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Bridge vs Switch: What I Learned From a Data Center Tour

The difference between these two networking devices has been an unsolvable mystery to me for quite some time. For a while, I used to use the words "bridge" and "switch" interchangeably. But after getting more into networking, I started noticing that some people tend to see them as rather different devices... So, maybe I've been totally wrong? Maybe saying "bridge aka switch" is way too inaccurate?

Let's try to figure it out!

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Ethernet and IP Networking 101 (Heavily Illustrated)

As a software engineer, I need to deal with networking every now and then - be it configuring a SOHO network, setting up container networking, or troubleshooting connectivity between servers in a data center. The domain is pretty broad, and the terminology can get quite confusing quickly. This article is my layman's attempt to sort the basic things out with the minimum words and maximum drawings. The primary focus will be on the Data link layer (OSI L2) of wired networks where the Ethernet is the king nowadays. But I'll slightly touch upon its neighboring layers too.

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Networking Lab - Ethernet Broadcast Domains

In Ethernet, all the nodes forming one L2 segment constitute a broadcast domain. Such nodes should be able to communicate using their L2 addresses (MAC) or by broadcasting frames. A broadcast domain is a logical division of a computer network. Multiple physical (L1) segments can be bridged to form a single broadcast domain. Multiple L2 segments can also be bridged to create a bigger broadcast domain.

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Networking Lab - L3 to L2 Segments Mapping

It's pretty common for an L2 segment to have a single IP subnet running atop. However, technically it's possible to configure multiple IP subnets over a single L2 broadcast domain. And although more complicated, configuring a single IP subnet over multiple disjoint L2 segments is also doable. In this lab, we'll cover the first two scenarios while the more advanced third case deserves its own lab - Proxy ARP.

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Container Networking Is Simple!

Just kidding, it's not... But fear not and read on!

Working with containers always feels like magic. In a good way for those who understand the internals and in a terrifying - for those who don't. Luckily, we've been looking under the hood of the containerization technology for quite some time already and even managed to uncover that containers are just isolated and restricted Linux processes, that images aren't really needed to run containers, and on the contrary - to build an image we need to run some containers.

Now comes a time to tackle the container networking problem. Or, more precisely, a single-host container networking problem. In this article, we are going to answer the following questions:

  • How to virtualize network resources to make containers think each of them has a dedicated network stack?
  • How to turn containers into friendly neighbors, prevent them from interfering, and teach to communicate well?
  • How to reach the outside world (e.g. the Internet) from inside the container?
  • How to reach containers running on a machine from the outside world (aka port publishing)?

While answering these questions, we'll setup a container networking from scratch using standard Linux tools. As a result, it'll become apparent that the single-host container networking is nothing more than a simple combination of the well-known Linux facilities:

  • network namespaces;
  • virtual Ethernet devices (veth);
  • virtual network switches (bridge);
  • IP routing and network address translation (NAT).

And for better or worse, no code is required to make the networking magic happen...

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You need containers to build an image

...unless your Dockerfile has no RUN instructions, but that's rarely the case.

For people who found their way to containers through Docker (well, most of us I believe) it may seem like images are of somewhat primary nature. We've been taught to start from a Dockerfile, build an image using that file, and only then run a container from that image. Alternatively, we could run a container specifying an image from a registry, yet the main idea persists - an image comes first, and only then the container.

But what if I tell you that the actual workflow is reverse? Even when you are building your very first image using Docker, podman, or buildah, you are already, albeit implicitly, running containers under the hood!

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You don't need an image to run a container

As we already know, containers are just isolated and restricted Linux processes. We also learned that it's fairly simple to create a container with a single executable file inside starting from scratch image (i.e. without putting a full Linux distribution in there). This time we will go even further and demonstrate that containers don't require images at all. And after that, we will try to justify the actual need for images and their place in the containerverse.

Run Containers without Docker and... Images

You may have heard that Docker uses a tool called runc to run containers. Well, to be more accurate, Docker depends on a lower-level piece of software called containerd which in turn relies on a standardized container runtime implementation. And in the wild, most of the time runc plays the role of such a component.

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Not every container has an operating system inside

...but every one of them needs your Linux kernel.

Disclaimer 1: before going any further it's important to understand the difference between a kernel, an operating system, and a distribution.

  • Linux kernel is the core part of the Linux operating system. It's what originally Linus wrote.

  • Linux operating system is a combination of the kernel and a user-land (libraries, GNU utilities, config files, etc).

  • Linux distribution is a particular version of the Linux operating system like Debian, CentOS, or Alpine.

Disclaimer 2: the title of this article should have sounded like "Not every container has whole Linux distribution in it". But I personally find this wording a bit boring 🤪

Does a Container have an Operating System inside?

The majority of Docker examples out there explicitly or implicitly rely on some flavor of the Linux operating system running inside a container. I tried to quickly compile a list of the most prominent samples:

Running an interactive shell in the debian jessie distribution:

$ docker run -it debian:jessie

Running an nginx web-sever in a container and examine its config using cat utility:

$ docker run -d -P --name nginx nginx:latest
$ docker exec -it nginx cat /etc/nginx/nginx.conf

Building an image based on Alpine Linux:

$ cat <<EOF > Dockerfile
FROM alpine:3.7
RUN apk add --no-cache mysql-client
ENTRYPOINT ["mysql"]

$ docker build -t mysql-alpine .
$ docker run mysql-alpine

And so forth and so on...

For the newcomers learning the containerization through hands-on experience, this may lead to a false impression that containers are somewhat indistinguishable from full-fledged operating systems and that they are always based on well-known and wide-spread Linux distributions like debian, centos, or alpine.

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Layman's iptables 101

Gee, it's my turn to throw some gloom light on iptables! There are hundreds or even thousands of articles on the topic out there, including introductory ones. I'm not going to put either formal and boring definitions here nor long lists of useful commands. I would rather try to use layman's terms and scribbling as much as possible to give you some insights about the domain before going to all these tables, rules, targets, and policies. By the way, the first time I faced this tool I was pretty much confused by the terminology too!

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From Docker Container to Bootable Linux Disk Image

Well, I don't see any practical applications of the approach I'm going to describe... However, I do think that messing about with things like this is the only way to gain extra knowledge of any system internals. We are going to speak Docker and Linux here. What if we want to take a base Docker image, I mean really base, just an image made with a single line Dockerfile like FROM debian:latest, and convert it to something launchable on a real or virtual machine? In other words, can we create a disk image having exactly the same Linux userland a running container has and then boot from it? For this we would start with dumping container's root file system, luckily it's as simple as just running docker export, however, to finally accomplish the task a bunch of additional steps is needed...

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