TitleUsing the IPv6 Flow Label for Equal Cost Multipath Routing and Link Aggregation in Tunnels
AuthorB. Carpenter, S. Amante
DateNovember 2011
Format:TXT, HTML

Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)                      B. Carpenter
Request for Comments: 6438                             Univ. of Auckland
Category: Standards Track                                      S. Amante
ISSN: 2070-1721                                                  Level 3
                                                           November 2011

                     Using the IPv6 Flow Label for
      Equal Cost Multipath Routing and Link Aggregation in Tunnels


   The IPv6 flow label has certain restrictions on its use.  This
   document describes how those restrictions apply when using the flow
   label for load balancing by equal cost multipath routing and for link
   aggregation, particularly for IP-in-IPv6 tunneled traffic.

Status of This Memo

   This is an Internet Standards Track document.

   This document is a product of the Internet Engineering Task Force
   (IETF).  It represents the consensus of the IETF community.  It has
   received public review and has been approved for publication by the
   Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG).  Further information on
   Internet Standards is available in Section 2 of RFC 5741.

   Information about the current status of this document, any errata,
   and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at

Copyright Notice

   Copyright (c) 2011 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the
   document authors.  All rights reserved.

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   described in the Simplified BSD License.

RFC 6438             Flow Label for Tunnel ECMP/LAG        November 2011

Table of Contents

   1.  Introduction  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
     1.1.  Choice of IP Header Fields for Hash Input . . . . . . . . . 3
     1.2.  Flow Label Rules  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
   2.  Normative Notation  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
   3.  Guidelines  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
   4.  Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
   5.  Acknowledgements  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
   6.  References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
     6.1.  Normative References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
     6.2.  Informative References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

1.  Introduction

   When several network paths between the same two nodes are known by
   the routing system to be equally good (in terms of capacity and
   latency), it may be desirable to share traffic among them.  Two such
   techniques are known as equal cost multipath (ECMP) routing and link
   aggregation (LAG) [IEEE802.1AX].  There are, of course, numerous
   possible approaches to this, but certain goals need to be met:

   o  Maintain roughly equal share of traffic on each path.
      (In some cases, the multiple paths might not all have the same
      capacity, and the goal might be appropriately weighted traffic
      shares rather than equal shares.  This would affect the load-
      sharing algorithm but would not otherwise change the argument.)

   o  Minimize or avoid out-of-order delivery for individual traffic

   o  Minimize idle time on any path when queue is non-empty.

   There is some conflict between these goals: for example, strictly
   avoiding idle time could cause a small packet sent on an idle path to
   overtake a bigger packet from the same flow, causing out-of-order

   One lightweight approach to ECMP or LAG is this: if there are N
   equally good paths to choose from, then form a modulo(N) hash
   [RFC2991] from a defined set of fields in each packet header that are
   certain to have the same values throughout the duration of a flow,
   and use the resulting output hash value to select a particular path.
   If the hash function is chosen so that the output values have a
   uniform statistical distribution, this method will share traffic
   roughly equally between the N paths.  If the header fields included
   in the hash input are consistent, all packets from a given flow will
   generate the same hash output value, so out-of-order delivery will

RFC 6438             Flow Label for Tunnel ECMP/LAG        November 2011

   not occur.  Assuming a large number of unique flows are involved, it
   is also probable that the method will avoid idle time, since the
   queue for each link will remain non-empty.

1.1.  Choice of IP Header Fields for Hash Input

   In the remainder of this document, we will use the term "flow" to
   represent a sequence of packets that may be identified by either the
   source and destination IP addresses alone {2-tuple} or the source IP
   address, destination IP address, protocol number, source port number,
   and destination port number {5-tuple}.  It should be noted that the
   latter is more specifically referred to as a "microflow" in
   [RFC2474], but this term is not used in connection with the flow
   label in [RFC3697].

