Doug Vitale Tech Blog

Archive for the ‘Computer Networking Techniques and Concepts’ Category

IPv6: how and why it enables Internet evolution

Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) is the next generation networking protocol that is slated to replace Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) as the dominant protocol powering modern computer networks and the global Internet.

The problem with IPv4 is that it was developed and initially rolled out in the 1970s and 80s, long before anyone had any idea of what the Internet would become (IPv4 is defined in RFC 791, published in 1981). Simply put, the ability for IPv4 to support modern Internet traffic is decreasing steadily. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) recognized the potential for a crisis and commenced work on IPv4′s replacement in the mid-1990s.

The rest of this article will assume that you know why the Internet needs to evolve from IPv4 to IPv6. If you do not understand this, please stop reading and view this Youtube video of Vinton Cerf explaining the rationale behind the protocol migration (Cerf is considered one of the “fathers of the Internet”).

The death of IPv4 as a relevant networking protocol was delayed considerably by the deployment of two addressing-related solutions: Network Address Translation (NAT) and Classless InterDomain Routing (CIDR). However, given the current and projected growth in human population and the ever expanding quantity of devices connecting to the Internet, IPv6 is required to accommodate and sustain the necessary expansion of Internet availability and services. For example, two well-known technology growth sectors, mobile devices (e.g., smartphones) and cloud-based computing, require public IPv4 connectivity to function and therefore, they are contributing to the exhaustion of the public IPv4 address space (even with NAT relieving some pressure).

IPv6 evolution

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite their differences in age, IPv4 and IPv6 do share some characteristics. Both protocols were designed to allow for host identification, host discovery, and optimal routing. They both work at Layer 3 of the OSI networking model and at the internet layer of the TCP/IP networking model. In order for hosts to properly communicate using IPv4 or IPv6, they must be assigned a unique IP address. IPv6 hosts need the same information as IPv4 hosts to properly network, e.g., they need to know the IP addresses of DNS servers (to translate host names to IP addresses) and default gateways (to transmit to remote destinations). As in IPv4, IPv6 hosts will send packets directly to destinations on the same subnet.

However, as IPv6 was developed from the ground up to be a future-oriented redesign and modernization of the IP structure, IT professionals will notice that it offers many distinct advantages over its aging cousin. Some noteworthy differences are:

  • IP addressing – as described below, IPv6 addresses use a different format and can provide an astonishingly huge address space for network hosts, far larger than what IPv4 can offer.
  • Multicast and broadcast – IPv6 utilizes more multicast traffic while dropping broadcast functionality altogether.
  • Multi-address interfaces – In IPv6, interfaces (such as network interface cards, or NICs) can natively operate using several IP addresses. IPv6 offers improved support for multiple addresses sharing one interface.
  • Automatic IP address assignment – While IPv4 clients can receive address assignments via DHCP, IPv6 hosts are capable of autoconfiguration with stateless address autoconfiguration (SLAAC) via Neighbor Discovery Protocol (NDP). Alternatively, IPv6 hosts can utilize the new DHCPv6 in a manner similar to traditional DHCP.
  • Packet fragmentation – Routers processing IPv6 will not fragment packets. Instead, fragmentation responsibility belongs to the originating hosts.
  • Checksum – the IPv6 header does not include a checksum while IPv4 does. Removing the checksum from OSI Layer 3 should improve IP throughput.
  • Layer 2 (data link) address discovery – while IPv4 uses Address Resolution Protocol (ARP), IPv6 uses ICMPv6-based Neighbor Discovery Protocol (NDP).
  • IPSec – IPSec support is optional in IPv4 but is required in IPv6.
  • IGMP – IPv6 replaces Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP) with Multicast Listener Discovery (MLD).

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Written by Doug Vitale

March 28, 2013 at 12:27 AM

Understanding and performing IPv4 subnetting

Subnetting – it’s the subject that IT professionals love to hate. Believe it or not, the frustration that it caused me as a student years ago made me question whether I wanted to go into the information technology (IT) field. Furthermore, with the availability of many subnet calculator programs and subnetting websites, the ability to manually perform subnet calculations may seem superfluous at first. However, a solid understanding of IP subnetting will not only allow IT pros to create appropriately-sized networks in the absence of specialized software and web applications (on paper, for example), but given IP’s foundational role in modern computer networks and the global Internet, it behooves us to keep our comprehension of this protocol sharp. Lastly, if you plan on obtaining a networking certification like the Cisco CCNA, you are just going to have to master the material below.

