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Communications of the ACM

Kode Vicious

Taking Your Network's Temperature


thermometer

Credit: iStockPhoto.com

A prescription for capturing data to diagnose and debug a networking problem.

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the June 2010 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2010/6/92490).
--CACM Administrator

George V. Neville-Neil's "Kode Vicious" Viewpoint "Taking Your Network's Temperature" (Feb. 2010) was thought-provoking, but two of its conclusions "putting printf()... throughout your code is a really annoying way to find bugs" and "limiting the files to one megabyte is a good start"were somewhat misleading.

Timing was one reason Neville-Neil offered for his view that printf() can lead to "erroneous results." Debugger and printf() both have timing loads. Debug timing depends on hardware support. A watch statement functions like a printf(), and a breakpoint consumes "infinite" time. In both single-threaded and multithreaded environments, a breakpoint stops thread activity. In all cases, debugger statements perturb timing in a way that's like printf().

We would expect such stimulus added to multithreaded applications would produce different output. Neville-Neil expressed a similar sentiment, saying "Networks are perhaps the most nondeterministic components of any complex computing system." Both printf() and debuggers exaggerate timing differences, so the qualitative issue resolves to individual preferences, not to timing.

Choosing between a debugger and a printf() statement depends on the development stage in which each is to be used. At an early stage, a debugger might be better when timing and messaging order are less important than error detection. Along with functional integration in the program, a debugger can sometimes reach a point of diminishing returns. Programmers shift their attention to finding the first appearance of an error and the point in their programs where the error was generated. Using a debugger tends to be a trial-and-error process involving large amounts of programmer and test-bench time to find that very point. A printf() statement inserted at program creation requires no setup time and little bench time, so is, in this sense, resource-efficient.

The downside of using a printf() statement is that at program creation (when it is inserted) programmers anticipate errors but are unaware of where and when they might occur; printf() output can be overwhelming, and the aggregate time to produce diagnostic output can impede time-critical operations. The overhead load of output and time is only partially correctable.

Limiting file size to some arbitrary maximum leads programmers to assume (incorrectly) that the search is for a single error and that localizing it is the goal. Limiting file size allows programmers to focus on a manageable subset of data for analysis but misses other unrelated errors. If the point of error-generation is not within some limited number of files, little insight would be gained for finding the point an error was in fact generated.

Neville-Neil saying "No matter how good a tool you have, it's going to do a much better job at finding a bug if you narrow down the search." might apply to "Dumped" (the "questioner" in his Viewpoint) but not necessarily to everyone else. An analysis tool is meant to discover errors, and programmers and users both win if errors are found. Trying to optimize tool execution time over error-detection is a mistake.

Art Schwarz
Irvine, CA


CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the June 2010 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2010/6/92490).
--CACM Administrator

George V. Neville-Neil's Viewpoint (Feb. 2010) said students are rarely taught to use tools to analyze networking problems. For example, he mentioned Wireshark and tcpdump, but only in a cursory way, even though these tools are part of many contemporary university courses on networking.

Sniffers (such as Wireshark and Ethereal) for analyzing network protocols have been covered at Fairleigh Dickinson University for at least the past 10 years. Widely used tools for network analysis and vulnerability assessment (such as nmap, nessus, Snort, and ettercap) are available through Fedora and nUbuntu Linux distributions. Open source tools for wireless systems include NetStumbler and AirSnort.

Fairleigh Dickenson's network labs run on virtual machines to limit inadvertent damage and the need for protection measures. We teach the basic network utilities available on Windows- and/or Posix-compliant systems, including ping, netstat, arp, tracert (traceroute), ipconfig (ifconfig in Linux/Unix and iwconfig in Linux wireless cards), and nslookup (dig in Linux). With the proper options, netstat displays IP addresses, protocols, and ports used by all open and listening connections, as well as by protocol statistics and routing tables.

The Wireshark packet sniffer identifies control information at different protocol layers. A TCP capture specification thus provides a tree of protocols, with fields for frame header and trailer (including MAC address), IP header (including IP address), and TCP header (including port address). Students compare the MAC and IP addresses found through Wireshark with those found through netstat and ipconfig. They then change addresses and check results by sniffing new packets, analyzing the arp packets that try to resolve the altered addresses. Capture filters in Wireshark support search through protocol and name resolution; Neville-Neil stressed the importance of narrowing one's search but failed to mention the related mechanisms. Students are also able to make connections through (unencrypted) telnet and PuTTy, comparing password fields.

My favorite Wireshark assignment involves viewing TCP handshakes via statistics/flow/TCP flow, perhaps following an nmap SYN attack. The free security scanner nmap runs with Wireshark and watch probes initiated by the scan options provided. I always assign a Christmas-tree scan (nmap sX) that sends packets with different combinations of flag bits. Capturing probe packets and a receiving station's reactions enables identification of flag settings and the receiver's response to them. Operating systems react differently to illegal flag combinations, as students observe via their screen captures.

Network courses and network maintenance are thus strongly enhanced by sniffers and other types of tools that yield information concerning network traffic and potential system vulnerabilities.

Gertrude Levine
Madison, NJ


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