Broadcast Storm

Learning about networking is not very fun unless you actually get to see it in action, which is the opportunity that I gave my apprentice today. A few months ago, the corporate network at the place where I am doing public service and paying my dues, went down when a low-level tech accidentally connected the network in a loop.

When that happens, it becomes possible to send packets round and round in a loop. This is not so much a problem with proper network connections because the packets will be terminated at the destination. However, it is a problem for broadcast packets as they could possibly be broadcast in circles – ad infinitum.

First, I got two computers with two network ports each. Then, I bridged the ports together so that br0 on each computer bridged eth0 and eth1 together. This is the example configuration for Debian networking:

auto br0
iface br0 inet static
bridge_ports eth0 eth1
bridge_stp off

Next, I connected one network port from each PC together with a LAN cable. I asked my apprentice to observe the lights on the network ports. They blinked a few times when the cables were first attached due to hand-shaking of the network capabilities. Then, all activity stopped.

So, I initiated a broadcast packet by performing a ping to a random IP address. Because the PC does not know the destination machine, it will send an Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) broadcast packet asking for the destination machine for a reply. We could have just as easily done this with an arping command instead.

The lights on the network ports began to blink with activity and we managed to observe things. After my apprentice got a good look, I stopped the pinging and we confirmed that all activity stopped.

Then, we connected the other two network ports from each PC together with a second LAN cable. Now, we have got ourselves a network loop. Again the lights blinked a few times during hand-shaking and then all activity stopped. I initiated another broadcast and the lights began to blink again. So far so good.

Now, it was time for the broadcast storm. I stopped the pinging like before but this time around, the lights did not stop blinking. The broadcast packet was moving round the network in a loop. My apprentice got all excited that the network ports were blinking rapidly even when there was no application sending out any activity.

Then, I disconnected one port and the blinking stopped – magic!

Finally, I showed my apprentice how the network would work with STP enabled. I changed the settings above and set bridge_stp on instead, restarted the network stack and reconnected the network cable. With STP in place, there would be periodic network activity when the STP packets were sent out but these were easily distinguished from the crazy blinking broadcast storm.

I repeated the whole experiment again, but this time, the broadcast packets stopped after the pinging application was stopped – success!

I think that this would make networking subjects more interesting. This experiment was fairly simple to conduct and took nary five minutes. It would demonstrate networking concepts in a very visual and visceral manner. It does away with the whole idea of imagining how network packets moved through a network. Beautiful simplicity.

Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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