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Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP)
User's Guide
Version 5.2

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15 Advanced Agent Topics

The chapter Advanced Agent Topics describes the more advanced agent related features of the SNMP development tool. The following topics are covered:

  • When to use a Sub-agent
  • Agent semantics
  • Sub-agents and dependencies
  • Distributed tables
  • Fault tolerance
  • Using Mnesia tables as SNMP tables
  • Audit Trail Logging
  • Deviations from the standard

15.1  When to use a Sub-agent

The section When to use a Sub-agent describes situations where the mechanism of loading and unloading MIBs is insufficient. In these cases a sub-agent is needed.

Special Set Transaction Mechanism

Each sub-agent can implement its own mechanisms for set, get and get-next. For example, if the application requires the get mechanism to be asynchronous, or needs a N-phase set mechanism, a specialized sub-agent should be used.

The toolkit allows different kinds of sub-agents at the same time. Accordingly, different MIBs can have different set or get mechanisms.

Process Communication

A simple distributed agent can be managed without sub-agents. The instrumentation functions can use distributed Erlang to communicate with other parts of the application. However, a sub-agent can be used on each node if this generates too much unnecessary traffic. A sub-agent processes requests per incoming SNMP request, not per variable. Therefore the network traffic is minimized.

If the instrumentation functions communicate with UNIX processes, it might be a good idea to use a special sub-agent. This sub-agent sends the SNMP request to the other process in one packet in order to minimize context switches. For example, if a whole MIB is implemented on the C level in UNIX, but you still want to use the Erlang SNMP tool, then you may have one special sub-agent, which sends the variables in the request as a single operation down to C.

Frequent Loading of MIBs

Loading and unloading of MIBs are quite cheap operations. However, if the application does this very often, perhaps several times per minute, it should load the MIBs once and for all in a sub-agent. This sub-agent only registers and unregisters itself under another agent instead of loading the MIBs each time. This is cheaper than loading an MIB.

Interaction With Other SNMP Agent Toolkits

If the SNMP agent needs to interact with sub-agents constructed in another package, a special sub-agent should be used, which communicates through a protocol specified by the other package.

15.2  Agent Semantics

The agent can be configured to be multi-threaded, to process one incoming request at a time, or to have a request limit enabled (this can be used for load control or to limit the effect of DoS attacks). If it is multi-threaded, read requests (get, get-next and get-bulk) and traps are processed in parallel with each other and set requests. However, all set requests are serialized, which means that if the agent is waiting for the application to complete a complicated write operation, it will not process any new write requests until this operation is finished. It processes read requests and sends traps, concurrently. The reason for not handle write requests in parallel is that a complex locking mechanism would be needed even in the simplest cases. Even with the scheme described above, the user must be careful not to violate that the set requests are atoms. If this is hard to do, do not use the multi-threaded feature.

The order within an request is undefined and variables are not processed in a defined order. Do not assume that the first variable in the PDU will be processed before the second, even if the agent processes variables in this order. It cannot even be assumed that requests belonging to different sub-agents have any order.

If the manager tries to set the same variable many times in the same PDU, the agent is free to improvise. There is no definition which determines if the instrumentation will be called once or twice. If called once only, there is no definition that determines which of the new values is going to be supplied.

When the agent receives a request, it keeps the request ID for one second after the response is sent. If the agent receives another request with the same request ID during this time, from the same IP address and UDP port, that request will be discarded. This mechanism has nothing to do with the function snmpa:current_request_id/0.

15.3  Sub-agents and Dependencies

The toolkit supports the use of different types of sub-agents, but not the construction of sub-agents.

Also, the toolkit does not support dependencies between sub-agents. A sub-agent should by definition be stand alone and it is therefore not good design to create dependencies between them.

15.4  Distributed Tables

A common situation in more complex systems is that the data in a table is distributed. Different table rows are implemented in different places. Some SNMP tool-kits dedicate an SNMP sub-agent for each part of the table and load the corresponding MIB into all sub-agents. The Master Agent is responsible for presenting the distributed table as a single table to the manager. The toolkit supplied uses a different method.

The method used to implement distributed tables with this SNMP tool is to implement a table coordinator process responsible for coordinating the processes, which hold the table data and they are called table holders. All table holders must in some way be known by the coordinator; the structure of the table data determines how this is achieved. The coordinator may require that the table holders explicitly register themselves and specify their information. In other cases, the table holders can be determined once at compile time.

