Can Routing Be Oversimplified?

I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see this Reddit thread yet, but it’s a funny one:

We eliminated routing protocols from our network!

Short non-clickbait summary: We deployed SD-WAN and turned off OSPF. We now have a /16 route for the internal network and a default route to the Internet where a lot of our workloads were moved into the cloud.

Bravo for this networking team for simplifying their network to this point. All other considerations aside, does this kind of future really bode well for SD-WAN?

Now You See Me

As pointed out in the thread above, the network team didn’t really get rid of their dynamic routing protocols. The SD-WAN boxes that they put in place are still running BGP or some other kind of setup under the hood. It’s just invisible to the user. That’s nothing new. Six years ago, Ivan Pepelnjak found out Juniper QFabric was running BGP behind the scenes too.

Hiding the networking infrastructure from the end user is nothing new. It’s a trick that has been used for years to allow infrastructures to be tuned and configured in such a way as to deliver maximum performance without letting anyone tinker with the secret sauce under the hood. You’ve been using it for years whether you realize it or not. Have MPLS? Core BGP routing is “hidden” from you. SD-WAN? Routing protocols are running between those boxes. Moved a bunch of workloads to AWS/Azure/GCE? You can better believe there is some routing protocol running under that stack.

Making things complex for the sake of making them hard to work on is foolish. We’ve spent decades and millions of dollars trying to make things easy. If you don’t believe me, look at the Apple iPhone. That device is a marvel at hiding all the complexity underneath. But, it also makes it really hard to troubleshoot when things go wrong.

Building On Shoulders

SD-WAN is doing great things for networking. I can remember years ago the thought of turning up a multi-site IPSec VPN configuration was enough to give me hives, let alone trying to actually do it. Today, companies like Viptela, VeloCloud, and Silver Peak make it easy to do. They’re innovating on top of the stack instead of inside it.

So much discussion in the community happens around building pieces of the stack. We spend time and effort making a better message protocol for routing information exchange. Or we build a piece of the HTTP stack that should be used in a bigger platform. We geek out about technical pieces because that’s where our energy feels the most useful.

When someone collects those stack pieces and tries to make them “easy”, we shout that company down and say that they’re hiding complexity and making the administrators and engineers “forget” how to do the real work. We spend more time focusing on what’s hidden and not enough on what’s being accomplished with the pieces. If you are the person that developed the fuel injection system in a car, are you going to sit there and tell Ford and Chevrolet than bundling it into a automotive platform is wrong?

So, while the end goal of any project like the one undertaken above is simplification or reducing problems because of less complex troubleshooting it is not a silver bullet. Hiding complexity doesn’t make it magically go away. Removing all your routing protocols in favor of a /16 doesn’t mean your routing networking runs any better. It means that your going to have to spend more time trying to figure out what went wrong when something does break.

Ask yourself this question: Would you rather spend more time building out the network and understand every nook and cranny of it or would you rather learn it on the fly when you’re trying to figure out why something isn’t working the way that it should? The odds are very good that you’re going to put the same amount of time into the network either way. Do you want to front load that time? Or back load it?

Tom’s Take

The Reddit thread is funny. Because half the people are dumping on the poster for his decision and the rest are trying to understand the benefits. It surely was created in such a way as to get views. And that worked admirably. But I also think there’s an important lesson to learn there. Simplicity for the sake of being simple isn’t enough. You have to replace that simplicity with due diligence. Because the alternative is a lot more time spent doing things you don’t want to do when you really don’t want to be doing them.


Programming Unbound

I’m doing some research on Facebook’s Open/R routing platform for a future blog post. I’m starting to understand the nuances a bit compared to OSPF or IS-IS, but during my reading I got stopped cold by one particular passage:

Many traditional routing protocols were designed in the past, with a strong focus on optimizing for hardware-limited embedded systems such as CPUs and RAM. In addition, protocols were designed as purpose-built solutions to solve the particular problem of routing for connectivity, rather than as a flexible software platform to build new applications in the network.

Uh oh. I’ve seen language like this before related to other software projects. And quite frankly, it worries me to death. Because it means that people aren’t learning their lessons.

