Towards Useful Management - The Simple Times

Reprinted with Permission of The Simple Times--
The Quarterly Newsletter of SNMP Technology, Comment, and Events (sm)
Volume 4, Number 3 July, 1996

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Towards Useful Management

Chris Wellens, InterWorking Labs
Karl Auerbach, Precept Software

SNMP's greatest success is in providing the framework to deliver management capabilities for highly focused, device specific applications. The industry needs to move beyond this accomplishment.

The purpose of this article is to consider new concepts and capabilities in network management. These range from incremental enhancements of the current state of affairs to wild-eyed dreaming.

The approaches are these, in order of increasing departure from current practices:

  • enhanced MIB definitions with greatly increased MIB semantics, in particular, the creation of "meta variables";
  • embedding of management applications into devices, with control interfaces exported to humans via HTTP/HTML based web pages;
  • replacement of the SNMP access method with one based on HTTP;
  • replacement of the SNMP access method with one based on long term "associations";
  • simple management by delegation through the use of script MIBs;
  • semi-autonomous area managers; and,
  • network management "worms".

These approaches are not mutually exclusive.

MIBs Are Precious

During the SNMP years, we've come up with reams and reams of MIB definitions. These MIBs comprise the collected thoughts by experts of what exactly constitutes the valuable data points needed to monitor and control a device. These MIBs are the most valuable legacy of SNMP.

Along with the MIBs themselves, we have learned the value of concise, machine-parseable MIB definitions. These form the fundamental vehicle by which a general purpose management station can learn the about the devices under its control.


Network management in the Internet has been the product of many myths. At least two of these have been shown to be mere vapors:

The Myth of The Collapsing Network

Connectionless transports, such as UDP, have been advanced as necessary for network management because of their ability to work when the network is failing. To put the myth contrariwise, management using TCP is deemed impossible because the myth asserts that TCP streams will break but that trusty UDP will get through to save the day.

We must first recognize that there is a distinction between the "network management" of monitoring and capacity planning from the "network management" of troubleshooting. For convenience, we'll refer to the former simply as "network management" and the latter as "troubleshooting".

Nearly 100% of network management occurs when networks are not failing.

When today's networks break, it is usually due to either a hard connectivity failure or a routing failure. In either case, neither TCP nor UDP get through.

Error bursts and congestion failures do occur, but these tend to be transient, and whether performed by the TCP engine or in a network management station's SNMP retry logic, the packets do tend to get through eventually. It is interesting that with TCP's congestion avoidance algorithms, TCP based streams behave in a way more likely to alleviate the congestion than unregulated UDP streams.

Quality of service controls (such as RSVP) are coming to the Internet. We expect management traffic will get the ability to request priority. This will help ensure that as long as a pathway exists, there will always be a way to monitor and control the net no matter how congested it gets.

Troubleshooting is a distinct branch of network management and requires tools and techniques quite different from those used for continuous monitoring and control. In troubleshooting, SNMP is, at best, a tertiary level tool with value rather below that of "ping", "traceroute", "nslookup", and "mtrace".

The Myth of the Dumb Agent

How often have we been told that agents are simple-minded devices that can't support anything other than a simple SNMP agent? Even if that were true nine years ago, an assertion to which our experience speaks to the contrary, it is completely untrue today.

Today's network devices often contain processors and memory exceeding that of our management platforms of a few years ago. Already these devices perform numerous autonomous operations and have considerable protocol stacks already in place.

Today's network devices are capable of managing themselves, if given the opportunity. (We must admit, however and unhappily, that there are is a very large class of price sensitive devices in which every corner that could be cut was cut, including the time to read the relevant specifications or perform any interoperability testing.)

Next Stop Where?

So where should we take network management? The next sections discuss a few ideas, ranging from the incremental to the radical.

Meta Variables

The "Meta-Variable" concept has been around for at least the last six years. It is simple to do and requires no changes to existing protocols or agent implementations.

A meta-variable is simply a MIB variable which exists only in the MIB definition document. Each meta-variable is defined as a function of real MIB variables.

Meta-variables would be used by MIB designers to express useful derivations that can be made from the raw data. This could capture a significant body of empirical knowledge which today is rarely, if ever, recorded.

