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The DETER System Programming Interface


The DETER System Programming Interface (SPI) is a standard interface for manipulating fundamental DETER abstractions used to manage testbed resources and to marshall those resources into network and cybersecurity experiments. The SPI is analogous to an operating system's system call interface. It provides the fundamental abstractions that enable application programmers to make tools that are useful to researchers.

There are two motivations for building the SPI: first that the SPI is a context and programming framework for new DETER abstractions that subsumes the existing Emulab codebase cleanly. Second the SPI provides a context in which new developers can extend those abstractions to provide new functionality and to improve their scaling properties.

The SPI is fundamentally a tool-builder's interface. Researchers performing experiments or students performing class exercises are unlikely to access SPI methods directly, though we expect that higher level tools and interfaces will make the fundamental abstractions visible.

The Fundamental Abstractions

There are 6 first class abstractions that make up the DETER SPI. These are:

A researcher who builds and carries out experiments using resources controlled by the testbed.
Administrative groupings of users that embody the trust chains that underly researcher access. A researcher has access to the testbed as a whole because they are a member of an approved project. Trusted users can add other users to an approved project, reducing the administrative overhead.
Groupings of trusted users that embody the sharing of data and resources among researchers. Adding or removing users from circles gives them permission to access resources in use for experimentation or excludes them from such resources.
A description of a research activity. An experiment is composed of aspects, each of which embodies some facet of the activity. Currently the SPI recognizes 4 aspects:
  • Layout: the arrangement and specification of an experiment's elements that make up the experimental apparatus
  • Procedure: The steps taken to carry out an experiment
  • Data Management: The resources and processes used to collect and process data generated by the experiment
  • Constraints: Correctness requirements that must be met in a valid experiment.
Additional aspects can be specified by users and accessed by running experiments. We document a plug-in interface (below) that explains how new aspects can enter the system. Access to experiments and the resources attached to them is controlled by assigning rights to circles.
Collections of experiments grouped by function or semantics. Libraries allow researchers to organize their experiments and share them with other researchers (by assigning rights to circles).
A realization is the binding of resources to an experiment. Users can inspect and modify such bindings in carrying out their experiments.

We describe each of these in more detail below.

The Implementation

This section motivates and explains two of the implementation design decisions that underlie the SPI: expanding the implementation beyond the Emulab abstractions and implementation, and using SOAP and web services to deliver the service.

DETER Abstractions and the Existing Codebase

The DETER research agenda drives the new abstractions, and it differs somewhat from the abstractions that drive the Emulab-derived code base. DETER is interested in sharing experiment infrastructure - including conducting experiments where multiple parties manipulate the environment based on different views of the world and different goals (multi-party experiments). Also, DETER is interested in multi-fidelity, large-scale experiments where the representation of the various partes of the experiment is guided by the researcher's design of the experiment. Finally, we think of experiments as having aspects that go well beyond the definition of the topology or layout, and the abstractions need to support this.

The Emulab code is based on simpler topology and experimentation models, and while its developers have been able to extend it to do more, our changes take the abstractions far enough that relegating the Emulab code to allocating local resources seems the cleanest way forward. Functions including user and project management will move into the SPI, though subsets of that function (basically current Emulab functionality) will remain available through the legacy interface.

SPI system overview

As a last practical point Emulab-based codebase blurs the lines of some implementations between the webserver interface and the backend code. Building the SPI offers DETER a chance to solidify that interface and enable developer to build multiple applications on the DETER abstractions.

Delivering the SPI Through SOAP

The SPI is built on the SOAP web services platform as a compromise between accessibility, extensibility, and support from tools. An important goal of the SPI is to allow multiple applications to use the DETER testbed. A web front-end for teaching cybersecurity classes that coexists with a web front end for experimenting on Internet anonymity are such a pair of applications. That may even look like two different testbeds from the outside.

To support that, the SPI must be platform independent. A web browser is a powerful application platform that the SPI must support. The SOAP/WSDL standards are a proven technology for such access. SOAP may be somewhat stodgier than a JSON/REST interface, but the differences can be constrained to encodings, and many tools for generating SOAP interfaces provide migration paths to other web services platforms.

Presently we take advantage of the fairly rich SOAP toolspace and have been able to use SOAP for access from a range of platforms from web browsers to multiple standalone programming languages.

The rest of this document goes into more detail on how to use the SPI.

Understanding The SPI

This section describes the SPI abstractions and operations that application writers will use. We are concerned with how to put the concepts into use and how they interrelate with each other. Below we describe the detailed interface.


The SPI is broken up into services that implement the various abstractions. Each major abstraction presents its own service, and there are a few others for administration and information. Each service is a separate SOAP/WSDL service and has its own contact point. We break them up this way to keep the specification reasonably sized for both people and computers.

The services in the SPI are:

Version information and test interfaces. Client and server certificate distribution.
Low level testbed administration
Manipulation of Circles
Manipulation of Experiments
Manipulation of Libraries
Manipulation of Projects
Manipulation of Users


A profile is a collection of metadata attached to an abstraction instance, primarily to help users and administrators understand what the instance is bing used for. Users, projects, circles, experiments, and libraries all have profiles attached to them which describe those things. For example, a user profile includes the researcher's name and an e-mail address.