New and Improved

Any time I see an article about how a project was rewritten from the ground up to “take advantage of new changes in protocols and resources”, it usually signals to me that some grad student decided to rewrite the whole thing in Java because they didn’t understand C. It sounds a bit cynical, but it’s not often wrong.

Want proof? Check out Linus Torvalds and his opinion about rewriting the Linux kernel in C++. Spoiler alert – “C++ is a horrible language.” And it gets more colorful from there. Linus has some very valid points about C++ that have been debated by lots of communities for the past ten years. But the fact remains that he has decided that completely rewriting the entire kernel in C++ is an exercise in futility.

In today’s world, we’re faced with a multitude of programming languages fighting for our attention. We’re evolved past FORTRAN, COBOL, C, and C++. We now live a world of Python, C#, J#, R, Ruby, and dozens more. And those don’t even include the languages that aren’t low-level and are more scripting. Every one of these languages was designed to solve a particular problem. And every one of them is begging to be used.

But it’s not enough that we have ten ways to write a function today. What’s more troublesome is that we’ve forgotten why certain languages were preferred over others in the past. We’ve forgotten that things used to be done the way they were done because we had no other alternatives. I can remember studying for my Novell CNE and taking 50-649, wherein Novell kept referring to OSPF as an “expensive” protocol to use on a NetWare server. At the time that test was created, OSPF was expensive from a CPU cycle standpoint. If the server was doing other things besides running a routing protocol you might see a potential impact if the CPU was slowed. And having OSPF calculations interrupted because someone was doing an FTP transfer could be expensive indeed.

No Wasted Space

More to the point, when people are faced with a limitation they have to be creative and concise. And nowhere is that more apparent than in E.T. the Extraterrestrial for the Atari 2600. Infamously, Howard Scott Warshaw had just one month to write a video game that would go on to be blasted critically, considered one of the worst of all time, and be blamed for the Video Game Crash of 1983. Yet, as one fan discovered years later when he set out to “fix” the game’s code, as bad is it may have been it was very well coded. From the article:

…it’s unlikely that Howard Scott Warshaw (the developer) included some useless code for us to replace…

So, a programmer for an outdated video game system had a month to code a complex game and managed to do it in such a way as to leave very little empty space to insert code patches? And yet my Facebook app on my iPhone requires how much space?!?

All joking aside, the issue with E.T. wasn’t code quality. The problems with the game have been documented over the years, but almost no one blames Warshaw’s coding capabilities. That’s because Warshaw was working within his limitations. He couldn’t magically make the Atari 2600 cartridge bigger. He couldn’t increase the CPU size on the system. He worked within him limitations and made the best game that he could make.

Now, let’s look at an article about Open/R and see some of Facebook’s criticisms of OSPF and IS-IS:

We didn’t want to get bogged down in discussions over the lower-level protocol details, such as frame formatting and handshakes…

While it might sound heavyweight compared with OSPF and ISIS, which use their own “lightweight” transports, we haven’t found this to be an issue in modern networking hardware…

Whether or not they were intended to be taken as such, these are some pretty interesting knocks against OSPF and IS-IS. What Facebook is essentially saying is that they didn’t want to worry about building the low level parts of the messaging system, so they picked something off the shelf. They also built it to be more resource intensive than necessary because they didn’t need to compromise when running it on Six Pack and Wedge.

So long as your routers have ample CPU cycles and memory, Open/R will run just fine. But how many people out there are running a data center server board in their edge router? How many routers out there have to take a reduced BGP table because they don’t have enough memory to fit the entire global IPv4 routing table in memory, let alone IPv6? If resources are infinite and time is irrelevant than building your protocols the way you want is of no consequence. But as soon as you add constraints to the equation, like support for older hardware or limited memory, you have to start making compromises to make things work.

Tom’s Take

I’m not saying that Open/R is a bad routing protocol. I’m going to save that analysis for a later time. But I do take a bit of umbrage with Facebook’s idea that OSPF and IS-IS are a bit outdated simply because they were programmed for a different era. If they were really that inept they would have been replaced or expanded by now. The fact that twenty-somethings got a bug to rewrite a routing protocol because they could and threw all caution to the wind with regard to resource usage should be a cautionary tale to any programmer out there. Never assume that you have more space than you need. Train yourself to do more with less. And be ready to compromise in case the worst case scenario becomes reality.

