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Networks all the way down, part 2.

March 25, 2014

In the previous post, I talked a bit about how essentially anything we would call a computer these days is in fact, for all practical purposes, a heterogeneous cluster made up of various specialized smaller computers, all connected using various networks that go by different names and are specified in different standards, yet are all suspiciously similar at the architecture level; a fractal of switched, packet-based networks of heterogeneous nodes that make up what we call a single “computer”. Which we then promptly connect with other computers to form home networks, work networks, and ultimately the internet.

So far, that is just an observation. But does it mean anything? Well, sort of. For one thing, it means that all the network security problems that plague inter-computer networking also exist within computers themselves. Just as you can own a machine from outside using a network-based attack (ultimately delivered via Ethernet frames), you can own it using exploits delivered via USB packets, or eSATA, or Thunderbolt. This is not a particularly bad security nightmare – all these attacks require physical access, and once you have physical access to a machine you have all kinds of ways of working around security mechanisms anyway – but it does mean that people trying to sell you hardware that you aren’t allowed to run your own code on have a pretty large attack surface to worry about.

That said, as far as implications of “everything is a computer running a network stack” go, “there are going to be implementation issues” is not exactly the most exciting place to end up at. Things get substantially more interesting once we approach the same underlying truth from another angle, though. To do so, let’s pick a concrete example. Being an affluent male geek, I socialize with a bunch of other affluent male geeks, a lot of whom store enough data (or enough computers) at home to require a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device to house terabytes of (doubtlessly 100% legally acquired!) data and serve it to the multitude of desktop computers, tables, phones and media devices they keep in their home. Now, these boxes are essentially marketed as a bunch of drive enclosures with a network plug and a bunch of added value features; RAID, video streaming (and sometimes live transcoding as well), that kind of thing. Since they’re essentially storage appliances, most people would view them as somewhere between an external hard drive enclosure and a proper computer. Of course, there’s no such thing as “half a computer”, and these devices are typically just small computers with a NIC and a few hundred megabytes to a few gigabytes of RAM, usually running some variant of Linux. They could be used for all kinds of computing; they just happen to be specialized in a way that makes them more suitable for some tasks than others.

That’s not why I bring this up, though; I bring it up because from an end user’s point of view, a NAS is essentially just a disk drive you can plug into multiple machines simultaneously, using an Ethernet plug instead of a SATA plug. Now from the computer’s (and OSes) point of view, a local disk versus a NAS are very different things; at that level, they are speaking very different languages (namely, a block device with a local file system on it, versus a remote network filesystem such as CIFS or NFS). But to most applications running on top of the OS (and by extension most users that use them), the distinction between a local drive and a mounted network share only really becomes apparent when the abstraction breaks.

Interestingly, we see the same pattern today even when we zoom in to the local storage connected to a computer. If you were to get a 2004 SATA hard drive, it would very likely be exactly that – still a “dumb” hard drive, possibly with a bit of cache, a microcontroller to talk SATA to the host and really address the disk, plus a fair amount of (possibly programmable) DSP circuitry to actually handle the encoding of bits into and decoding of bits from magnetic flux patterns, because doing this is way more involved – and way less discrete – than you probably think. So even in 2004, we already have a considerable amount of essentially invisible compute power being thrown at a problem that the higher-up abstraction layers gloss over; but at least all this processing still essentially respects the underlying abstraction of a block device. For a 2014 USB thumb drive, that’s not necessarily true anymore either: they do things like wear leveling, remapping block addresses to distribute write loads evenly over the device (and hence prevent some blocks aging much faster than others). These processes often involve parsing the file system itself (at least if it’s FAT or a variant). Think about this for a second: a storage device that, by itself, understands the file system that is stored on it, and automatically rearranges data to maximize its expected lifetime. This level of autonomy is less than a NAS transcoding videos on the fly, but it’s still a far cry from the truly “dumb” disk and tape drives our reigning block device abstractions were designed for. And we’re not talking about some expensive high-availability low-volume server technology here; this is a storage technology that is both cheap and ubiquitous.

That brings up another point: Flash memory technology is a vastly different beast from magnetic recording technology. And yet, all of those differences get hidden and papered over at a real low level; we could have taught OSes what Flash devices are, how they work, and declared them as a separate device family, with separate file systems that handle the wear leveling on the software side. Yet this is not what happened; evidently, the path of least resistance was to add dedicated hardware and software to every single Flash storage device that makes it look like a hard drive, even though it works very differently, with very different trade-offs.

This is not an isolated incident: if you go over the list of peripherals from last time, you’ll find something similar for every single one of them. Ethernet technology has essentially been completely redesigned between 1989 and 2014, yet the only part of the Ethernet standard that’s both device-independent and directly visible to software – namely, Ethernet frames – has remained essentially unchanged (except for the addition of jumbo frames, which are still not widely used). SAS and SATA may use a very different encoding and topology than their parallel counterparts, but from a software perspective the changes are evolutionary not revolutionary. Regular PCI and PCIe are essentially the same from the perspective of the OS. And so forth. Probably the most impressive example of all is the x86 architecture; a modern x86 processor can (and will) go to substantial lengths to pretend that it’s really just a fancy 8086, a 286, a 386, or a slightly extended AMD Athlon 64, depending on the operating mode; the architecture and implementation of current x86 processors is nothing like the original processors it’s emulating, but while the implementations may change substantially over time, the interfaces – protocols, to stay within our networking terminology – stay mostly constant over large time scales, warts and all.

Note how much this runs counter to the common attitude that software is easy to change, and hardware difficult. This might be true for individuals; but across computing as a whole, it’s missing the point entirely. The more relevant distinction is that implementations are easy to change, and protocols difficult. And once a protocol (or API in software terms) is firmly established and widely supported, it’s damn near impossible to get rid of. If that means that USB thumb drives have to pretend they are hard disks, and need the capability to understand the file system that’s stored on them to do a good job; if that means that Ethernet devices have to pretend that it’s 1989 and all nodes on the network are connected to one wire and identified by their MAC address, rather than connected by point-to-point links via network switches that understand IP just fine; if that means that “x86″ processors have to pretend they’re not actually out-of-order cores with an internal RISC-ish instruction set, hundreds of registers and sophisticated “decoding” (really, translation) engines; then so be it. That is the price we pay to keep things more or less in working order – except for that occasional instance when all our sophisticated abstractions break, the underlying reality shines through, and that mounted network share is revealed to not actually be on the local machine at all, by producing errors that no app knows how to handle.

Just keep hitting refresh. It’ll be back in a minute.

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From → Thoughts

3 Comments
  1. Nothing is harder than software.

  2. An excellent pair of articles.

  3. These articles remind me of a talk by Stuart Cheshire from 10 years ago:

    where he basically suggested using IP protocol for everything, replacing USB/FireWire/etc. and having a single universal protocol for everything related to computers.

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