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Network protocols also evolve into a tangle of dependencies

Four years ago I started work as an adviser to the Monitoring Trustee appointed by the European Commission in the EU/Microsoft competition court case. The work revolved around the protocol specification documents being written by Microsoft; at the time these documents were super secret but they are now publicly available for download.

The EU case involved the server protocols, known as WSPP, (the US/Microsoft case involved the client protocols) and with so many of them, over 100, attempts were made to divide them into distinct subsets for licensing to third parties who might only be interested in specific functionality.

On starting one of the first things I did was to create a graph like the one below (this one was created by extracting document cross reference information, using PowerGREP, from the public specifications and plotting it using Graphviz). Each line in the plot represents a dependency between the two protocols whose name’s appear in the ellipsoid nodes (actually a cross reference link in the normative sections of one protocol document to another protocol document).

Dependencies between different WSPP protocols.

To simplify the diagram references to the ten most referenced protocol documents (i.e., MS-RPCE, MS-ADTS, MS-SMB, MS-KILE, MS-NLMP, MS-SPNG, MS-NRPC, MS-DRSR, MS-DCOM and MS-ADSC) have been excluded. The fact that these protocols are so pervasive is a good indicator of their core importance.

I was not surprised when I saw this graph. When new protocols were added to WSPP it would make sense for developers to make use of functionality provided by existing protocols, creating a dependency.

This extent of the dependencies between these protocol creates advantages and disadvantages for Microsoft. One advantage is that a potential competitor has to make a huge investment in implementing everything (so huge I don’t expect anybody will do it; Samba are nibbling away on a tiny corner); it does not look like its possible to focus on just the most profitable ones. One disadvantage is that these dependencies will make it very difficult for Microsoft to make substantive changes to their protocols.

Do other collections of networking protocols have similar amounts of dependencies between protocols? I don’t know of any analysis that attempts to answer this question. One problem with analyzing the so called ‘open’ protocols like the RFCs is that the quality of the documentation is not that good, with developers often relying on the source code of existing implementations to fill in any missing details.

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