMP itself.

Returning to the issue of the client stating exactly what information it wants to retrieve from a node, having a list of MIB variables is only half the battle. Two problems remain. First, we need a precise syntax for the client to use to state which of the MIB variables it wants to fetch. Second, we need a precise representation for the values returned by the server. Both problems are addressed using Abstract Syntax Notation One (ASN.1).

Consider the second problem first. As we already saw in a previous chapter, ASN.1/Basic Encoding Rules (BER) defines a representation for different data types, such as integers. The MIB defines the type of each variable, and then it uses ASN.1/BER to encode the value contained in this variable as it is transmitted over the network. As far as the first problem is concerned, ASN.1 also defines an object identification scheme. The MIB uses this identification system to assign a globally unique identifier to each MIB variable. These identifiers are given in a “dot” notation, not unlike domain names. For example, 1.3.6.1.2.1.4.3 is the unique ASN.1 identifier for the IP-related MIB variable ipInReceives; this variable counts the number of IP datagrams that have been received by this node. In this example, the 1.3.6.1.2.1 prefix identifies the MIB database (remember, ASN.1 object IDs are for all possible objects in the world), the 4 corresponds to the IP group, and the final 3 denotes the third variable in this group.

Thus, network management works as follows. The SNMP client puts the ASN.1 identifier for the MIB variable it wants to get into the request message, and it sends this message to the server. The server then maps this identifier into a local variable (i.e., into a memory location where the value for this variable is stored), retrieves the current value held in this variable, and uses ASN.1/BER to encode the value it sends back to the client.

There is one final detail. Many of the MIB variables are either tables or structures. Such compound variables explain the reason for the SNMP GET-NEXT operation. This operation, when applied to a particular variable ID, returns the value of that variable plus the ID of the next variable, for example, the next item in the table or the next field in the structure. This aids the client in “walking through” the elements of a table or structure.

OpenConfig

SNMP is still widely used and has historically been “the” management protocol for switches and routers, but there has recently been growing attention paid to more flexible and powerful ways to manage networks. There isn’t yet complete agreement on an industry-wide standard, but a consensus about the general approach is starting to emerge. We describe one example, called OpenConfig, that is both getting a lot of traction and illustrates many of the key ideas that are being pursued.

The general strategy is to automate network management as much as possible, with the goal of getting the error-prone human out of the loop. This is sometimes called zero-touch management, and it implies two things have to happen. First, whereas historically operators used tools like SNMP to monitor the network, but had to log into any misbehaving network device and use a command line interface (CLI) to fix the problem, zero-touch management implies that we also need to configure the network programmatically. In other words, network management is equal parts reading status information and writing configuration information. The goal is to build a closed control loop, although there will always be scenarios where the operator has to be alerted that manual intervention is required.

Second, whereas historically the operator had to configure each network device individually, all the devices have to be configured in a consistent way if they are going to function correctly as a network. As a consequence, zero-touch also implies that the operator should be able to declare their network-wide intent, with the management tool being smart enough to issue the necessary per-device configuration directives in a globally consistent way.

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Figure 234. Operator manages a network through a configuration and management tool, which in turn programmatically interacts with the underlying network devices (e.g., using gNMI as the transport protocol and YANG to specify the schema for the data being exchanged).

Figure 234 gives a high-level depiction of this idealized approach to network management. We say “idealized” because achieving true zero-touch management is still more aspirational than reality. But progress is being made. For example, new management tools are starting to leverage standard protocols like HTTP to monitor and configure network devices. This is a positive step because it gets us out of the business of creating yet another request/reply protocol and lets us focus on creating smarter management tools, perhaps by taking advantage of Machine Learning algorithms to determine if something is amiss.

In the same way HTTP is starting to replace SNMP as the protocol for talking to network devices, there is a parallel effort to replace the MIB with a new standard for what status information various types of devices can report, plus what configuration information those same devices are able to respond to. Agreeing to a single standard for configuration is inherently challenging because every vendor claims their device is special, unlike any of the devices their competitors sell. (That is to say, the challenge is not entirely technical.)

The general approach is to allow each device manufacturer to publish a data model that specifies the configuration knobs (and available monitoring data) for its product, and limit standardization to the modeling language. The leading candidate is YANG, which stands for Yet Another Next Generation, a name chosen to poke fun at how often a do-over proves necessary. YANG can be viewed as a restricted version of XSD, which you may recall is a language for defining a schema (model) for XML. That is, YANG defines the structure of the data. But unlike XSD, YANG is not XML-specific. It can instead be used in conjunction with different over-the-wire message formats, including XML, but also ProtoBufs and JSON.

What’s important about going in this direction is that the data model that defines the semantics of the variables available to be read and written in a programmatic form (i.e., it’s not just text in a standards specification). It’s not a free-for-all with each vendor defining a unique model since the network operators that buy network hardware have a strong incentive to drive the models for similar devices towards convergence. YANG makes the process of creating, using, and modifying models more programmable, and hence, adaptable to this process.

This is where OpenConfig comes in. It uses YANG as its modeling language, but has also established a process for driving the industry towards common models. OpenConfig is officially agnostic as to the RPC mechanism used to communicate with network devices, but one approach it is actively pursuing is called gNMI (gRPC Network Management Interface). As you might guess from its name, gNMI uses gRPC, which you may recall, runs on top of HTTP. This means gNMI also adopts ProtoBufs as the way it specifies the data actually communicated over the HTTP connection. Thus, as depicted in Figure 234, gNMI is intended as a standard management interface for network devices. What’s not standardized is the richness of the management tool’s ability to automate, or the exact form of the operator-facing interface. Like any application that is trying to serve a need and support more features than the alternatives, there is still much room for innovation in tools for network management.

For completeness, we note that NETCONF is another of the post-SNMP protocols for communicating configuration information to network devices. OpenConfig works with NETCONF, but our reading of the tea leaves points to gNMI as the future.

We conclude by emphasizing that a seachange is underway. While listing SNMP and OpenConfig in the title to this section suggests they are equivalent, it is more accurate to say that each is “what we call” these two approaches, but the approaches are quite different. On the one hand, SNMP is really just a transport protocol, analogous to gNMI in the OpenConfig world. It historically enabled monitoring devices, but had virtually nothing to say about configuring devices. (The latter has historically required manual intervention.) On the other hand, OpenConfig is primarily an effort to define a common set of data models for network devices, roughly similar to the role MIB plays in the SNMP world, except OpenConfig is (1) model-based, using YANG, and (2) equally focused on monitoring and configuration.