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The Benefits and Pitfalls of using Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN)

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This is an older version of an Internet-Draft that was ultimately published as RFC 8087.
Authors Michael Welzl , Gorry Fairhurst
Last updated 2014-10-28 (Latest revision 2014-10-24)
Replaces draft-welzl-ecn-benefits
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Network Working Group                                           M. Welzl
Internet-Draft                                        University of Oslo
Intended status: Informational                              G. Fairhurst
Expires: April 27, 2015                           University of Aberdeen
                                                        October 24, 2014

  The Benefits and Pitfalls of using Explicit Congestion Notification


   This document describes the potential benefits and pitfalls when
   applications enable Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN).  It
   outlines the principal gains in terms of increased throughput,
   reduced delay and other benefits when ECN is used over network paths
   that include equipment that supports ECN-marking.  It also lists
   potential problems that might occur when ECN is used.  The document
   does not propose new algorithms that may be able to use ECN or
   describe the details of implementation of ECN in endpoint devices,
   routers and other network devices.

Status of this Memo

   This Internet-Draft is submitted in full conformance with the
   provisions of BCP 78 and BCP 79.

   Internet-Drafts are working documents of the Internet Engineering
   Task Force (IETF).  Note that other groups may also distribute
   working documents as Internet-Drafts.  The list of current Internet-
   Drafts is at

   Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum of six months
   and may be updated, replaced, or obsoleted by other documents at any
   time.  It is inappropriate to use Internet-Drafts as reference
   material or to cite them other than as "work in progress."

   This Internet-Draft will expire on April 27, 2015.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright (c) 2014 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the
   document authors.  All rights reserved.

   This document is subject to BCP 78 and the IETF Trust's Legal
   Provisions Relating to IETF Documents
   ( in effect on the date of

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   publication of this document.  Please review these documents
   carefully, as they describe your rights and restrictions with respect
   to this document.  Code Components extracted from this document must
   include Simplified BSD License text as described in Section 4.e of
   the Trust Legal Provisions and are provided without warranty as
   described in the Simplified BSD License.

1.  Introduction

   Internet Transports (such as TCP and SCTP) have two ways to detect
   congestion: the loss of a packet and, if Explicit Congestion
   Notification (ECN) [RFC3168] is enabled, by reception of a packet
   with a Congestion Experienced (CE)-marking in the IP header.  Both of
   these are treated by transports as indications of (potential)
   congestion.  ECN may also be enabled by other transports.  UDP
   applications may enable ECN when they are able to correctly process
   the ECN signals (e.g.  ECN with RTP [RFC6679]).

   When an application enables the use of ECN, the transport layer sets
   the ECT(0) or ECT(1) codepoint in the IP header of packets that it
   sends to indicate to routers that they may mark, rather than drop,
   packets in periods of congestion.  This marking is generally
   performed by Active Queue Management (AQM) [RFC2309.bis] and may be
   the result of various AQM algorithms, where the exact combination of
   AQM/ECN algorithms is generally not known by the transport endpoints.

   ECN makes it possible for the network to signal congestion without
   packet loss.  This lets the network deliver some packets to an
   application that would otherwise have been dropped.  This packet loss
   reduction is the most obvious benefit of ECN, but it is often
   relatively modest.  However, enabling ECN can also result in a number
   of beneficial side-effects, some of which may be much more
   significant than the immediate packet loss reduction from ECN-marking
   instead of dropping packets.  Several of these benefits have to do
   with reducing latency in some way (e.g. reduced Head-of-Line Blocking
   and potentially smaller queuing delay, depending on the marking rules
   in routers).  There are also some potential pitfalls when enabling

   The focus of this document is on usage of ECN, not its implementation
   in endpoint devices, routers and other network devices.  [RFC3168]
   describes a method in which a router sets the CE codepoint of an ECN-
   Capable packet at the time that the router would otherwise have
   dropped the packet.

   While it has often been assumed that routers mark packets at the same
   level of congestion at which they would otherwise drop them, separate

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   configuration of the drop and mark thresholds is known to be
   supported in some network devices and this is recommended in
   [RFC2309.bis].  Some benefits of ECN that are discussed rely upon
   routers marking packets at a lower level of congestion before they
   would otherwise drop packets from queue overflow [KH13].

   Some of benefits are also only realised when the transport endpoint
   behaviour is also updated, this is discussed further in Section 5.

   The remainder of this document discusses the potential for ECN to
   positively benefit an application without making specific assumptions
   about configuration or implementation.

