Servers

Why It Helps To Understand Networking Standards You Don't Use

IP is now the de facto standard for any kind of networking — so much so that many sites blindly implement it without any understanding of what went before. However, even if your business is running happily on IPv4 and you have a migration plan for IPv6 in place, understanding the history of how we arrived at using those standards can help you manage your own network better.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Speaking in a keynote at Linux.conf.au in Canberra today, which I’m attending as part of our World Of Servers coverage, networking guru Radia Perlman argued that much current teaching about networking consisted of little more than saying “this is IP and this is how to implement it”.

Perlman, who currently works as a fellow for Intel Labs, was the creator of the ISIS routing protocol and the Ethernet spanning tree protocol. As she pointed out, the dominance of IP has less to do with technical superiority than with the accidents of history. “It’s natural to think of standards bodies as well-educated technologists carefully considering engineering trade-offs, but a much more accurate way of thinking of them is like drunken sports fans.”

That perspective is often ignored. “Networking tends to be taught as if TCP/IP arrived on tablets from the sky and it is awesome perfection,” Perlman argued. The reality is that while TCP/IP works and is now a de facto standard, it requires a lot of configuration and isn’t designed for maximum efficiency, she said. “Ideally, students would understand different ways of thinking about networking, not just one approach.”

IP is not a very good layer 3 protocol, she added. “Arguably of all of the contenders it was sort of the worse. It wasn’t [because of technological superiority] that we chose IP.”

Networking skills advice aside, Perlman can also translate networking concepts to everyday life. “There is no such thing as a reliable ‘I am dead now’ message, so you have to periodically call your mother.”

Lifehacker’s World Of Servers sees me travelling to conferences around Australia and around the globe in search of fresh insights into how server and infrastructure deployment is changing in the cloud era. This week, I’m in Canberra for Linux.conf.au, paying particular attention to the server administration mini-conference and sessions on virtualisation and best practice.