There's real reasons for Linux to replace ifconfig, netstat, et al

May 25, 2018

One of the ongoing system administration controversies in Linux is that there is an ongoing effort to obsolete the old, cross-Unix standard network administration and diagnosis commands of ifconfig, netstat and the like and replace them with fresh new Linux specific things like ss and the ip suite. Old sysadmins are generally grumpy about this; they consider it yet another sign of Linux's 'not invented here' attitude that sees Linux breaking from well-established Unix norms to go its own way. Although I'm an old sysadmin myself, I don't have this reaction. Instead, I think that it might be both sensible and honest for Linux to go off in this direction. There are two reasons for this, one ostensible and one subtle.

The ostensible surface issue is that the current code for netstat, ifconfig, and so on operates in an inefficient way. Per various people, netstat et al operate by reading various files in /proc, and doing this is not the most efficient thing in the world (either on the kernel side or on netstat's side). You won't notice this on a small system, but apparently there are real impacts on large ones. Modern commands like ss and ip use Linux's netlink sockets, which are much more efficient. In theory netstat, ifconfig, and company could be rewritten to use netlink too; in practice this doesn't seem to have happened and there may be political issues involving different groups of developers with different opinions on which way to go.

(Netstat and ifconfig are part of net-tools, while ss and ip are part of iproute2.)

However, the deeper issue is the interface that netstat, ifconfig, and company present to users. In practice, these commands are caught between two masters. On the one hand, the information the tools present and the questions they let us ask are deeply intertwined with how the kernel itself does networking, and in general the tools are very much supposed to report the kernel's reality. On the other hand, the users expect netstat, ifconfig and so on to have their traditional interface (in terms of output, command line arguments, and so on); any number of scripts and tools fish things out of ifconfig output, for example. As the Linux kernel has changed how it does networking, this has presented things like ifconfig with a deep conflict; their traditional output is no longer necessarily an accurate representation of reality.

For instance, here is ifconfig output for a network interface on one of my machines:

 ; ifconfig -a
 em0: flags=4163<UP,BROADCAST,RUNNING,MULTICAST>  mtu 1500
    inet 128.100.3.XX  netmask  broadcast
    inet6 fe80::6245:cbff:fea0:e8dd  prefixlen 64  scopeid 0x20<link>
    ether 60:45:cb:a0:e8:dd  txqueuelen 1000  (Ethernet)

There are no other 'em0:...' devices reported by ifconfig, which is unfortunate because this output from ifconfig is not really an accurate picture of reality:

; ip -4 addr show em0
  inet 128.100.3.XX/24 brd scope global em0
    valid_lft forever preferred_lft forever
  inet 128.100.3.YY/24 brd scope global secondary em0
    valid_lft forever preferred_lft forever

This interface has an IP alias, set up through systemd's networkd. Perhaps there once was a day when all IP aliases on Linux had to be set up through additional alias interfaces, which ifconfig would show, but these days each interface can have multiple IPs and directly setting them this way is the modern approach.

This issue presents programs like ifconfig with an unappealing choice. They can maintain their traditional output, which is now sometimes a lie but which keeps people's scripts working, or they can change the output to better match reality and probably break some scripts. It's likely to be the case that the more they change their output (and arguments and so on) to match the kernel's current reality, the more they will break scripts and tools built on top of them. And some people will argue that those scripts and tools that would break are already broken, just differently; if you're parsing ifconfig output on my machine to generate a list of all of the local IP addresses, you're already wrong.

(If you try to keep the current interface while lying as little as possible, you wind up having arguments about what to lie about and how. If you can only list one IPv4 address per interface in ifconfig, how do you decide which one?)

In a sense, deprecating programs like ifconfig and netstat that have wound up with interfaces that are inaccurate but hard to change is the honest approach. Their interfaces can't be fixed without significant amounts of pain and they still work okay for many systems, so just let them be while encouraging people to switch to other tools that can be more honest.

(This elaborates on an old tweet of mine.)

PS: I believe that the kernel interfaces that ifconfig and so on currently use to get this information are bound by backwards compatibility issues themselves, so getting ifconfig to even know that it was being inaccurate here would probably take code changes.

Written on 25 May 2018.
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Last modified: Fri May 25 01:31:08 2018
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