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Chapter 2. A Closer Look at SNMP

In this chapter, we start to look at SNMP in detail. By the time you finish this chapter, you should understand how SNMP sends and receives information, what exactly SNMP communities are, and how to read MIB files. We'll also look in more detail at the three MIBs that were introduced in Chapter 1, "What Is SNMP?", namely MIB-II, Host Resources, and RMON.

2.1. SNMP and UDP

SNMP uses the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) as the transport protocol for passing data between managers and agents. UDP, defined in RFC 768, was chosen over the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) because it is connectionless; that is, no end-to-end connection is made between the agent and the NMS when datagrams (packets) are sent back and forth. This aspect of UDP makes it unreliable, since there is no acknowledgment of lost datagrams at the protocol level. It's up to the SNMP application to determine if datagrams are lost and retransmit them if it so desires. This is typically accomplished with a simple timeout. The NMS sends a UDP request to an agent and waits for a response. The length of time the NMS waits depends on how it's configured. If the timeout is reached and the NMS has not heard back from the agent, it assumes the packet was lost and retransmits the request. The number of times the NMS retransmits packets is also configurable.

At least as far as regular information requests are concerned, the unreliable nature of UDP isn't a real problem. At worst, the management station issues a request and never receives a response. For traps, the situation is somewhat different. If an agent sends a trap and the trap never arrives, the NMS has no way of knowing that it was ever sent. The agent doesn't even know that it needs to resend the trap, because the NMS is not required to send a response back to the agent acknowledging receipt of the trap.

The upside to the unreliable nature of UDP is that it requires low overhead, so the impact on your network's performance is reduced. SNMP has been implemented over TCP, but this is more for special-case situations in which someone is developing an agent for a proprietary piece of equipment. In a heavily congested and managed network, SNMP over TCP is a bad idea. It's also worth realizing that TCP isn't magic, and that SNMP is designed for working with networks that are in trouble -- if your network never failed, you wouldn't need to monitor it. When a network is failing, a protocol that tries to get the data through but gives up if it can't is almost certainly a better design choice than a protocol that will flood the network with retransmissions in its attempt to achieve reliability.

SNMP uses the UDP port 161 for sending and receiving requests, and port 162 for receiving traps from managed devices. Every device that implements SNMP must use these port numbers as the defaults, but some vendors allow you to change the default ports in the agent's configuration. If these defaults are changed, the NMS must be made aware of the changes so it can query the device on the correct ports.

Figure 2-1 shows the TCP/IP protocol suite, which is the basis for all TCP/IP communication. Today, any device that wishes to communicate on the Internet (e.g., Windows NT systems, Unix servers, Cisco routers, etc.) must use this protocol suite. This model is often referred to as a protocol stack, since each layer uses the information from the layer directly below it and provides a service to the layer directly above it.

Figure 2-1

Figure 2-1. TCP/IP communication model and SNMP

When either an NMS or an agent wishes to perform an SNMP function (e.g., a request or trap), the following events occur in the protocol stack:

First, the actual SNMP application (NMS or agent) decides what it's going to do. For example, it can send an SNMP request to an agent, send a response to an SNMP request (this would be sent from the agent), or send a trap to an NMS. The application layer provides services to an end user, such as an operator requesting status information for a port on an Ethernet switch.

The next layer, UDP, allows two hosts to communicate with one another. The UDP header contains, among other things, the destination port of the device to which it's sending the request or trap. The destination port will either be 161 (query) or 162 (trap).

The IP layer tries to deliver the SNMP packet to its intended destination, as specified by its IP address.

Medium Access Control (MAC)
The final event that must occur for an SNMP packet to reach its destination is for it to be handed off to the physical network, where it can be routed to its final destination. The MAC layer is comprised of the actual hardware and device drivers that put your data onto a physical piece of wire, such as an Ethernet card. The MAC layer also is responsible for receiving packets from the physical network and sending them back up the protocol stack so they can be processed by the application layer (SNMP, in this case).

This interaction between SNMP applications and the network is not unlike that between two pen pals. Both have messages that need to be sent back and forth to one another. Let's say you decide to write your pen pal a letter asking if she would like to visit you over the summer. By deciding to send the invitation, you've acted as the SNMP application. Filling out the envelope with your pen pal's address is equivalent to the function of the UDP layer, which records the packet's destination port in the UDP header; in this case it's your pen pal's address. Placing a stamp on the envelope and putting it in the mailbox for the mailman to pick up is equivalent to the IP layer's function. The final act occurs when the mailman comes to your house and picks up the letter. From here the letter will be routed to its final destination, your pen pal's mailbox. The MAC layer of a computer network is equivalent to the mail trucks and airplanes that carry your letter on its way. When your pen pal receives the letter, she will go through the same process to send you a reply.

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