2.  ECN Deployment Scenarios / Use Cases

   XXX to be continued -- this section is intended to describe some
   specific example cases of where ECN has provided benefit XXX

2.1.  ECN within data centers

   ECN with a low marking threshold has been proposed for use within a
   data centre environment.  This proposed usage exploits ECN in
   combination with an updated transport behaviour, Datacenter TCP
   (DCTCP) [AL10].

3.  Benefit of using ECN to avoid congestion loss

   An application that uses a transport that supports ECN can benefit in
   several ways:

3.1.  Improved Throughput

   ECN can improve the throughput performance of applications, although
   this increase in throughput offered by ECN is often not the most
   significant gain.

   When an application uses a light to moderately loaded network path,
   the number of packets that are dropped due to congestion is small.
   Using an example from Table 1 of [RFC3649], for a standard TCP sender
   with a Round Trip Time, RTT, of 0.1 seconds, a packet size of 1500
   bytes and an average throughput of 1 Mbps, the average packet drop
   ratio is 0.02.  This translates into an approximate 2% throughput
   gain if ECN is enabled.  In heavy congestion, packet loss may be
   unavoidable with, or without, ECN.

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3.2.  Reduced Head-of-Line Blocking

   Many transports provide in-order delivery of received data to the
   applications they support.  This requires that the transport stalls
   (or waits) for all data that was sent ahead of a particular segment
   to be correctly received before it can forward any later data.  This
   is the usual requirement for TCP and SCTP.  PR-SCTP [RFC3758], UDP,
   and DCCP [RFC4340] provide a transport that does not have this

   Delaying data to provide in-order transmission to an application
   results in latency when segments are dropped as indications of
   congestion.  The congestive loss creates a delay of at least one RTT
   for a loss event before data can be delivered to an application.  We
   call this Head-of-Line (HOL) blocking.

   In contrast, using ECN can remove the resulting delay for a loss that
   is a result of congestion:

   o  First, the application receives the data normally - this also
      avoids dropping data that has already made it across at least part
      of the network path.  This avoids the additional delay of waiting
      for recovery of the lost segment.

   o  Second, the transport receiver notes the ECN-marked packets, and
      then requests the sender to make an appropriate congestion-
      response for future traffic.

3.3.  Reduced Probability of RTO Expiry

   ECN can help reduce the chance of the TCP or SCTP retransmission
   timer expiring (RTO expiry).  When an application sends a burst of
   segments and then becomes idle (either because the application has no
   further data to send or the network prevents sending further data -
   e.g. flow or congestion control at the transport layer), the last
   segment of the burst may be lost.  It is often not possible to
   recover the last segment (or last few segments) using standard
   methods such as Fast Recovery, since the receiver is unaware that the
   lost segments were actually sent.

   ECN provides a mitigation when the loss is a result of (mild)
   congestion, since a router may mark, rather than drop, these segments
   - which benefits the application in a way similar to above, but with
   the significant additional benefit that this eliminates a
   retransmission event.  The application benefits because:

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   o  Data is received without HOL blocking.

   o  The transport does not suffer RTO expiry with consequent loss of
      state about the network path it is using.  This would cause it to
      reset path estimates such as the RTT, the congestion window, and
      possibly other transport state that can reduce the performance of
      the transport until it adapts to the path again.  This can improve
      the throughput of the application.

   The benefit of avoiding reliance on an RTO-based retransmission event
   can be especially significant when ECN is used on TCP SYN/ACK packets
   as specified in [RFC5562] because in this case TCP cannot base its
   RTO for these packets on prior RTT measurements from the same

3.4.  Applications that do not retransmit lost packets

   Certain latency-critical applications do not retransmit lost packets,
   yet they may be able to adjust the sending rate in the presence of
   congestion.  Examples of such applications include UDP-based services
   that carry Voice over IP (VoIP), interactive video or real-time data.
   By decoupling congestion control from loss, ECN can allow such
   applications to reduce their rate before experiencing significant
   loss.  It also enables them to decide how to discard data in a
   controlled manner, rather than forcing them to recover from loss.
   This reduces the negative impact of having to rely on loss-hiding
   mechanisms (e.g.  Packet forward error correction, or data
   duplication), yielding a direct positive impact on the quality
   experienced by the users of these applications.

4.  Benefit from Early Congestion Detection

   If ECN is configured such that routers mark packets at a lower level
   of congestion before they would otherwise drop packets from queue
   overflow, an application can benefit from using ECN in the following

4.1.  Avoiding Capacity Overshoot

   ECN can help capacity probing algorithms (such as Slow Start) from
   significantly exceeding the bottleneck capacity of a network path.
   Since a transport that enables ECN can receive congestion signals
   before there is serious congestion, an early-marking method can help
   a transport respond before it induces significant congestion.  For
   example, a TCP or SCTP sender can avoid incurring significant
   congestion during Slow Start, or a bulk application that tries to
   increase its rate as fast as possible, may detect the presence of

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   congestion, causing it to reduce its rate.

