Network Working Group G. Swallow
Request for Comments: 4928 S. Bryant
BCP: 128 Cisco Systems, Inc.
Category: Best Current Practice L. Andersson
Avoiding Equal Cost Multipath Treatment in MPLS Networks
Status of This Memo
This document specifies an Internet Best Current Practices for the
Internet Community, and requests discussion and suggestions for
improvements. Distribution of this memo is unlimited.
Copyright (C) The IETF Trust (2007).
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
transmission of different packets from the same flow over multiple
different equal cost paths. These recommendations rely on inspection
of the IP version number field in packets. Despite the heuristic
nature of the recommendations, they provide a relatively safe way to
operate MPLS networks, even if future allocations of IP version
numbers were made for some purpose.
Table of Contents
1. Introduction ....................................................2
1.1. Terminology ................................................2
2. Current ECMP Practices ..........................................2
3. Recommendations for Avoiding ECMP Treatment .....................4
4. Security Considerations .........................................5
5. IANA Considerations .............................................5
6. References ......................................................6
6.1. Normative References .......................................6
6.2. Informative References .....................................6
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
different equal cost paths, resulting in possible mis-ordering of
packets that 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.
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
Identifier. 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 processing 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
As a means of potentially reducing delay and congestion, IP networks
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
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 the payload. 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 that defines an FEC
that 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 that 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
computation for load balancing. Modification of the label stack
between 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
Note that for some applications, being mistaken for IPv4 may not be
detrimental. The trivial case being 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
performed. For example, if an Ethernet frame immediately follows the
label and the LSR does ECMP on IPv4, but 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 performed. 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. In this
case, the input to the ECMP algorithm would be a constant value and
thus the algorithm 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 an 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
format of the payload that 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| |
In order to avoid IP ECMP treatment, it is necessary that an
application 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 REQUIRED, however, that applications depend upon in-order
packet delivery restrict the first nibble values to 0x0 and 0x1.
This will ensure that their traffic flows will not be affected if
some future routing equipment does similar snooping on some future
version(s) of IP.
This behavior implies that if in the future an IP version is defined
with a version number of 0x0 or 0x1, then equipment complying with
this BCP would be unable to look past one or more MPLS headers, and
loadsplit traffic from a single LSP across multiple paths based on a
hash of specific fields in the IPv0 or IPv1 headers. That is, IP
traffic employing these version numbers would be safe from
disturbances caused by inappropriate loadsplitting, but would also
not be able to get the performance benefits.
For an example of how ECMP is avoided in Pseudowires, see [RFC4385].
4. Security Considerations
This memo discusses the conditions under which MPLS traffic
associated with a single top-level LSP either does or does not have
the possibility of being split between multiple paths, implying the
possibility 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, an attacker 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 the scope
of this document, but are discussed in other MPLS specifications,
such as [RFC3031], [RFC3036], [RFC3107], [RFC3209], [RFC3478],
[RFC3479], [RFC4206], [RFC4220], [RFC4221], [RFC4378], AND [RFC4379].
5. IANA Considerations
IANA has marked the value 0x1 in the IP protocol version number space
as "Reserved" and placed a reference to this document to both values
0x0 and 0x1.
Note that this document does not in any way change the policies
regarding the allocation of version numbers, including the possible
use of the reserved numbers for some future purpose.
6.1. Normative References
[RFC3031] Rosen, E., Viswanathan, A., and R. Callon, "Multiprotocol
Label Switching Architecture", RFC 3031, January 2001.
6.2. Informative References
[RFC3036] Andersson, L., Doolan, P., Feldman, N., Fredette, A., and
B. Thomas, "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., Berger, L., Gan, D., Li, T., Srinivasan, V.,
and G. Swallow, "RSVP-TE: Extensions to RSVP for LSP
Tunnels", RFC 3209, December 2001.
[RFC3478] Leelanivas, M., Rekhter, Y., and R. Aggarwal, "Graceful
Restart Mechanism for Label Distribution Protocol", RFC
3478, February 2003.
[RFC3479] Farrel, A., Ed., "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., Nadeau, T., and J. Lang, "Traffic Engineering
Link Management Information Base", RFC 4220, November
[RFC4221] Nadeau, T., Srinivasan, C., and A. Farrel, "Multiprotocol
Label Switching (MPLS) Management Overview", RFC 4221,
[RFC4378] Allan, D., Ed., and T. Nadeau, Ed., "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,
[RFC4385] Bryant, S., Swallow, G., Martini, L., and D. McPherson,
"Pseudowire Emulation Edge-to-Edge (PWE3) Control Word for
Use over an MPLS PSN", RFC 4385, February 2006.
SE-146 40 Kista
Reading, RG2 6GB, UK
Cisco Systems, Inc.
1414 Massachusetts Ave
Boxborough, MA 01719
Full Copyright Statement
Copyright (C) The IETF Trust (2007).
This document is subject to the rights, licenses and restrictions
contained in BCP 78, and except as set forth therein, the authors
retain all their rights.
This document and the information contained herein are provided on an
"AS IS" basis and THE CONTRIBUTOR, THE ORGANIZATION HE/SHE REPRESENTS
OR IS SPONSORED BY (IF ANY), THE INTERNET SOCIETY, THE IETF TRUST AND
THE INTERNET ENGINEERING TASK FORCE DISCLAIM ALL WARRANTIES, EXPRESS
OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO ANY WARRANTY THAT THE USE OF
THE INFORMATION HEREIN WILL NOT INFRINGE ANY RIGHTS OR ANY IMPLIED
WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.
The IETF takes no position regarding the validity or scope of any
Intellectual Property Rights or other rights that might be claimed to
pertain to the implementation or use of the technology described in
this document or the extent to which any license under such rights
might or might not be available; nor does it represent that it has
made any independent effort to identify any such rights. Information
on the procedures with respect to rights in RFC documents can be
found in BCP 78 and BCP 79.
Copies of IPR disclosures made to the IETF Secretariat and any
assurances of licenses to be made available, or the result of an
attempt made to obtain a general license or permission for the use of
such proprietary rights by implementers or users of this
specification can be obtained from the IETF on-line IPR repository at
The IETF invites any interested party to bring to its attention any
copyrights, patents or patent applications, or other proprietary
rights that may cover technology that may be required to implement
this standard. Please address the information to the IETF at
Funding for the RFC Editor function is currently provided by the