The good and bad of Linux's NetworkManager

January 8, 2014

I have a conflicted relationship with NetworkManager that gives me rather divided opinions of it. The short version is that sometimes it's good and other times it's terrible, depending mostly on what sort of machine you're using it on (by choice or otherwise).

Where NetworkManager is good is on graphical machines with relatively simple network configurations, especially if they move between networks. This is typical for 'plug it into the network and do DHCP' desktops and for laptops in general. In most distributions, NM is going to be by far the easiest way to manage roving between wired networking and one or more wireless networks, possibly with VPNs on top of them. Although there are rough edges, especially in Gnome 3 and derived desktops, everything is generally easily discoverable and manageable without hassle or long reads of manual pages.

(I'm sure you can build a suite of tools that work just as well as NM. The great advantage of NM on a graphical machine like this is that someone has already done all of the work for you.)

Where NetworkManager is bad is on servers or on machines with complex networking configurations (where by this I mean things like bridged VLANs with policy based routing and per-network firewall rules, nailed up IPSec tunnels, and so on). On servers without graphics and with static network configurations, NetworkManager is overkill, over-complication at boot time, and hard to manage. While I'm not intrinsically opposed to setting up networks through commands instead of configuration files, NetworkManager's command line programs come across very much as underdocumented and incomplete afterthoughts.

(Also, defaults like 'interfaces are not enabled until someone logs in' are completely wrong for servers and apparently too hard-coded for people like Red Hat to change.)

Given that people are using NetworkManager by default on distributions aimed at servers, I find its current limitations there to be extremely irritating. It wouldn't take all that much work to make NetworkManager fully usable in a server environment and with the right features it could actually offer some interesting capabilities that you can't get easily today.

(For instance NetworkManager knows right away when link status goes away or comes back on an Ethernet interface. There are server environments where that would be very handy to know and to react to.)

There are also simple things that NetworkManager could add to make itself much more useful in a complex server environment. The easiest one is to the option to run a command for you when a specific network came up or went down, which would give people with complex needs a hook where they could take care of things that NetworkManager can't handle itself. I don't think that NetworkManager ever will add something like that, though, because its goal seem to be to completely own and control the machine's networking inside itself.

(Arguably this is the core problem with NetworkManager in sophisticated environments; in them it's never, ever going to be the sole arbiter over all networking. If it insists on all or nothing in practice the answer must be 'nothing'.)

Written on 08 January 2014.
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Last modified: Wed Jan 8 02:00:03 2014
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