Many within the network engineering community have heard of the OSI seven-layer model, and some may have heard of the Recursive Internet Architecture (RINA) model. The truth is, however, that while protocol designers may talk about these things, and network designers study them, very few networks today are built using any of these models. What is often used instead is what might be called the Infinitely Layered Functional Indirection (ILFI) model of network engineering. In this model, nothing is solved at a particular layer of the network if it can be moved to another layer, whether successfully or not.
For instance, Ethernet is the physical and data link layer of choice over almost all types of physical medium, including optical and copper. No new type of physical transport layer (other than wireless) can succeed unless it can be described as “Ethernet” in some regard or another. Much like almost no new networking software can succeed unless it has a Command Line Interface (CLI) similar to the one a particular vendor developed some twenty years ago. It’s not that these things are necessarily better, but they are well-known.
Ethernet, however, goes far beyond providing physical layer connectivity. Because many applications rely on using Ethernet semantics directly, many networks are built with some physical form of Ethernet (or something claiming to be like Ethernet), with IP on top of this. On top of the IP, there is some other transport protocol, such as VXLAN, UDP, GRE, or perhaps even MPLS over UDP. On top of these layers rides … Ethernet. On which IP runs. On which TCP or UDP, or potentially VXLAN runs. It turns out it is easier to add another layer of indirection to solve many of the problems caused by the applications that expect Ethernet, than it is to solve them with … Ethernet.
Many other suggestions of this type have been made in network engineering and protocol design across the years, but none of them seem to have been as widely deployed as Ethernet over IP over Ethernet. For instance, RFC3252 notes it has always been difficult to understand the contents of Ethernet, IP, and other packets as they are transmitted from host to host. The eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is, on the other hand, designed to be both machine- and human-readable. A logical solution to the problem of unreadable packets, then, is to add another layer of indirection by formatting all packets, including Ethernet and IP, into XML. Once this is done, there would be no need for expensive or complex protocol analyzers, as anyone could simply capture packets off the wire and read them directly. Adding another layer, in this case, could save many hours of troubleshooting time, and generally reduce the cost of operating a network significantly.
Once the idea of adding another layer has been fully grasped, the range of problems which can be solved becomes almost limitless. Many companies struggle to find some way to provide secure remote access to their employees, contractors, and even customers. The systems designed to solve this problem are often complex, difficult to deploy, and almost impossible to troubleshoot. RFC5514, however, provides an alternate solution: simply layer an IPv6 transport stream on top of the social media networks everyone already uses. Everyone, after all, already has at least one social media account, and can already reach that social media account using at least one device. Creating an IPv6 stream across social media would provide universal cloud-based access to anyone who desires.
Such streams could even be encrypted to ensure the operators and users of the underlying social media network cannot see any private information transmitted across the IPv6 channel created in this way.
Russ White has more than twenty years' experience in designing, deploying, breaking, and troubleshooting large scale networks. Russ is currently a member of the Architecture Team at LinkedIn, where he works on next generation data center designs, complexity, and security. His most recent books are The Art of Network Architecture and Navigating Network Complexity.