RFC Series (Part 5)
Agglutinating Problems Considered Harmful
(RFC2915, Rule 5)
In the networking world, many equate simplicity with the fewest number of moving parts. According to this line of thinking, if there are 100 routers, 10 firewalls, 3 control planes, and 4 management systems in a network, then reducing the number of routers to 95, the number of firewalls to 8, the number of control planes to 1, and the number of management systems to 3 would make the system “much simpler.” Disregarding the reduction in the number of management systems, scientifically proven to always increase in number, it does seem that reducing the number of physical devices, protocols in use, etc., would tend to decrease the complexity of the network.
The wise engineers of the IETF, however, have a word of warning in this area that all network engineers should heed. According to RFC1925, rule 5: “It is always possible to agglutinate multiple separate problems into a single complex interdependent solution. In most cases this is a bad idea.” When “conventional wisdom” and the wisdom of engineers with the kind of experience and background as those who write IETF documents contradict one another, it is worth taking a deeper look.
A good place to begin is with other RFCs that might provide examples, or otherwise shed light on this situation. Two of particular interest are RFC1776 and RFC3093.
RFC1776 describes a very simplified transport protocol for use in the Internet and private networks. In normal packet formats there are many different components, such as a header and data sections. The header is normally made up of many different fields, such as the source address, the destination address, the quality of service, etc. The data section of the packet may also be divided into many different fields providing information for such functionality as error detection, flow control, and indicators of which application on the destination host this information is destined to (the port number is an example).
The authors of RFC1776 decided that the wisdom of making a single appliance which provides many services, the firewall being the classic example, and the wisdom of using a single protocol for everything, for instance using BGP for data center fabrics and interdomain connectivity, should be applied fully to the formatting of transport packets. In the spirit of agglutination common to all network engineering, RFC1776 recommends replacing the entire contents of a transport packet with a single address. The address must be a bit longer, of course, to carry the actual data, but using a single large field is inherently simpler than using many different fields. To accomplish this task, RFC1776 specifies a packet with 1696 octets (bytes) of address space. The number of octets originally selected is compatible with ATM, an older technology which uses a 53-octet cell but should also be compatible with all modern transport systems.
While the many advantages of this system are not fully described in the specification, it should be obvious packets containing a single field—the destination address—will be easier to hosts to generate and transmit, and easier for hosts to receive and process. The entire processing of the packet will just be transferring the address field directly into memory for consumption by any application running on the host that desires to consume it. The specification does note, however, that security is much simpler because there is no “user data” to secure.
RFC3093, a more recent example of agglutination in order to simplify network design and operation. The authors of this RFC note that applications are already moving to using a single port, 80, for all traffic, as most firewalls already pass traffic transmitted through this port without restrictions. The authors note the operation of the Internet would be much simpler if all applications ran over port 80. In this way, all applications could pass through firewalls without modification, while the firewalls themselves remain perfectly operational, fulfilling their intended purpose. Implementing this specification would also simplify the absolute mess of port and protocol numbers used in transporting data today, agglutinating them all down to a single port. As less is always simpler, this would create a simpler, easier to manage, global Internet.
The lessons to learn, after examining the options, may not be what was originally intended. Reducing the number of parts does not necessarily reduce the complexity of the overall system. If you haven’t found the tradeoffs, you haven’t looked hard enough.