.@ Tony Finch – blog

Back in December, George Michaelson posted an item on the APNIC blog titled “That OSI model refuses to die”, in reaction to Robert Graham’s “OSI Deprogrammer” published in September. I had discussed the OSI Deprogrammer on Lobsters, and George’s blog post prompted me to write an email. He and I agreed that I should put it on my blog, but I did not get a round tuit until now…

The main reason that OSI remains relevant is Cisco certifications require network engineers to learn it. This makes OSI part of the common technical vocab and basically unavoidable, even though (as Rob Graham correctly argues) it’s deeply unsuitable.

It would be a lot better if the OSI reference model were treated as a model of OSI in particular, not a model of networking in general, as Jesse Crawford argued in 2021. OSI ought to be taught as an example alongside similar reference models of protocol stacks that are actually in use.

One of OSI’s big problems is how it enshrines layering as the architectural pattern, but there are other patterns that are at least as important:

Speaking of Ethernet, it’s very poorly served by the OSI model. Ethernet actually has three layers:

Then there’s WiFi which looks like Ethernet from IP’s point of view, but is even more complicated. And almost everything non-ethernet has gone away or been adapted to look more like ethernet…

Whereas OSI has too few lower layers, it has too many upper layers: its session and presentation layers don’t correspond to anything in the Internet stack. I think Rob Graham said that they came from IBM SNA, and were related to terminal-related things like simplex or block-mode, and character set translation. Jack Haverty said something similar on the Internet History mailing list in 2019. The closest the ARPANET / Internet protocols get is Telnet’s feature negotiation; a lot of the problem solved by the OSI presentation layer is defined away by the Internet’s ASCII-only network virtual terminal. Graham also said that when people assign Internet functions to layers 5 and 6, they do so based on the names not based on how the OSI describes what they do.

One of the things that struck me when reading Mike Padlipsky’s Elements of Networking Style is the amount of argumentation that was directed at terminal handling back then. I guess in that light it’s not entirely surprising that OSI would dedicate two entire layers to the problem.

Padlipsky also drew the ARPANET layering as a fan instead of a skyscraper, with intermediate layers shared by some but not all higher-level protocols, e.g. the NVT used by Telnet, FTP, SMTP. I expect if he were drawing the diagram later there might be layers for 822 headers, MIME, SASL – though they are more like design patterns than layers since they get used rather differently by SMTP, NNTP, HTTP. The notion of pick-and-mix protocol modules seems more useful than fixed layering.

Anyway, if I could magically fix the terminology, I would prefer network engineers to talk about specific protocols (e.g. ethernet, MPLS) instead of bogusly labelling them as layers (e.g. 2, 2.5). If they happen to be working with a more diverse environment than usual (hello DOCSIS) then it would be better to talk about sub-IP protocol stacks. But that’s awkwardly sesquipedalian so I can’t see it catching on.