The purpose of this article will be to thoroughly explain how IP subnetting works and to provide some relevant examples. Therefore a detailed analysis of all the workings of IP, such as packet structures, packet switching, and routing will not be provided. However, we will review what the Internet Protocol (IP) is, how it works, and what purpose it serves on networks. We will focus solely on Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) which is the version of IP that has powered the Internet revolution and remains the most widely utilized networking protocol today.

A subnetted network

A subnetted network using variously sized subnet masks

Computers must share a common protocol to communicate, and nowadays IP has become ubiquitous on nearly all operating systems. So what does IP do? Simply put, IP allows computers to locate and facilitate communications with other hosts that are either on the same logical network or on separate, distinct networks (for instance, networks such as those owned by different organizations – businesses, universities, Internet service providers, etc.). IP provides for this communication by enabling the routing of data packets between sources and destinations, often through multiple intermediary hosts.

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Written by Doug Vitale

March 5, 2013 at 3:50 PM

Network administration commands for Microsoft Windows and Active Directory

Administrators of Windows servers frequently utilize the graphical tools provided within the Windows Server interface to configure network parameters and administer Microsoft’s proprietary network directory service, Active Directory. These tools take the form of snap-ins for the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) and include Active Directory Users and Computers, Active Directory Sites and Services, Active Directory Domains and Trusts, the Group Policy Management Console, and others (see images below). The capabilities offered by these tools allow administrators to create, edit, and delete Active Directory objects and features such as users, computers, organizational units (OUs), domains, permissions, trusts, etc.

Active Directory Administrative Center

Active Directory Administrative Center on Windows Server 2008

Group Policy Management Console

Group Policy Management Console on Windows Server 2008

While there are many networking commands that are shared by diverse operating systems, Microsoft has created some that apply only to Windows. Consequently, there are many options available for Windows administrators (perhaps with Linux/Unix experience) who prefer to work in text-based, command line environments. With a little practice this approach can result in time savings and the ability to include tool functionality in scripts. For example, it can be faster to type a command or two than to click and launch the Server Manager or Administrative Tools or the other aforementioned GUI tools. Additionally, with Windows PowerShell you can script common network administration tasks making use of the graphical tools’ command line equivalents.

What follows is a listing of Windows-only commands focusing on the subject of Windows network administration. In other words, these commands can be used for the purposes of viewing, creating, and modifying network settings and the properties of Active Directory objects. You can launch them in either the Windows command prompt (cmd.exe) or in Windows PowerShell.

This page should prove especially useful for those studying to become Microsoft Certified Solutions Experts (MCSE).

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Written by Doug Vitale

February 7, 2013 at 3:38 PM

Layer 3 switches compared to routers

Any student of computer networking has surely heard it repeated a thousand times: switches work at Layer 2 of the OSI model and interpret MAC addresses, while routers work at Layer 3 and interpret IP addresses. In other words, a switch looks at the MAC address of the destination host and sends the frame only to that recipient (thus conserving bandwidth). A router directs network traffic in a similar manner, but references the target IP address instead of its MAC address (on a side note, those devices marketed as “routers” for home users generally provide more functionality than mere packet routing, such as IP address assignment (DHCP) and firewall filtering). Broadly speaking, switches connect hosts from the same network together while a router can connect whole networks together. To say this in IT Speak: switches connect hosts to form local area networks (LANs) while routers connect multiple LANs into wide area networks (WANs).

In addition to traffic forwarding based on MAC address, switches also detect packet collisions and can simultaneously manage multiple data streams destined to multiple ports. Routers, for their part, can perform network address translation (NAT) and basic packet filtering based on access control lists (ACLs).

With conventional switches and routers performing markedly different functions at layer 2 and layer 3 respectively, just what is meant by the term “layer 3 switch”? Isn’t this contradictory?