   Use of ECN is more effective than schemes such as Limited Slow-Start
   [RFC3742] because it provides direct information about the state of
   the network path.  An ECN-enabled application probing for bandwidth
   can reduce its rate as soon as ECN-marked packets are detected, and
   before the applications increases its rate to the point where it
   builds a router queue that induces congestion loss.  This benefits
   the application seeking to increase its rate - but perhaps more
   significantly, it eliminates the often unwanted loss and queueing
   delay that otherwise may be inflicted on flows that share a common

4.2.  Making Congestion Visible

   A characteristic of using ECN is that it exposes the presence of
   congestion on a network path to the transport and network layers.
   This information could be used for monitoring performance of the
   path, and could be used to directly meter the amount of congestion
   that has been encountered upstream on a path; metering packet loss is
   harder.  This is used by Congestion Exposure (CoNex) [RFC6789].

   Note: traffic that observes only congestion marks and no loss implies
   that a sender is experiencing only congestion and not other sources
   of packet loss (e.g. link corruption or loss in middleboxes).  The
   converse is not true - a mixture of ECN-marks and loss may occur
   during only congestion or from a combination of packet loss and

5.  Other forms of ECN-Marking/Reactions

   The ECN mechanism defines both how packets are marked and transports
   need to react to markings.  This section describes the benefits when
   updated methods are used.

   Benefit has been noted when packets are marked earlier than they
   would otherwise be dropped, using an instantaneous queue, and if the
   receiver provides precise feedback about the number of packet marks
   encountered, a better sender behavior is possible.  This has been
   shown by Datacenter TCP (DCTCP) [AL10].

   Precise feedback about the number of packet marks encountered is
   supported by RTP over UDP [RFC6679] and proposed for SCTP [ST14] and
   TCP [KU13].  An underlying assumption of DCTCP is that it is deployed
   in confined environments such as a datacenter.  It is currently
   unknown whether or how such behaviour could be safely introduced into
   the Internet.

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6.  Pitfalls when using ECN

   This section describes issues with ECN.

6.1.  Bleaching and middlebox requirements to deploy

   Cases have been noted where a sending endpoint marks a packet with a
   non-zero ECN mark, but the packet is received with a zero ECN value
   by the remote endpoint.

   The current IPv4 and IPv6 specifications assign usage of 2 bits in
   the IP header to carry the ECN codepoint.  A previous usage assigned
   these bits as a part of the now deprecated Type of Service (ToS)
   field.  Equipment conformant with this older specification may remark
   or erase the ECN codepoints, such equipment needs to be updated to
   the current specifications to support ECN.

   Another policy may erase or "bleach" the ECN marks at a network edge
   (resetting these to zero) for various reasons (including normalising
   packets to hide which equipment support ECN).  This policy prevents
   use of ECN.

   Some networks may use ECN internally or tunnel ECN fro traffic
   engineering or security.  Guidance on the correct use of ECN in this
   case is provided in [RFC6040].

   The recommendation of this document is that a router or middlebox
   MUST not change a packet with a CE mark to a zero codepoint (if the
   CE marking is not propagated, the packet MUST be discarded), and
   SHOULD NOT remark an ECT(0) or ECT(1) mark to zero.

6.2.  Cheating

   Endpoint receivers MUST NOT try to conceal reception of CE marks in
   the ECN feedback information they provide to the sending endpoint.
   Transport protocols are actively encouraged to include mechanisms
   that can detect and appropriately respond to such misbehavior.

6.3.  The possible need to verify if a path really supports ECN

   Endpoints need to be robust to path changes that may impact the
   ability to effectively signal or use ECN across a path, e.g. when a
   path changes to use a middlebox that bleaches ECN codepoints.  As a
   necessary but short term fix, such mechanisms could fall-back to
   disabling use of ECN.