When the instrumentation function for the distributed table is called, the request should be forwarded to the table coordinator. The coordinator finds the requested information among the table holders and then returns the answer to the instrumentation function. The SNMP toolkit contains no support for coordination of tables since this must be independent of the implementation.

The advantages of separating the table coordinator from the SNMP tool are:

  • We do not need a sub-agent for each table holder. Normally, the sub-agent is needed to take care of communication, but in Distributed Erlang we use ordinary message passing.
  • Most likely, some type of table coordinator already exists. This process should take care of the instrumentation for the table.
  • The method used to present a distributed table is strongly application dependent. The use of different masking techniques is only valid for a small subset of problems and registering every row in a distributed table makes it non-distributed.

15.5  Fault Tolerance

The SNMP agent toolkit gets input from three different sources:

  • UDP packets from the network
  • return values from the user defined instrumentation functions
  • return values from the MIB.

The agent is highly fault tolerant. If the manager gets an unexpected response from the agent, it is possible that some instrumentation function has returned an erroneous value. The agent will not crash even if the instrumentation does. It should be noted that if an instrumentation function enters an infinite loop, the agent will also be blocked forever. The supervisor ,or the application, specifies how to restart the agent.

Using the SNMP Agent in a Distributed Environment

The normal way to use the agent in a distributed environment is to use one master agent located at one node, and zero or more sub-agents located on other nodes. However, this configuration makes the master agent node a single point of failure. If that node goes down, the agent will not work.

One solution to this problem is to make the snmp application a distributed Erlang application, and that means, the agent may be configured to run on one of several nodes. If the node where it runs goes down, another node restarts the agent. This is called failover. When the node starts again, it may takeover the application. This solution to the problem adds another problem. Generally, the new node has another IP address than the first one, which may cause problems in the communication between the SNMP managers and the agent.

If the snmp agent is configured as a distributed Erlang application, it will during takeover try to load the same MIBs that were loaded at the old node. It uses the same filenames as the old node. If the MIBs are not located in the same paths at the different nodes, the MIBs must be loaded explicitly after takeover.

15.6  Using Mnesia Tables as SNMP Tables

The Mnesia DBMS can be used for storing data of SNMP tables. This means that an SNMP table can be implemented as a Mnesia table, and that a Mnesia table can be made visible via SNMP. This mapping is largely automated.

There are three main reasons for using this mapping:

  • We get all features of Mnesia, such as fault tolerance, persistent data storage, replication, and so on.
  • Much of the work involved is automated. This includes get-next processing and RowStatus handling.
  • The table may be used as an ordinary Mnesia table, using the Mnesia API internally in the application at the same time as it is visible through SNMP.

When this mapping is used, insertion and deletion in the original Mnesia table is slower, with a factor O(log n). The read access is not affected.

A drawback with implementing an SNMP table as a Mnesia table is that the internal resource is forced to use the table definition from the MIB, which means that the external data model must be used internally. Actually, this is only partially true. The Mnesia table may extend the SNMP table, which means that the Mnesia table may have columns which are use internally and are not seen by SNMP. Still, the data model from SNMP must be maintained. Although this is undesirable, it is a pragmatic compromise in many situations where simple and efficient implementation is preferable to abstraction.

Creating the Mnesia Table

The table must be created in Mnesia before the manager can use it. The table must be declared as type snmp. This makes the table ordered in accordance with the lexicographical ordering rules of SNMP. The name of the Mnesia table must be identical to the SNMP table name. The types of the INDEX fields in the corresponding SNMP table must be specified.

If the SNMP table has more than one INDEX column, the corresponding Mnesia row is a tuple, where the first element is a tuple with the INDEX columns. Generally, if the SNMP table has N INDEX columns and C data columns, the Mnesia table is of arity (C-N)+1, where the key is a tuple of arity N if N > 1, or a single term if N = 1.

Refer to the Mnesia User's Guide for information on how to declare a Mnesia table as an SNMP table.

