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Archive for April, 2009

In Which We Hate on the 2wire DSL Modem

Posted by anandrr on April 28, 2009

Every now and then we hate a software product, we hate it so much it gets our geek juices flowing and wanting us to write about it. Hence this mini essay-let on the 2wire DSL modem we have here in the apartment. Warning: Geeky rant.
I’m staying here in the “corporate apartment,” and life couldn’t get much better. A place to crash in the evening, pervasive wireless connected to high speed Internet, basic kitchen with essentials, a TV with a DVD player attached, company’s own water (h. & c.), gas heater that manages to heat up the whole apartment, in short, if you had caught me in the clutch of winter, storms passing over the bay area, temperatures dropping to the 30s, and wondered aloud how I managed to have such a sunny disposition and still had a light step and a song on my lips, I would have been hard pressed not to divulge that while I would not go so far as to describe life as grand it was certainly not without its perks.
And yet in this lovely garden of Eden, we must have a snake-bitten curse, and here it is in the form of the DSL modem. To be fair, one assumes a product manager thought long and hard about a very real problem and probably believed he had found a fair solution to a pressing problem. But really? This was the best you could do?
Here’s what happens: Every now and then, the DSL connection gets dropped. Why this should happen, I don’t know, my DSL connection in India hasn’t dropped for months on end, but this one does go away quite periodically, about a couple times a day in fact. But that’s ok, it comes back fairly quickly also so one can’t really find too much fault. But mark the effect on those of us using the Internet. Here you are, one minute twittering away on the facebooks, and what should you have but a web page returned to you saying: “The DSL connection is down.”
The first time that happened, I thought, “Oh cool.” After all who hasn’t endured the little spinny thing on the browser go spinny, spinny, spinny while it says in the status bar “Looking up facebook.com…” and we’re sitting there wondering what could be up with facebook all of a sudden, only to realize it’s our Internet connection that’s down, manifesting itself as an inability to look up hostnames. And suddenly all hostname lookups are returning ugly pages on the browser suggesting a variety of possible causes for the Internets being down when all along the modem could just have told us what the problem was: we’ve lost DSL. So, at a somewhat superficial level, it looks like 2wire took a real problem of flaky Internet connections and found a neat way to tell the end-user not to worry, it was just their DSL. But then you look carefully and realize what just happened. The DSL modem which is your DNS provider on noticing that the DSL is down just returns a CNAME of “gateway.2wire.com” for every hostname lookup, and “gateway.2wire.com” always resolves to which is your local modem, which helpfully runs a web server that serves up the sad page.
At first blush this all looks very well, until the Internets start working again. Oh, now did you dig yourself into a hole. Your browser, helpfully caching DNS lookups for you, now has facebook.com CNAMEd to “gateway.2wire.com” in its local cache and keeps taking you to the silly modem, and the modem is happy to tell you that the problem has been resolved you should quit your browser and restart it to go online again. Quitting the browser presumably being their way of killing the DNS cache. But, Goddamn you 2wire, quit my browser? Are you fucking kidding me? Quit my browser? I never quit my browser. I live in my browser. My browser comes up when my machine comes up and doesn’t go down until a few weeks later when I have to reboot to apply updates. I have a million tabs open. Do you know what it takes to quit my browser? Are you out of your fucking mind? Quit my browser, my foot. Tchah! And dare I say it, Pshaw!
The fundamental problem here is that you idiots hijacked a lower level symptom, i.e. DNS not working and attempted to resolve it via a higher level solution: i.e. a web page with buttons. But, what of non-browser applications? Will they all now try to connect to your silly modem? And how do you respond to them? What if I were trying ssh and it reported different keys and man-in-the-middle and all of that? What if someone were trying to VPN to work, and the modem had somehow been hacked? Have you morons never heard of the end to end argument in system design? You never, never try to solve a lower level problem at a higher level. Issues at a given level must be solved at that same level. Not higher. And God forbid, not lower. (Of course, Cisco has built an entire business breaking that exact principle, but we are here not to praise Cisco but to bury 2wire).
What really galls is that there are surely many other ways out there to solve this problem. A web proxy running on the modem, for instance, that hijacked all web requests and sent back a useful page when the modem was unable to connect to the Internet. Firefox-level application problem solved at the web-application layer. Perfect! And yet here we are, stuck with the silly 2wire solution, hijacking browsers around the world and screwing them over, asking them to quit their browsers. Quit your browser, indeed!


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