Profiles are self-describing, so that applications have guidance is what is being presented and how to display it. Each of the abstractions above has an operation called getProfileDescription in its associated service? that returns an array of all the valid fields - called attributes - in that abstraction's profile. Each element of that array - each attribute - includes additional metadata that describes its purpose and presentation:

Metadata Meaning
Name Descriptive name for the attribute, e.g. e-mail. All attributes have a name.
Value The contents of the attribute. When retrieving a profile description, every attribute's value is empty
Description Brief natural language description of the attribute, suitable for context sensitive help
Access Whether a user can modify the data. Valid values are READ_ONLY, READ_WRITE, NO_ACCESS, and WRITE_ONLY
Optional True if the field can be omitted in a profile. All non-optional fields must be present when creating an instance. Applications may expect these fields to be present.
DataType How to interpret the data. Valid values are STRING, Int, FLOAT, and OPAQUE.
Format A regular expression describing valid field entries. Applications can use this to check user input locally. Applications are not required to do so, but values for this attribute that do not match the expression will be rejected.
FormatDescription A natural language description of valid input suitable for context sensitive help. The FormatDescription for a phone number field might be "10 digits, optionally separated by hyphens or parentheses."
LengthHint A hint at how much space an application should to reserve for input, in characters. Applications can obviously ignore this.
OrderingHint An integer that suggests to an application what order to display the field relative to others. Applications can ignore this

Each instance has an associated operation, getUserProfile (projects have getProjectProfile, experiments have getExperimentProfile) that returns the profile for that instance as an array of attributes, as above. This profile includes the values for all the (readable) attributes.

Each instance supports a changeUserAttribute operation that allows the application to change the instance's attribute values. changeUserAttribute is used to change a user's phone number. Optional attributes can be deleted through this interface.

An application will use the profile operations in the following ways:

  • When creating an instance that requires a profile, the application will request the profile description using getProfileDescription, fill in non-optional fields (probably based on user input) and include that profile data with the creation request. All abstractions that have profiles attached require a valid profile as a parameter to the operation that creates them.
  • When displaying an instance that supports a profile, the application may request the profiles for various instances using getUserProfile et al., and display all or some of the profile data.
  • Applications that manage abstractions with profiles may allow users to change the contents of the profile using changeUserAttribute, et al.

There is an administrative interface for changing the attributes in each abstraction's profile, but we expect the profile contents to remain relatively constant over time.

Currently the attributes that DETERLab includes in abstraction profiles are as follows:

For users:

Attribute Name Description Optional Access DataType
name Name false READ_WRITE STRING
title Title true READ_WRITE STRING
email E-mail false READ_ONLY STRING
affiliation Affiliation true READ_WRITE STRING
affiliation_abbrev Affiliation (abbreviated) true READ_WRITE STRING
address1 Address true READ_WRITE STRING
address2 Address Line 2 true READ_WRITE STRING
city City true READ_WRITE STRING
state State true READ_WRITE STRING
zip Postal Code true READ_WRITE STRING
country Country true READ_WRITE STRING
phone Phone false READ_WRITE STRING

All users are required to have a name, e-mail address, and a phone number present in their profile, but may only change the name and phone number. (The e-mail address is used to validate the accounts.)

The e-mail and phone number attributes have formats attached:

Name Format Format Description
email [^\s@]+@[^\s@]+ A valid e-mail address
phone [0-9-\s\.\(\)\+]+ Numbers, whitespace, parens, plus signs, and dots or dashes

Because we expect applications to edit user profiles, there is layout information as well:

Name Ordering Hint Length Hint
name 100 0
title 200 0
address1 500 0
address2 600 0
city 700 0
state 800 0
zip 900 0
country 1000 0
email 1100 0
URL 1200 0
phone 1300 15
affiliation 3000 0
affiliation_abbrev 4000 5

For Projects:

Attribute Name Description Optional Access DataType
description Description false READ_WRITE STRING
funders Funders true READ_WRITE STRING
affiliation Affiliation true READ_WRITE STRING

For Circles:

Attribute Name Description Optional Access DataType
description Description false READ_WRITE STRING
email Email true READ_WRITE STRING

For Experiments:

Attribute Name Description Optional Access DataType
description Description false READ_WRITE STRING

For Libraries:

Attribute Name Description Optional Access DataType
description Description false READ_WRITE STRING


A user represents a researcher using the testbed. Most operations in the SPI are carried out on behalf of a user. Users must authenticate themselves to the testbed in order to carry out such operations. Users own other instances, for example a user owns experiments or projects that they create. Ownership is both an auditing construct - the testbed can determine which researcher configured which objets - and through policy assigns some rights to carry out operations. The owner of an experiment has rights outside those specified by the circles the owner belongs to.

In order for a user to carry out operations on the testbed, the user must log in to the testbed. When requests are made to the SPI they are made through a secure connection where client and server (that is user and testbed) are identified by an X.509 certificate. The login process binds an X.509 certificate used to make a secure connection to a user instance in the testbed used to determine rights.

The simplest way to log in through the SPI is to call the requestChallenge operation on the Users service.

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