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Detecting Byzantine Link Failures with SNMP

One of my readers has to deal with a crappy Network Termination Equipment (NTE)1 that does not drop local link carrier2 when the remote link fails. Here’s the original ASCII art describing the topology:

PE---------------NTE--FW---NMS 
  <--------IP-------->

He’d like to use interface SNMP counters on the firewall to detect the PE-NTE link failure. He’s using static default route toward PE on FW, and tried to detect the link failure with ifOutDiscards counter.

Not surprisingly, that doesn’t work. ifOutDiscard counter counts the number of packets that got to the outgoing interface but could not be transmitted (the most common scenario being output queue overflow). Straight from MIB-2 description of ifOutDiscard counter:

The number of outbound packets which were chosen to be discarded even though no errors had been detected to prevent their being transmitted. One possible reason for discarding such a packet could be to free up buffer space.

However, a few hours after the link failure, the ARP entry for PE will time out on FW. You can monitor that with ipNetToMediaTable, and I’m positive some IP-related error counters (in the ip part of MIB-2) will start increasing at that time… but maybe it’s a bit too long to wait for a few hours.

What if we were running a routing protocol (for example, BGP) between PE and FW? The routing protocol adjacency between PE and FW would fail after the PE-NTE link failure, and the default route sent from PE to FW would be gone. Would that cause ifOutDiscard counter to increase?

Nope. When an IP router has no route toward a destination, it cannot enqueue a packet into an output interface queue, and thus can never cause the ifOutDiscard counter to increase, but there are tons of other ways to monitor the loss of the default route:

  • An IP router can generate a SNMP trap whenever a routing protocol adjacency goes down;
  • You can monitor the state of the routing table on a device with ipRouteTable part of MIB-2
  • Whenever an IP packet is dropped because an IP router does not have a route to its destination, the ipOutNoRoutes counter should be increased3.

Any one of the above approaches would work, but only after the routing adjacency is gone. Welcome to the wonderful world of routing protocol convergence where BFD is one of your best friends.

You don’t even have to run a routing protocol to detect path failure between PE and FW. BFD can often be used to check the next hop of a static route; there’s also Ethernet Connectivity Fault Management (CFM) and boring old ping (aka IP SLA). You can usually monitor all of them with SNMP.

Finally, let’s assume we can’t run a dynamic routing protocol with PE, cannot use BFD or CFM, and don’t want to rely on ping. Is there another way to detect PE-NTE link failure in a few seconds with SNMP? Of course – monitor the packets received by the FW on its external interface (for example, using ifInOctets). After all, if the PE-NTE link is gone, we shouldn’t be receiving any packets at all. A similar approach might be used to detect unidirectional link failure – if you see a sudden drop in inbound or outbound traffic, it’s time to investigate what’s going on.

Assuming that no inbound traffic means link loss could result in a false positive – there might be no traffic on a link during the night. You could mitigate that with a workload that continuously generates traffic (periodically checking whether a remote server is reachable is often a good idea). You could also use a smarter threshold along the lines of generate an alert if the inbound traffic volume is less than x% of the traffic usually seen at this time of the day on this day of the week… but that’s boring. Wouldn’t it be more fun to trigger a billion random link failures4 and use them to train a neural network?


  1. Often lovingly and incorrectly called a modem↩︎

  2. Sometimes called light by the uninitiated when dealing with a fiber cable. ↩︎

  3. I have no idea how reliable that counter is on platforms using hardware switching. ↩︎

  4. Warning: your users might get annoyed and trigger a resume-generating event. ↩︎

1 comments:

  1. Seriously? It's a bit late for an april fools' joke :D
    So SNMP should then really stand for Simple Network Monitoring Protocol ;)
    Another funny example of reinventing a routing protocol with a keepalive like mechanism.

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