The following example illustrates a situation in which we have an SNMP table that we wish to implement as a Mnesia table. The table stores information about employees at a company. Each employee is indexed with the department number and the name.

       empTable OBJECT-TYPE
              SYNTAX      SEQUENCE OF EmpEntry
              ACCESS      not-accessible
              STATUS      mandatory
                      "A table with information about employees."
       ::= { emp 1}
       empEntry OBJECT-TYPE
              SYNTAX      EmpEntry
              ACCESS      not-accessible
              STATUS      mandatory
              INDEX      { empDepNo, empName }
       ::= { empTable 1 }
       EmpEntry ::=
              SEQUENCE {
                  empDepNo         INTEGER,
                  empName          DisplayString,
                  empTelNo         DisplayString
                  empStatus        RowStatus

The corresponding Mnesia table is specified as follows:

mnesia:create_table([{name, employees},
                     {snmp, [{key, {integer, string}}]},
                     {attributes, [key, telno, row_status]}]).

In the Mnesia tables, the two key columns are stored as a tuple with two elements. Therefore, the arity of the table is 3.

Instrumentation Functions

The MIB table shown in the previous section can be compiled as follows:

1> snmpc:compile("EmpMIB", [{db, mnesia}]).

This is all that has to be done! Now the manager can read, add, and modify rows. Also, you can use the ordinary Mnesia API to access the table from your programs. The only explicit action is to create the Mnesia table, an action the user has to perform in order to create the required table schemas.

Adding Own Actions

It is often necessary to take some specific action when a table is modified. This is accomplished with an instrumentation function. It executes some specific code when the table is set, and passes all other requests down to the pre-defined function.

The following example illustrates this idea:

emp_table(set, RowIndex, Cols) ->
    notify_internal_resources(RowIndex, Cols),
    snmp_generic:table_func(set, RowIndex, Cols, {empTable, mnesia});
emp_table(Op, RowIndex, Cols) ->
    snmp_generic:table_func(Op, RowIndex, Cols, {empTable, mnesia}).

The default instrumentation functions are defined in the module snmp_generic. Refer to the Reference Manual, section SNMP, module snmp_generic for details.

Extending the Mnesia Table

A table may contain columns that are used internally, but should not be visible to a manager. These internal columns must be the last columns in the table. The set operation will not work with this arrangement, because there are columns that the agent does not know about. This situation is handled by adding values for the internal columns in the set function.

To illustrate this, suppose we extend our Mnesia empTable with one internal column. We create it as before, but with an arity of 4, by adding another attribute.

mnesia:create_table([{name, employees},
                     {snmp, [{key, {integer, string}}]},
                     {attributes, {key, telno, row_status, internal_col}}]).

The last column is the internal column. When performing a set operation, which creates a row, we must give a value to the internal column. The instrumentation functions will now look as follows:

-define(createAndGo, 4).
-define(createAndWait, 5).

emp_table(set, RowIndex, Cols) ->
  notify_internal_resources(RowIndex, Cols),
  NewCols =
    case is_row_created(empTable, Cols) of
      true -> Cols ++ [{4, "internal"}]; % add internal column
      false -> Cols                      % keep original cols
  snmp_generic:table_func(set, RowIndex, NewCols, {empTable, mnesia});
emp_table(Op, RowIndex, Cols) ->
  snmp_generic:table_func(Op, RowIndex, Cols, {empTable, mnesia}).

is_row_created(Name, Cols) ->
  case snmp_generic:get_status_col(Name, Cols) of
    {ok, ?createAndGo} -> true;
    {ok, ?createAndWait} -> true;
    _ -> false

If a row is created, we always set the internal column to "internal".

15.7  Deviations from the Standard

In some aspects the agent does not implement SNMP fully. Here are the differences:

  • The default functions and snmp_generic cannot handle an object of type NetworkAddress as INDEX (SNMPv1 only!). Use IpAddress instead.
  • The agent does not check complex ranges specified for INTEGER objects. In these cases it just checks that the value lies within the minimum and maximum values specified. For example, if the range is specified as 1..10 | 12..20 the agent would let 11 through, but not 0 or 21. The instrumentation functions must check the complex ranges itself.
  • The agent will never generate the wrongEncoding error. If a variable binding is erroneous encoded, the asn1ParseError counter will be incremented.
  • A tooBig error in an SNMPv1 packet will always use the 'NULL' value in all variable bindings.
  • The default functions and snmp_generic do not check the range of each OCTET in textual conventions derived from OCTET STRING, e.g. DisplayString and DateAndTime. This must be checked in an overloaded is_set_ok function.