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Avoiding Equal Cost Multipath Treatment in MPLS Networks

The information below is for an old version of the document that is already published as an RFC.
Document Type
This is an older version of an Internet-Draft that was ultimately published as RFC 4928.
Authors George Swallow , Stewart Bryant , Loa Andersson
Last updated 2015-10-14 (Latest revision 2007-02-15)
RFC stream Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
Intended RFC status Best Current Practice
Additional resources Mailing list discussion
Stream WG state WG Document
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IESG IESG state Became RFC 4928 (Best Current Practice)
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Telechat date (None)
Responsible AD Ross Callon
Send notices to (None)
Network Working Group                                     George Swallow
Internet Draft                                       Cisco Systems, Inc.
Category: Standards Track
Expiration Date: August 2007
                                                          Stewart Bryant
                                                     Cisco Systems, Inc.

                                                           Loa Andersson

                                                           February 2007

        Avoiding Equal Cost Multipath Treatment in MPLS Networks


Status of this Memo

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   This document describes the Equal Cost Multipath (ECMP) behavior of
   currently deployed MPLS networks. This document makes best practice
   recommendations for anyone defining an application to run over an
   MPLS network that wishes to avoid the reordering that can result from

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   transmission of different packets from the same flow over multiple
   different equal cost paths.


 1      Introduction  ..............................................   3
 1.1    Terminology  ...............................................   3
 2      Current ECMP Practices  ....................................   3
 3      Recommendations for Avoiding ECMP Treatment  ...............   5
 4      Security Considerations  ...................................   6
 5      References  ................................................   6
 5.1    Normative References  ......................................   6
 5.2    Informative References  ....................................   7
 6      Authors' Addresses  ........................................   8

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1. Introduction

   This document describes the Equal Cost Multipath (ECMP) behavior of
   currently deployed MPLS networks. We discuss cases where multiple
   packets from the same top-level LSP might be transmitted over differ-
   ent equal cost paths, resulting in possible mis-ordering of packets
   which are part of the same top-level LSP. This document also makes
   best practice recommendations for anyone defining an application to
   run over an MPLS network that wishes to avoid the resulting potential
   for mis-ordered packets.  While disabling ECMP behavior is an option
   open to most operators, few (if any) have chosen to do so, and the
   application designer does not have control over the behavior of the
   networks that the application may run over. Thus ECMP behavior is a
   reality that must be reckoned with.

1.1. Terminology

   ECMP        Equal Cost Multipath

   FEC         Forwarding Equivalence Class

   IP ECMP     A forwarding behavior in which the selection of the
               next-hop between equal cost routes is based on the
               header(s) of an IP packet

   Label ECMP  A forwarding behavior in which the selection of the
               next-hop between equal cost routes is based on the
               label stack of an MPLS packet

   LSP         Label Switched Path

   LSR         Label Switching Router

2. Current ECMP Practices

   The MPLS label stack and Forwarding Equivalence Classes are defined
   in [RFC3031].  The MPLS label stack does not carry a Protocol Identi-
   fier.  Instead the payload of an MPLS packet is identified by the
   Forwarding Equivalence Class (FEC) of the bottom most label.  Thus it
   is not possible to know the payload type if one does not know the
   label binding for the bottom most label.  Since an LSR which is pro-
   cessing a label stack need only know the binding for the label(s) it
   must process, it is very often the case that LSRs along an LSP are
   unable to determine the payload type of the carried contents.

   As a means of potentially reducing delay and congestion, IP networks

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   have taken advantage of multiple paths through a network by splitting
   traffic flows across those paths.  The general name for this practice
   is Equal Cost Multipath or ECMP.  In general this is done by hashing
   on various fields on the IP or contained headers.  In practice,
   within a network core, the hashing is based mainly or exclusively on
   the IP source and destination addresses.  The reason for splitting
   aggregated flows in this manner is to minimize the re-ordering of
   packets belonging to individual flows contained within the aggregated
   flow.  Within this document we use the term IP ECMP for this type of
   forwarding algorithm.

   For packets that contain both a label stack and an encapsulated IPv4
   (or IPv6) packet, current implementations in some cases may hash on
   any combination of labels and IPv4 (or IPv6) source and destination

   In the early days of MPLS, the payload was almost exclusively IP.
   Even today the overwhelming majority of carried traffic remains IP.
   Providers of MPLS equipment sought to continue this IP ECMP behavior.
   As shown above, it is not possible to know whether the payload of an
   MPLS packet is IP at every place where IP ECMP needs to be performed.
   Thus vendors have taken the liberty of guessing what the payload is.
   By inspecting the first nibble beyond the label stack, existing
   equipment infers that a packet is not IPv4 or IPv6 if the value of
   the nibble (where the IP version number would be found) is not 0x4 or
   0x6 respectively.  Most deployed LSRs will treat a packet whose first
   nibble is equal to 0x4 as if the payload were IPv4 for purposes of IP

   A consequence of this is that any application which defines a FEC
   which does not take measures to prevent the values 0x4 and 0x6 from
   occurring in the first nibble of the payload may be subject to IP
   ECMP and thus having their flows take multiple paths and arriving
   with considerable jitter and possibly out of order.  While none of
   this is in violation of the basic service offering of IP, it is
   detrimental to the performance of various classes of applications.
   It also complicates the measurement, monitoring and tracing of those

   New MPLS payload types are emerging such as those specified by the
   IETF PWE3 and AVT working groups. These payloads are not IP and, if
   specified without constraint might be mistaken for IP.