Cisco Catalyst 4948

Cisco Catalyst 4948, a Layer 3 switch

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Written by Doug Vitale

December 1, 2012 at 11:43 PM

SSH, the Secure Shell

SSH is one of the protocols of the TCP/IP protocol suite found at the application layer (Layer 7) of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) network model. Officially specified in RFC 4251 (and later, several other RFCs) SSH functions in a way that is similar to telnet but is far more robust and capable. SSH lets you log in to other hosts, get a shell and execute commands on them (for more details, read up on the concept of the OS shell), and transfer files between hosts. The major difference between SSH and telnet as terminal emulation protocols is that SSH utilizes encryption and strong authentication while telnet transmits data (including passwords) in clear text, making it vulnerable to packet sniffing. SSH, in contrast, provides secure, reliable authentication and communication over data channels that might not be so trustworthy (such as the public Internet). Because the SSH protocol encrypts the communications between network devices, it decreases the chance of an attacker (possibly an internal user) sniffing traffic and obtaining sensitive data such as authentication credentials.

What is commonly called ‘SSH’ is actually a collection of utilities such as ssh, scp, slogin, and sftp. SSH can be used to effectively replace telnet in a manner almost invisible to users. However, in the background SSH sessions involve authentication, key exchange, encryption, and passphrase generation and storing, making SSH a complex protocol.

SSH versions

SSH version 1 was released in 1995; however, a few years later it was determined to be unreliable. SSHv1 is vulnerable to a well known exploit that allows an attacker to insert data into the communication stream, making it vulnerable to man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks. In short, versions of SSH prior to v2.0 are not completely cryptographically safe, so they should not be used. Therefore this article will focus only on SSHv2. Bear in mind that if you see SSH version 1.99 installed, this means that the host supports both SSH v1.5 and v2 (see RFC 4253 for reference).

SSH encryption

SSH uses the public key (asymmetric) cryptographic model which means that data encryption between hosts utilizes two keys: a public key to encrypt the data, and a private key to decrypt it. The asymmetric keys are used to authenticate the SSH server and client and then to negotiate a symmetric key. This symmetric key is utilized for data encryption.

Public key encryption diagram

Simple example of public key cryptography

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Written by Doug Vitale

February 20, 2012 at 3:40 PM

Deprecated Linux networking commands and their replacements

In my article detailing the command line utilities available for configuring and troubleshooting network properties on Windows and Linux, I mentioned some Linux tools that, while still included and functional in many Linux distributions, are actually considered deprecated and therefore should be phased out in favor of more modern replacements.

Specifically, the deprecated Linux networking commands in question are: arp, ifconfigiptunnel, iwconfig, nameif, netstat, and route. These programs (except iwconfig) are included in the net-tools package that has been unmaintained for years. The functionality provided by several of these utilities has been reproduced and improved in the new iproute2 suite, primarily by using its new ip command. The iproute2 software code is available from Kernel.org. Iproute2 documentation is available from the Linux Foundation and PolicyRouting.org.

Deprecated command

Replacement command(s)

arp ip n (ip neighbor)
ifconfig ip a (ip addr), ip link, ip -s (ip -stats)
iptunnel ip tunnel
iwconfig iw
nameif ip link, ifrename
netstat ss, ip route (for netstat-r), ip -s link (for netstat -i), ip maddr (for netstat-g)
route ip r (ip route)

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Now let’s take a closer look at these deprecated commands and their replacements.

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Written by Doug Vitale

December 21, 2011 at 4:26 PM

Troubleshooting faulty network connectivity, part 2: Essential network commands

In my previous article describing the troubleshooting steps for faulty TCP/IP connections, I mentioned several commands such as ping, traceroute, and ipconfig that could assist you in pinpointing problematic network components. These commands and several others like them are commonly referred to as TCP/IP utilities because they are tools that let you perform diagnostics and queries on the network which you are examining.

To compliment Part 1 of this two-part series, Part 2 is a reference list of the TCP/IP utilities which will describe the intended uses and options for each. These tools natively run in command line interface (CLI) environments (or in Linux and Unix, “shell prompts”), but as several entries in this blog show, there are a great many graphical utilities available that let you use the TCP/IP utilities (and view their output) in graphical format. In this article, however, I will stick with the default CLI usage and functionality.

Remember: the best way to learn and understand these tools is to practice with them. Also bear in mind that knowledge of these commands is often essential during ethical hacking efforts and for networking certification exams.

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Written by Doug Vitale

December 11, 2011 at 11:55 PM

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