The function may be simple, such as the dividend produced when an error counting Gauge variable is divided by sysUpTime. In this case, the result would be an average error rate.

Or the function may be more complex, like something that takes the second derivative with respect to time of that error counting Gauge. This function would highlight significant changes in the error rates on an interface, which is a far more useful indicator of trouble than an average error rate.

To reify these meta-variables, a management station would have to perform the function. This implies that the function must be expressed by some procedural statement that can be mapped down to basic SNMP get and set primitives and polling. One might say that the functions would be best expressed as simple scripts.

The definition of these meta-variables and the functions used to generate them would be expressed in standard MIB definition documents with appropriate formalities so that they could be machine parsed and utilized by a management station.

An extension of the meta-variable concept is to place intermediary devices in the network whose role is to compute these meta-variables and export them as real SNMP variables in a MIB specific to those intermediary devices. Another extension is for the SNMP agents themselves to compute the meta-variables, in which case they become real-variables.

Embedded Management Applications

The World-wide Web is everywhere. Everybody has a browser. These browsers are a standard user interface available to any application which chooses to communicate using the Web's native protocol, HTTP, as specified in RFC 1945.

Although SNMP itself is relatively "simple", it takes some work to build the MIB support in an agent, and considerably more work to build the management support to utilize the MIB data, and a great deal of work to deploy the manager onto the various network management "platforms".

An HTTP/HTML management server embedded in a managed device, with underlying TCP is not significantly more complex or memory intensive than an SNMP agent with mechanisms supporting generalized lexi-ordering and arbitrary collections of objects in a set. (It is easy to vastly underestimate the amount of work required for an agent to handle an arbitrary collection of proposed values which may arrive in an set request.)

If one looks at many of today's workstation-based management platforms, one quickly realizes that they are really not much more than a collection of device-specific add-ons.

Those add-ons could be just as easily created by having a device export highly device specific web pages with controls and user interface paradigms. For example, management platforms take pride in the fact that they can project a rendering of a managed device, so that the operator can point at a port to invoke a control panel for that specific port. This is pretty routine stuff for a typical web server.

The device vendor ships one, self contained product. That product includes its own management functions and does not depend on anything except that WWW browsers are reasonably uniform and ubiquitous. With respect to its management functions, the vendor controls the horizontal and it controls the vertical; the vendor controls everything about the device and its management, from operation to GUI. It's an extremely attractive proposition.

The great drawback of this approach is that it requires human intelligence to comprehend the WWW forms presented by a device. If one accepts the proposition, as we do, that in the long-term, networks should perform significant self-management, then this approach represents a substantial danger that we will end up further from our goal rather than closer.

Using HTTP as an Access Method

SNMP should not be confused as being network management. Rather SNMP is merely an access method used by a management station to read and write items in an agent's MIB.

The myths of "The Collapsing Network" and "The Dumb Agent" have forestalled many efforts to consider a connection-oriented alternative to SNMP.

Today's Internet is successfully carrying an enormous transaction load using the World-wide Web's HTTP, which is a TCP-based protocol. HTTP transactions follow a very simple life-cycle:

  1. Client creates a TCP connection to the server.
  2. Client transmits an HTTP operation, usually a GET or a POST, to the server. Although both can be used to carry additional information from the client to the server, POST has no restrictions on the size or structure of that information.
  3. The server responds with an HTTP header followed by a MIME-typed chunk of binary data of arbitrary size. This data may be literally anything that can be reduced to binary. It may be the familiar HTML of WEB pages, a JPEG image, or instructions to the browser how to launch an MBONE viewer.
  4. The connection is closed.

HTTP's major shortcoming is that it doesn't do enough work per TCP connection. Efforts are underway to reduce this weakness.

One could readily conceive of a number of ways to encode MIB information in that chunk of binary data. It could be truly binary, with its own MIME type. Or it could be embedded in HTML as readily identifiable, machine parseable, structured comments.

One might think that the real issue with this approach is how to map get, get-next, get-bulk, and set onto this scheme.

