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The curse of precedence

Transforming a complex decision tree into a sequence of convergent actions is advantageous not only from a human interface standpoint, but also because of the properties of the networks we wish to manage.

The most difficult problem in creating a network debugging decision tree is to determine the precedences between debugging tasks. Many facets of network performance depend upon others. For example, one server may provide NFS service to another that cannot function properly without that service, so one must make NFS work properly before trying to do anything with the dependent server.

Anyone who has tried to manually craft a Makefile for use with the make[23] program will have experienced the complexity of determining and specifying precedences. If the precedences are incorrect or incomplete, make may not have the desired effect, sometimes in subtle ways.

A decision tree is nothing more than a description of the precedences between tasks; in this sense it is a subset of the precedence declarations in a Makefile. But in a network, the precedences between tasks may be constantly changing and are impossible to predefine. As an oversimplified example, consider the problem of a router that utilizes TFTP to boot and then provides routing services for the TFTP host. Suppose we have two convergent processes:

Check router function and restart if necessary.
Check the TFTP server and restart TFTP if necessary.

In this case, there need not be any fixed precedence between processes J and K; the best precedence depends upon the network's configuration and its current state. If the router is down, then it would be greatly desirable to check the TFTP server first so that the reboot will work, unless the TFTP server is on the other side of the router from the host running the debugging scripts! The `best' ordering for these checks must be determined by considering several factors that may or may not be known:

Errors in precedence mean that the overall debugging process will fail, so the success of the process is dependent upon the problem being solved. This means in turn that we must work around this potential problem in a decision tree by encoding both orders for the above processes into the tree in some fashion.

In constructing Makefiles, determining the correct precedences is a surmountable problem, because those precedences never change. In network debugging, the problem of determining appropriate precedences between tasks is ill-formed, and there may not be a static precedence between tasks that always applies. Thus make's algorithm of `topologically sorting' tasks into an execution order coherent with a predetermined partial order is not enough to deal with the precedences between troubleshooting tasks. In fact:

Proposition 2: Precedence between troubleshooting tasks is an abstract ideal that is not well-defined in practice.

next up previous
Next: Exponential complexity Up: Ineffective procedures Previous: Exposing convergent processes
Alva L. Couch