Your network is like a bad joke – but that’s not a bad thing!

By Ian Vaughan, Blog Contributor
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Did you ever try and do a bit of silo busting with your non-network colleagues and see them glaze over when you start enthusing over the latest BGP NRLI's? Maybe that's a sign that what we really need is an on-ramp to help non-networkers find their way to the express route through this confusing minefield of acronyms, jargon and dark arts that have built up around the network over the last couple of decades.

Let's get this out in the open at the outset. All of the models, structures, processes and players in your network have some kind of equivalent in the real world that your colleagues Jen Rahllist or Leonev Bizmanjer can relate to. It's just a question of tapping into those mental models that already exist in their heads and relabelling them for our own ends. It's much easier to learn something new if you have some existing reference points that you already use, to describe something you already know. That way you only need to swap some labels and learn the differences rather than having to start from scratch.

So, as a first step on the road to enlightenment for our colleagues, we need to get them comfortable with one of our foundational building blocks, the network protocol. We band them about all of the time and they are a necessity in networking circles (or loops – see what I did there) but what are they and how do you get a grip on the concept from a standing start?

This is where I get to refer back to the title. The reason that I likened your network to a bad joke is not because your MAC tables aren't big enough or even because DRS moves your Network Management platform around at the most inopportune times. The joke that I was thinking of was that favourite of generations of cracker jack manufacturers, the "knock knock" joke.

For example.

Me: Knock-knock.

Joe: Who's there?

Me: Boo!

Joe: Boo who?

Me: Don't be sad, the jokes do get better!

What we have there is a basic protocol for delivering a message payload, namely the punchline.

The key takeaway from the example above is that the two jokers are required to have agreed on some rules in advance in order for this to work. They each need to understand the format and sequence of the information exchange to deliver the important, and even sometimes funny, part of the message.

Taking a step back into the networking world, this is not a million miles away from how nearly all of our techie information exchange works. We have devices, rather than jokes, that sometimes need to send an updated version of how they see the world or sometimes a request for help. This information gets packaged up and the pre-agreed sequences of messages that both parties can use to request and deliver state information are what we know as protocols.

We are not short of examples, firstly there is the good old TCP 3 way handshake of SYN, SYN-ACK, ACK that devices use to synchronize their TCP socket based conversations. Then there's the slightly more involved "DORA" (Discover, Offer, Request, Acknowledge) sequence that hosts use to negotiate a new dynamic IP address and other attributes.  I think a DHCP example is in order at this point.

Me: Hello, is anyone there? I really need an IP address.

Joe: Howdy, how about and here's a bunch of other stuff.

Me: Cool, that'll do nicely. I love it when a plan comes together.

Joe: That address is yours until midnight and then it will turn back into a pumpkin. You have a nice day now!

Think of it just as a conversation that you can walk your colleagues through and there's not a lot more to it than the knock-knock joke.

Just remember, many of these protocols were forged by committee in dimly lit meeting rooms thirty years ago and they still exist woven through your infrastructure and software today. The different protocol families exist as the diplomats of the network world and you can find them doing a variety of jobs behind the scenes for the common good. Sometimes they are calmly negotiating peaceful resolutions between rival candidates in elections, you'll find them out there 24x7 maintaining flood defences in case of stormy weather, they are also the ones busy managing teams of uplinks when heavy lifting is required and they even keep the clocks from drifting off at night!

So, if you can start explaining networking protocols using knock-knock jokes have a think about what other complex constructs we can demystify using just a slice of everyday life. Let's take the "dark arts" of networking and see what happens when we switch all of the lights on.