Before the beginning of the semester, Nick Feamster informed me that he decided to flip his advanced networking course . Various teachers have opted for flipped classrooms to increase the interaction with students. Instead of using class time to present theory, the teacher focuses his/her attention during the class on solving problems with the students. Various organisations of a flipped classroom have been tested. Often, the teacher posts short videos that explain the basic principles before the class and the students have to listen to the videos before attending the class. This is partially the approach adopted by Nick Feamster for his class.
By bringing more interaction in the classroom, the flipped approach is often considered to be more interesting for the teacher as well as for the student. Since my advanced networking class gathers only a few tens of students, compared to the 100+ and 300+ students of the other courses that I teach, I also decided to flip one course this year.
The advanced networking course is a follow-up to the basic networking course. I cover several advanced topics and aims at explaining to the students the operation of large Internet Service Provider networks. The main topics covered are :
- Interdomain routing with BGP (route reflectors, traffic engineering, ...)
- Traffic control and Quality of Service (from basic mechanisms - shaping, policing, scheduling, buffer acceptance - to services - integrated or differentiated services)
- IP Multicast and Multicast routing protocols
- Multiprotocol Label Switching
- Virtual Private Networks
The course is complemented by projects during which the students configure and test realistic networks built from Linux-based routers.
During the last decade, I’ve taught this course by using slides and presenting them to the students and discussing the theoretical material. I could have used some of them to record videos explaining the basic principles, but I’m still not convinced by the benefits of using video online as a learning vehicle. Video is nice for demonstrations and short introductory material, but students need written material to understand the details. For this reason, I’ve decided to opt for a seminar-type approach where the students read one or two articles every week to understand the basic principles. Then, the class focuses on discussing real cases or exercises.
Many courses are organized as seminars during which the students read recent articles and discuss them. Often, these are advanced courses and the graduate students read and comment recent scientific articles. This approach was not applicable in many case given the maturity of the students who follow the advanced networking course. Instead of using purely scientific articles, I’ve opted for tutorial articles that appear in magazines such as IEEE Communications Magazine or the Internet Protocol Journal . These articles are easier to read by the students and often provide good tutorial content with references that the students can exploit if they need additional information.
The course has started a few weeks ago and the interaction with the student has been really nice. I’ll regularly post updates on the articles that I’ve used, the exercises that have been developed and the student’s reactions. Comments are, of course, welcome.
Happy eyeballs, defined in RFC 6555, is a technique that enables dual-stack hosts to automatically select between IPv6 and IPv4 based on their respective performance. When a dual-stack host tries to contact a webserver that is reachable over both IPv6 and IPv4, it :
- first tries to establish a TCP connection towards the IPv6 or IPv4 address and starts a short timeout, say 300 msec
- if the connection is established over the chosen address family, it continues
- if the timer expires before the establishment of the connection, a second connection is tried with the other address family
Happy eyeballs works well when the one of the two address families provides bad performance or is broken. In this case, a host using happy eyeballs will automatically avoid the broken address family. However, when both IPv6 and IPv4 work correctly, happy eyeballs may cause frequent switches between the two address families.
As an exemple, here is a summary of a packet trace that I collected when contacting a dual-stack web server from my laptop using the latest version of MacOS.
09:40:47.504618 IP6 client6.65148 > server6.80: Flags [S], cksum 0xe3c1 (correct), seq 2500114810, win 65535, options [mss 1440,nop,wscale 4,nop,nop,TS val 1009628701 ecr 0,sackOK,eol], length 0 09:40:47.505886 IP6 server6.80 > client6.65148: Flags [S.], cksum 0x1abd (correct), seq 193439890, ack 2500114811, win 14280, options [mss 1440,sackOK,TS val 229630052 ecr 1009628701,nop,wscale 7], length 0
The interesting information in these packets are the TCP timestamps. Defined in RFC 1323, these timestamps are extracted from a local clock. The server returns its current timestamp in the SYN+ACK segment.