   It must also be noted that LSRs which correctly identify a payload as
   not being IP, most often will load-share traffic across multiple
   equal-cost paths based on the label stack.  Any reserved label, no
   matter where it is located in the stack, may be included in the com-
   putation for load balancing.  Modification of the label stack between

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   packets of a single flow could result in re-ordering that flow.  That
   is, were an explicit null or a router-alert label to be added to a
   packet, that packet could take a different path through the network.

   Note that for some applications, being mistaken for IPv4 may not be
   detrimental.  The trivial case where the payload behind the top label
   is a packet belonging to an MPLS IPv4 VPN.  Here the real payload is
   IP and most (if not all) deployed equipment will locate the end of
   the label stack and correctly perform IP ECMP.

   A less obvious case is when the packets of a given flow happen to
   have constant values in the fields upon which IP ECMP would be per-
   formed.  For example if an ethernet frame immediately follows the
   label and the LSR does not do ECMP on IPv6, then either the first
   nibble will be 0x4 or it will be something else.  If the nibble is
   not 0x4 then no IP ECMP is performed, but Label ECMP may be per-
   formed.  If it is 0x4, then the constant values of the MAC addresses
   overlay the fields that would have been occupied by the source and
   destination addresses of an IP header.  As a result the ECMP algo-
   rithm would be feed a constant value and thus would always return the
   same result.

3. Recommendations for Avoiding ECMP Treatment

   We will use the term "Application Label" to refer to a label that has
   been allocated with a FEC Type that is defined (or simply used) by an
   application.  Such labels necessarily appear at the bottom of the
   label stack, that is, below labels associated with transporting the
   packet across an MPLS network.  The FEC Type of the Application label
   defines the payload that follows.  Anyone defining an application to
   be transported over MPLS is free to define new FEC Types and the for-
   mat of the payload which will be carried.

    0                   1                   2                   3
    0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1
   |                Label                  | Exp |0|       TTL     |
   .                                       .     . .               .
   .                                       .     . .               .
   |                Label                  | Exp |0|       TTL     |
   |          Application Label            | Exp |1|       TTL     |
   |1st Nbl|                                                       |

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   In order to avoid IP ECMP treatment it is necessary that an applica-
   tion take precautions to not be mistaken as IP by deployed equipment
   that snoops on the presumed location of the IP Version field.  Thus,
   at a minimum, the chosen format must disallow the values 0x4 and 0x6
   in the first nibble of their payload.

   It is strongly recommended, however, that applications restrict the
   first nibble values to 0x0 and 0x1.  This will ensure that that their
   traffic flows will not be affected if some future routing equipment
   does similar snooping on some future version of IP.

   For an example of how ECMP is avoided in Pseudowires, see [RFC4385].

4. Security Considerations

   This memo discusses the conditions under which MPLS traffic associ-
   ated with a single top-level LSP either does or does not have the
   possibility of being split between multiple paths, implying the pos-
   sibility of mis-ordering between packets belonging to the same top-
   level LSP. From a security point of view, the worse that could result
   from a security breach of the mechanisms described here would be mis-
   ordering of packets, and possible corresponding loss of throughput
   (for example, TCP connections may in some cases reduce the window
   size in response to mis-ordered packets). However, in order to create
   even this limited result, a hacker would need to either change the
   configuration or implementation of a router, or change the bits on
   the wire as transmitted in a packet.

   Other security issues in the deployment of MPLS are outside of the
   scope of this document, but are discussed in other MPLS specifica-
   tions such as RFCs 3031, 3036, 3107, 3209, 3478, 3479, 4206, 4220,
   4221, 4378, AND 4379.

5. References

5.1. Normative References

   [RFC3031]  Rosen, E. et al., "Multiprotocol Label Switching
              Architecture", RFC 3031, January 2001.

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5.2. Informative References

   [RFC3036]  Andersson, L., et. al., "LDP Specification", RFC 3036,
              January 2001.

   [RFC3107]  Rekhter, Y. and E. Rosen, "Carrying Label Information in
              BGP-4", RFC 3107, May 2001.

   [RFC3209]  Awduche, D., et. al., "RSVP-TE: Extensions to RSVP for
              LSP Tunnels", RFC 3209, December 2001.

   [RFC3478]  Leelanivas, M., et. al., "Graceful Restart Mechanism for
              Label Distribution Protocol", RFC 3478, February 2003.

   [RFC3479]  Farrel, A., "Fault Tolerance for the Label Distribution
              Protocol (LDP)", RFC 3479, February 2003.

   [RFC4206]  Kompella, K. and Y. Rekhter, "Label Switched Paths (LSP)
              Hierarchy with Generalized Multi-Protocol Label Switching
              (GMPLS) Traffic Engineering (TE)", RFC 4206, October 2005.

   [RFC4220]  Dubuc, M., et. al., "Traffic Engineering Link Management
              Information Base", RFC 4220, November 2005.

   [RFC4221]  Nadeau, T., et. al., "Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS)
              Management Overview", RFC 4221, November 2005.

   [RFC4378]  Allan, D. and T. Nadeau, "A Framework for Multi-Protocol
              Label Switching (MPLS) Operations and Management (OAM)",
              RFC 4378, February 2006.

   [RFC4379]  Kompella, K. and G. Swallow, "Detecting Multi-Protocol
              Label Switched (MPLS) Data Plane Failures", RFC 4379,
              February 2006.

   [RFC4385]  Bryant, S., et. al., "Pseudowire Emulation Edge-to-Edge
              (PWE3) Control Word for Use over an MPLS PSN", RFC 4385,
              February 2006.

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6. Authors' Addresses

      Loa Andersson


      Stewart Bryant
      Cisco Systems
      250, Longwater,
      Green Park,
      Reading, RG2 6GB, UK


      George Swallow
      Cisco Systems, Inc.
      1414 Massachusetts Ave
      Boxborough, MA 01719


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