However, the real issue is whether we really need the get* trinity at all. The get operation is the only silver-bullet of the three SNMP retrieval operations; the latter two are merely means to get past SNMP's limited data unit imposed by the myth of "The Collapsing Network". As such, all three retrieval operations could be collapsed into a single get-subtree operator that takes a single parameter, an object identifier, and returns all objects which are prefixed by that OID. For convenience, we ought to define the subtree traversal to return the objects in lexicographic order; and, for efficiency, we should allow a list of prefixes and allow the return of multiple sub-trees.

So, how would this actually be mechanized over HTTP?

Consider SNMP queries as the equivalent of a WWW form in which the user or management station simply lists the MIB objects it wants to obtain or set values into. The SNMP response would be the web page returned as a result of processing the input form.

For processing efficiency, this result need not be encoded in a way that could be directly presented to a human user. The data could be handled either by a special application which speaks HTTP or by a management plug-in to a WWW browser.

One very attractive feature about this approach is that it may be able to piggyback on those WWW security features which are falling into place.

The main drawback of this scheme is that it can be highly intensive in its use of TCP connections, but as has been mentioned, the WWW community is already facing and, hopefully, resolving this problem.

It has been argued by some that this approach would degenerate into a prodigious number of short TCP connections, each retrieving only a small number of MIB variables. This is a valid concern. It has also been argued that the gain offered by TCP is not so great when comparing with the get-bulk operator. This is true, however, get-bulk is not widely deployed (yet). And it merely changes the point at which the curve of TCP efficiency crosses that of SNMP efficiency; it does not change the fact that, as MIB retrieval size increases, TCP becomes more efficient than UDP-based SNMP.

Using long-lived SNMP Associations

Consider the proposition that there exists a long-term relationship between a management station and managed devices on the network.

In SNMP, this relationship is somewhat vague and tends to be indirectly visible as polling by managers (to determine ongoing device status), trap destination configuration in agents, and table management in RMON devices. In the various SNMPv2 proposals, this relationship was made manifest through the various administrative frameworks.

Why not go the next step to acknowledging the relationship and creating an explicit manager-agent ``association''? This association would be composed of security and other state information and there would exist, whenever possible, an open transport connection between the manager and agent. (When that underlying transport connection fails, the two ends would attempt to reconstruct it and re-synchronize their association state.)

This approach vastly simplifies the issues of security; authentication and privacy exchanges would occur at association startup and would be cross-checked at important points in the association (typically in the form of a handshake when re-building transport connections and as cryptographic-checksums embedded as integrity checks in the various transactions crossing the association.)

This approach also obtains a significant performance improvement over today's SNMP when moving any significant amount of data. (With today's TCP protocol engines for small queries, however, there may be three or four packets crossing the net rather than the two for UDP based SNMP, although the comparative analysis can be rather complex and highly subject to packet loss rates and the TCP windowing and ACK behavior of a given TCP implementation.)

Scripting MIBs

Through the use of a MIB one can insert a script into a device, start its execution, poll for completion (or await a trap), and fetch the results.

One can imagine, for example, a script that monitors the variables in a device watching for tell-tale signs, such as a rapid increase in an error rate. The script could then either report the problem, trigger additional diagnostic tests, or take corrective action. (The latter two would require sophisticated scripts.) Scripts are ideal mechanisms to evaluate and act upon meta-variables, as described earlier.

Scripts are often expressed in a simple interpretive language. Each line of the script is simply a row in a table of octet string variables.

This is not a new idea: some years ago David Levy of SNMP Research published a "Script MIB" and the University of Delft allows a management station to inject Scheme language programs as RMON filters.

The real difficulties of all script approaches are not the scripts themselves or the language used (although, as one can expect, there are there are competing camps advocating TCL, Scheme, Java, Python, APL, RPG, Cobol, or French.)