Thanks to happy eyeballs, the next TCP connection is sent over IPv4 (it might be faster than IPv6, who knows). IPv4 works well and answers immediately
09:40:49.512112 IP client4.65149 > server4.80: Flags [S], cksum 0xee77 (incorrect -> 0xb4bd), seq 321947613, win 65535, options [mss 1460,nop,wscale 4,nop,nop,TS val 1009630706 ecr 0,sackOK,eol], length 0 09:40:49.513399 IP (tos 0x0, ttl 61, id 0, offset 0, flags [DF], proto TCP (6), length 60) server4.80 > client4.65149: Flags [S.], cksum 0xd86f (correct), seq 873275860, ack 321947614, win 5792, options [mss 1380,sackOK,TS val 585326122 ecr 1009630706,nop,wscale 7], length 0
Note the TS val in the returning SYN+ACK. The value over IPv4 is much larger than over IPv6. This is not because IPv6 is faster than IPv4, but indicates that there is a load-balancer that balances the TCP connections between (at least) two different servers.
Shortly after, I authenticated myself over an SSL connection that was established over IPv4
09:41:26.566362 IP client4.65152 > server4.443: Flags [S], cksum 0xee77 (incorrect -> 0x420d), seq 3856569828, win 65535, options [mss 1460,nop,wscale 4,nop,nop,TS val 1009667710 ecr 0,sackOK,eol], length 0 09:41:26.567586 IP server4.443 > client4.65152: Flags [S.], cksum 0x933e (correct), seq 3461360247, ack 3856569829, win 14480, options [mss 1380,sackOK,TS val 229212430 ecr 1009667710,nop,wscale 7], length 0
Again, a closer look at the TCP timestamps reveals that there is a third server that terminated the TCP connection. Apparently, in this case this was the load-balancer itself that forwarded the data extracted from the connection to one of the server.
Thanks to happy eyeballs, my TCP connections reach different servers behind the load-balancer. This is annoying because the web servers maintain one session and every time I switch from one session to another I might switch from one server to another. In my experience, this happens randomly with this server, possibly as a function of the IP addresses that I’m using and the server load. As a user, I experience difficulties to log on the server or random logouts, while the problem lies in unexpected interactions between happy eyeballs and a load balancer. The load balancer would like to stick all the TCP connections from one host to the same server, but due to the frequent switchovers between IPv6 and IPv4 it cannot stick each client to a server.
I’d be interested in any suggestions on how to improve this load balancing scheme without changing the web servers...
Researchers have worked on improving the performance of TCP since the early 1980s. At that time, many researchers considered that achieving high performance with a software-based TCP implementation was impossible. Several new transport protocols were designed at that time such as XTP. Some researchers even explored the possibility of implementing transport protocols. Hardware-based implementations are usually interesting to achieve high performance, but they are usually too inflexible for a transport protocol. In parallel with this effort, some researchers continued to believe in TCP. Dave Clark and his colleagues demonstrated in  that TCP stacks could be optimized to achieve high performance.
TCP implementations continued to evolve in order to achieve even higher performance. The early 2000s, with the advent of Gigabit interfaces showed a better coupling between TCP and the hardware on the network interface. Many high-speed network interfaces can compute the TCP checksum in hardware, which reduces the load on the main CPU. Furthermore, high-speed interfaces often support large segment offload. A naive implementation of a TCP/IP stack would be to send segments and acknowledgements independently. For each segment sent/received, such a stack could need to process one interrupt, a very costly operation on current hardware. Large segment offload provides an alternative by exposing to the TCP/IP stack a large segment size, up to 64 KBytes. By sending an receiving larger segments, the TCP/IP stack minimizes the cost of processing the interrupts and thus maximises its performance.
The European Commission has published recently an interesting survey of the deployment of broadband access technologies in Europe. The analysis is part of the Commission’s Digital Agenda that aims at enabling home users to have speeds of 30 Mbps or more. Technologies like ADSL and cable modems are widely deployed in Europe and more than 95% of European households can subscribe to fixed broadband networks.