Cloud Apps And Pathways


Applications are king. Forget all the things you do to ensure proper routing in your data center. Forget the tweaks for OSPF sub-second failover or BGP optimal path selection. None of it matters to your users. If their login to Seibel or Salesforce or Netflix is slow today, you’ve failed. They are very vocal when it comes to telling you how much the network sucks today. How do we fix this?

Pathways Aren’t Perfect

The first problem is the cloud focus of applications. Once our packets leave our border routers it’s a giant game of chance as to how things are going to work next. The routing protocol games that govern the Internet are tried and true and straight out of RFC 1771(Yes, RFC 4271 supersedes it). BGP is a great tool with general purpose abilities. It’s becoming the choice for web scale applications like LinkedIn and Facebook. But it’s problematic for Internet routing. It scales well but doesn’t have the ability to make rapid decisions.

The stability of BGP is also the reason why it doesn’t react well to changes. In the old days, links could go up and down quickly. BGP was designed to avoid issues with link flaps. But today’s links are less likely to flap and more likely to need traffic moved around because of congestion or other factors. The pace that applications need to move traffic flows means that they tend to fight BGP instead of being relieved that it’s not slinging their traffic across different links.

BGP can be a good suggestion of path variables. That’s how Facebook uses it for global routing. But decisions need to be made on top of BGP much faster. That’s why cloud providers don’t rely on it beyond basic connectivity. Things like load balancers and other devices make up for this as best they can, but they are also points of failure in the network and have scalability limitations. So what can we do? How can we build something that can figure out how to make applications run better without the need to replace the entire routing infrastructure of the Internet?

GPS For Routing

One of the things that has some potential for fixing inefficiency with BGP and other basic routing protocols was highlighted during Networking Field Day 12 during the presentation from Teridion. They have a method for creating more efficiency between endpoints thanks to their agents. Founder Elad Rave explains more here:

I like the idea of getting “traffic conditions” from endpoints to avoid congestion. For users of cloud applications, those conditions are largely unknown. Even multipath routing confuses tried-and-true troubleshooting like traceroute. What needs to happen is a way to collect the data for congestion and other inputs and make faster decisions that aren’t beholden to the underlying routing structure.

Overlay networking has tried to do this for a while now. Build something that can take more than basic input and make decisions on that data. But overlays have issues with scaling, especially past the boundary of the enterprise network. Teridion has potential to help influence routing decisions in networks outside your control. Sadly, even the fastest enterprise network in the world is only as fast as an overloaded link between two level 3 interconnects on the way to a cloud application.

Teridion has the right idea here. Alternate pathways need to be identified and utilized. But that data needs to be evaluated and updated regularly. Much like the issues with Waze dumping traffic into residential neighborhoods when major arteries get congested, traffic monitors could cause overloads on alternate links if shifts happen unexpectedly.

The other reason why I like Teridion is because they are doing things without hardware boxes or the need to install software anywhere but the end host. Anyone working with cloud-based applications knows that the provider is very unlikely to provide anything outside of their standard offerings for you. And even if they manage, there is going to be a huge price tag. More often than not, that feature request will become a selling point for a new service in time that may be of marginal benefit until everyone starts using it. Then application performance goes down again. Since Teridion is optimizing communications between hosts it’s a win for everyone.

Tom’s Take

I think Teridion is on to something here. Crowdsourcing is the best way to gather information about traffic. Giving packets a better destination with shorter travel times means better application performance. Better performance means happier users. Happier users means more time spent solving other problems that have symptoms that aren’t “It’s slow” or “Your network sucks”. And that makes everyone happier. Even grumpy old network engineers.


Teridion was a presenter during Networking Field Day 12 in San Francisco, CA. As a participant in Networking Field Day 12, my travel and lodging expenses were covered by Tech Field Day for the duration of the event. Teridion did not ask for nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this post. My conclusions here represent my thoughts and opinions about them and are mine and mine alone.