The difficulties are these:

  • script security: Can the script be kept within bounds? This is a difficult issue because, almost by definition, network management implies the exercise of discretionary control. If network management is to have the ability to make beneficial changes, it almost necessarily has the power to cause damage if misused.
  • script integrity: One wants to be sure that the script being executed is actually the one intended. In Java, there are already authorities who will place their imprimatur on a script with the guarantee that ``this script is safe'' according to some criteria.
  • resource control: Scripts are programs and as such they can consume memory and computing cycles and potentially other resources. How does one put a quota on a script?
  • script control: A management station needs to be able to take control of an executing (or run-away) script. There needs to be a way to halt scripts.
  • script recovery: A script can have a lifetime longer than the memory of the management station which started it. It is important that a management station can learn of the existence of scripts it created.
  • expressive power: There is a great deal of room for differences of opinion regarding the fundamental actions which a script can invoke. Our own experience is that the primitives should be reasonably high level and should include the following:
    • ICMP ping (with control over packet size, packet contents, IP options, and retry intervals). This ping should capture round trip times, loss rates, data inconsistencies between what is sent and what is returned, and any ICMP unreachable messages. On multi-homed machines, the script should have control over which interface is used to send the packet.
    • Traceroute (with control over source routing, packet sizes, retry intervals, and maximum and minimum TTL).
    • Path MTU discovery.
    • DNS lookup tools.
    • SNMP operations.
  • script migration: With a script MIB, the migration of scripts from one machine to another is not an issue, since the management station creating the script controls the migration.
  • Script debugging: Scripts are programs and programs have bugs. Initially we can expect scripts to be fairly simple and amenable to simple debugging techniques. However, as scripts grow in complexity, we will need means to trace their execution, trap exceptional conditions, set breakpoints, and inspect script variables.

Initially we can expect scripts to be fairly simple: a good first step might simply be to watch what human managers do and use the scripts as simply macros for commonly executed sequences. Over time, as experience grows, scripts should grow in sophistication and, as we learn to trust them, given more power to take limited actions without asking for human permission first. This leads us to the next step:

Semi-Autonomous Area Managers

The notion of scripts opens up the possibility that one can design a system to delegate the monitoring and control tasks from a high level manager to subordinate ``area managers'' in close proximity to those devices that they are managing.

This is not a new idea. Professor Yechiam Yemini of SMARTS has been building tools using these techniques for many years. Java's popularity is extending this idea to areas other than network management.

The basic idea is "management by delegation", the superior level manager creates a script which it downloads into the area manager for execution. The area manager is, of course, a multi-threaded device and can execute many scripts simultaneously, perhaps on behalf of multiple superior managers.

An area manager would usually be given authority over devices with which it has inexpensive, low latency communications. One might conceive of an area manager's span of control as a single LAN or a group of LANs connected with a single high performance router.

The area manager might interact with the end devices using scripts, but it is far more likely that it would be done using traditional SNMP. One of the benefits of the proximity of the area manager and the ultimate devices is that the high bandwidth and presumably low packet loss rate would allow SNMP exchanges to be done rapidly and with minimal data distortion due to non-atomic snapshots of device tables.

An interesting possibility of area managers is that if they are equipped with out-of-band communications paths they can play a very useful role in network troubleshooting. Anyone who has ever repaired networks knows that you always need to be in at least two places at once. An area manager running a pre-loaded script can act as a troubleshooter's remote eyes and ears. For example, an area manager might be running a script which says:

Watch the network traffic and routing protocols and periodically ping sites off the local net to confirm outside connectivity. Should outside connectivity fail, perform traceroutes and report the results using the out-of-band channel.

Network Management Worms

The term "worm" in networking comes from the John Brunner's book The Shockwave Rider, and refers to a program that moves about a network, from computer to computer. It has become a rather pejorative word due to the widely-reported Internet virus of November 3, 1988. However, worms are potentially very valuable. For example, many years ago at Xerox PARC there were worms that propagated through the facility's computers at night to perform diagnostics on otherwise non-busy workstations.

In terms of network management, worms are really scripts that can replicate and migrate. They are really just the next step in the continuum that begins with script MIBs. Some researchers in the network management community are already working with migratory programs. They can perform network device discovery using a worm that migrates through the network and sends a report back to a central logging address whenever the worm moves to a new machine.

Effective use of worms requires that they be "safe", that they have finite lifetimes and limited appetites for network and computing resources, and that they can themselves be located, managed, and terminated.

Summary and Conclusion

In this article we have illustrated a few ways that network management can become something better than it is today. We have taken a rather opinionated position, not because we believe we are right (although we hope we are), but rather to try to ignite new work in network management.

None of the ideas presented here are impossible. Any one could be developed and deployed within 12 months.

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