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7.  Conclusion

   People configuring host stacks and network devices should ensure that
   their equipment correctly reacts to packets carrying ECN codepoints.
   This includes:

   o  routers not resetting the ECN codepoint to zero by default

   o  routers correctly updating the codepoint in the presence of

   o  routers correctly supporting alternate ECN semantics ([RFC4774])

   o  hosts receiving ECN marks correctly reflecting them

   Application developers should where possible use transports that
   enable the benefits of ECN.  Once enabled, the benefits of ECN are
   provided by the transport layer and the application does not need to
   be rewritten to gain these benefits.  Table 1 summarises some of
   these benefits.
   | Section | Benefit                                             |
   |   2.1   | Improved Throughput                                 |
   |   2.2   | Reduced Head-of-Line                                |
   |   2.3   | Reduced Probability of RTO Expiry                   |
   |   2.4   | Applications that do not retransmit lost packets    |
   |   3.1   | Avoiding Capacity Overshoot                         |
   |   3.2   | Making Congestion Visible                           |

   Table 1: Summary of Key Benefits

8.  Acknowledgements

   The authors were part-funded by the European Community under its
   Seventh Framework Programme through the Reducing Internet Transport
   Latency (RITE) project (ICT-317700).  The views expressed are solely
   those of the authors.

   The authors would like to thank the following people for their
   comments on prior versions of this document: Bob Briscoe, David
   Collier-Brown, John Leslie, Colin Perkins, Richard Scheffenegger,
   Dave Taht

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9.  IANA Considerations


   This memo includes no request to IANA.

10.  Security Considerations

   This document introduces no new security considerations.  Each RFC
   listed in this document discusses the security considerations of the
   specification it contains.

11.  References

11.1.  Normative References

              Baker, F. and G. Fairhurst, "IETF Recommendations
              Regarding Active Queue Management",
              draft-ietf-aqm-recommendation-06 (work in progress),
              October 2014.

   [RFC3168]  Ramakrishnan, K., Floyd, S., and D. Black, "The Addition
              of Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN) to IP",
              RFC 3168, September 2001.

11.2.  Informative References

   [AL10]     Alizadeh, M., Greenberg, A., Maltz, D., Padhye, J., Patel,
              P., Prabhakar, B., Sengupta, S., and M. Sridharan, "Data
              Center TCP (DCTCP)", SIGCOMM 2010, August 2010.

   [KH13]     Khademi, N., Ros, D., and M. Welzl, "The New AQM Kids on
              the Block: Much Ado About Nothing?", University of Oslo
              Department of Informatics technical report 434,
              October 2013.

   [KU13]     Kuehlewind, M. and R. Scheffenegger, "Problem Statement
              and Requirements for a More Accurate ECN Feedback",
              draft-ietf-tcpm-accecn-reqs-04.txt (work in progress),
              October 2013.

   [RFC3649]  Floyd, S., "HighSpeed TCP for Large Congestion Windows",
              RFC 3649, December 2003.

   [RFC3742]  Floyd, S., "Limited Slow-Start for TCP with Large

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              Congestion Windows", RFC 3742, March 2004.

   [RFC3758]  Stewart, R., Ramalho, M., Xie, Q., Tuexen, M., and P.
              Conrad, "Stream Control Transmission Protocol (SCTP)
              Partial Reliability Extension", RFC 3758, May 2004.

   [RFC4340]  Kohler, E., Handley, M., and S. Floyd, "Datagram
              Congestion Control Protocol (DCCP)", RFC 4340, March 2006.

   [RFC4774]  Floyd, S., "Specifying Alternate Semantics for the
              Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN) Field", BCP 124,
              RFC 4774, November 2006.

   [RFC5562]  Kuzmanovic, A., Mondal, A., Floyd, S., and K.
              Ramakrishnan, "Adding Explicit Congestion Notification
              (ECN) Capability to TCP's SYN/ACK Packets", RFC 5562,
              June 2009.

   [RFC6040]  Briscoe, B., "Tunnelling of Explicit Congestion
              Notification", RFC 6040, November 2010.

   [RFC6679]  Westerlund, M., Johansson, I., Perkins, C., O'Hanlon, P.,
              and K. Carlberg, "Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN)
              for RTP over UDP", RFC 6679, August 2012.

   [RFC6789]  Briscoe, B., Woundy, R., and A. Cooper, "Congestion
              Exposure (ConEx) Concepts and Use Cases", RFC 6789,
              December 2012.

   [ST14]     Stewart, R., Tuexen, M., and X. Dong, "ECN for Stream
              Control Transmission Protocol (SCTP)",
              draft-stewart-tsvwg-sctpecn-05.txt (work in progress),
              January 2014.

Authors' Addresses

   Michael Welzl
   University of Oslo
   PO Box 1080 Blindern
   Oslo,   N-0316

   Phone: +47 22 85 24 20

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   Godred Fairhurst
   University of Aberdeen
   School of Engineering, Fraser Noble Building
   Aberdeen,   AB24 3UE


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