BGP: The Application Networking Dream


There was an interesting article last week from Fastly talking about using BGP to scale their network. This was but the latest in a long line of discussions around using BGP as a transport protocol between areas of the data center, even down to the Top-of-Rack (ToR) switch level. LinkedIn made a huge splash with it a few months ago with their Project Altair solution. Now it seems company after company is racing to implement BGP as the solution to their transport woes. And all because developers have finally pulled their heads out of the sand.

BGP Under Every Rock And Tree

BGP is a very scalable protocol. It’s used the world over to exchange routes and keep the Internet running smoothly. But it has other power as well. It can be extended to operate in other ways beyond the original specification. Unlike rigid protocols like RIP or OSPF, BGP was designed in part to be extended and expanded as needs changes. IS-IS is a very similar protocol in that respect. It can be upgraded and adjusted to work with both old and new systems at the same time. Both can be extended without the need to change protocol versions midstream or introduce segmented systems that would run like ships in the night.

This isn’t the first time that someone has talked about running BGP to the ToR switch either. Facebook mentioned in this video almost three years ago. Back then they were solving some interesting issues in their own data center. Now, those changes from the hyperscale world are filtering into the real world. Networking teams are seeking to solve scaling issues without resorting to overlay networks or other types of workarounds. The desire to fix everything wrong with layer 2 has led to a revelation of sorts. The real reason why BGP is able to work so well as a replacement for layer 2 isn’t because we’ve solved some mystical networking conundrum. It’s because we finally figured out how to build applications that don’t break because of the network.

Apps As Far As The Eye Can See

The whole reason when layer 2 networks are the primary unit of data center measurement has absolutely nothing to do with VMware. VMware vMotion behaves the way that it does because legacy applications hate having their addresses changed during communications. Most networking professionals know that MAC addresses have a tenuous association to IP addresses, which is what allows the gratuitous ARP after a vMotion to work so well. But when you try to move an application across a layer 3 boundary, it never ends well.

When web scale companies started building their application stacks, they quickly realized that being pinned to a particular IP address was a recipe for disaster. Even typical DNS-based load balancing only seeks to distribute requests to a series of IP addresses behind some kind of application delivery controller. With legacy apps, you can’t load balance once a particular host has resolved a DNS name to an IP address. Once the gateway of the data center resolves that IP address to a MAC address, you’re pinned to that device until something upsets the balance.

Web scale apps like those built by Netflix or Facebook don’t operate by these rules. They have been built to be resilient from inception. Web scale apps don’t wait for next hop resolution protocols (NHRP) or kludgy load balancing mechanisms to fix their problems. They are built to do that themselves. When problems occur, the applications look around and find a way to reroute traffic. No crazy ARP tricks. No sly DNS. Just software taking care of itself.

The implications for network protocols are legion. If a web scale application can survive a layer 3 communications issue then we are no longer required to keep the entire data center as a layer 2 construct. If things like anycast can be used to pin geolocations closer to content that means we don’t need to worry about large failover domains. Just like Ivan Pepelnjak (@IOSHints) says in this post, you can build layer 3 failure domains that just work better.

BGP can work as your ToR strategy for route learning and path selection because you aren’t limited to forcing applications to communicate at layer 2. And other protocols that were created to fix limitations in layer 2, like TRILL or VXLAN, become an afterthought. Now, applications can talk to each other and fail back and forth as they need to without the need to worry about layer 2 doing anything other than what it was designed to do: link endpoints to devices designed to get traffic off the local network and into the wider world.

Tom’s Take

One of the things that SDN has promised us is a better way to network. I believe that the promise of making things better and easier is a noble goal. But the part that has bothered me since the beginning was that we’re still trying to solve everyone’s problems with the network. We don’t rearrange the power grid every time someone builds a better electrical device. We don’t replumb the house overtime we install a new sink. We find a way to make the new thing work with our old system.

That’s why the promise of using BGP as a ToR protocol is so exciting. It has very little to do with networking as we know it. Instead of trying to work miracles in the underlay, we build the best network we know how to build. And we let the developers and programmers do the rest.