   The question, then, is which header fields are used to identify a
   flow and serve as input keys to a modulo(N) hash algorithm.  A common
   choice when routing general traffic is simply to use a hash of the
   source and destination IP addresses, i.e., the 2-tuple.  This is
   necessary and sufficient to avoid out-of-order delivery and, with a
   wide variety of sources and destinations as one finds in the core of
   the network, often statistically sufficient to distribute the load
   evenly.  In practice, many implementations use the 5-tuple {dest
   addr, source addr, protocol, dest port, source port} as input keys to
   the hash function, to maximize the probability of evenly sharing
   traffic over the equal cost paths.  However, including transport-
   layer information as input keys to a hash may be a problem for IP
   fragments [RFC2991] or for encrypted traffic.  Including the protocol
   and port numbers, totaling 40 bits, in the hash input makes the hash
   slightly more expensive to compute but does improve the hash
   distribution, due to the variable nature of ephemeral ports.
   Ephemeral port numbers are quite well distributed [Lee10] and will
   typically contribute 16 variable bits.  However, in the case of IPv6,
   transport-layer information is inconvenient to extract, due to the
   variable placement of and variable length of next-headers; all
   implementations must be capable of skipping over next-headers, even
   if they are rarely present in actual traffic.  In fact, [RFC2460]
   implies that next-headers, except hop-by-hop options, are not
   normally inspected by intermediate nodes in the network.  This
   situation may be challenging for some hardware implementations,
   raising the potential that network equipment vendors might sacrifice
   the length of the fields extracted from an IPv6 header.

   It is worth noting that the possible presence of a Generic Routing
   Encapsulation (GRE) header [RFC2784] and the possible presence of a
   GRE key within that header creates a similar challenge to the
   possible presence of IPv6 extension headers; anything that
   complicates header analysis is undesirable.

RFC 6438             Flow Label for Tunnel ECMP/LAG        November 2011

   The situation is different in IP-in-IP tunneled scenarios.
   Identifying a flow inside the tunnel is more complicated,
   particularly because nearly all hardware can only identify flows
   based on information contained in the outermost IP header.  Assume
   that traffic from many sources to many destinations is aggregated in
   a single IP-in-IP tunnel from tunnel endpoint (TEP) A to TEP B (see
   figure).  Then all the packets forming the tunnel have outer source
   address A and outer destination address B.  In all probability, they
   also have the same port and protocol numbers.  If there are multiple
   paths between routers R1 and R2, and ECMP or LAG is applied to choose
   a particular path, the 2-tuple or 5-tuple (and its hash) will be
   constant, and no load sharing will be achieved, i.e., polarization
   will occur.  If there is a high proportion of traffic from one or a
   small number of tunnels, traffic will not be distributed as intended
   across the paths between R1 and R2, due to partial polarization.
   (Related issues arise with MPLS [MPLS-LABEL].)

      _____           _____               _____           _____
     | TEP |_________| R1  |-------------| R2  |_________| TEP |
     |__A__|         |_____|-------------|_____|         |__B__|
             tunnel          ECMP or LAG         tunnel

   As noted above, for IPv6, the 5-tuple is quite inconvenient to
   extract due to the next-header placement.  The question therefore
   arises whether the 20-bit flow label in IPv6 packets would be
   suitable for use as input to an ECMP or LAG hash algorithm,
   especially in the case of tunnels where the inner packet header is
   inaccessible.  If the flow label could be used in place of the port
   numbers and protocol number in the 5-tuple, the implementation would
   be simplified.

1.2.  Flow Label Rules

   The flow label was left Experimental by [RFC2460] but was better
   defined by [RFC3697].  We quote three rules from that RFC:

   1.  "The Flow Label value set by the source MUST be delivered
       unchanged to the destination node(s)."

   2.  "IPv6 nodes MUST NOT assume any mathematical or other properties
       of the Flow Label values assigned by source nodes."

   3.  "Router performance SHOULD NOT be dependent on the distribution
       of the Flow Label values.  Especially, the Flow Label bits alone
       make poor material for a hash key."

RFC 6438             Flow Label for Tunnel ECMP/LAG        November 2011

   These rules, especially the last one, have caused designers to
   hesitate about using the flow label in support of ECMP or LAG.  The
   fact is that today most nodes set a zero value in the flow label, and
   the first rule definitely forbids the routing system from changing
   the flow label once a packet has left the source node.  Considering
   normal IPv6 traffic, the fact that the flow label is typically zero
   means that it would add no value to an ECMP or LAG hash, but neither
   would it do any harm to the distribution of the hash values.

   However, in the case of an IP-in-IPv6 tunnel, the TEP is itself the
   source node of the outer packets.  Therefore, a TEP may freely set a
   flow label in the outer IPv6 header of the packets it sends into the

   The second two rules quoted above need to be seen in the context of
   [RFC3697], which assumes that routers using the flow label in some
   way will be involved in some sort of method of establishing flow
   state: "To enable flow-specific treatment, flow state needs to be
   established on all or a subset of the IPv6 nodes on the path from the
   source to the destination(s)."  The RFC should perhaps have made
   clear that a router that has participated in flow state establishment
   can rely on properties of the resulting flow label values without
   further signaling.  If a router knows these properties, rule 2 is
   irrelevant, and it can choose to deviate from rule 3.

   In the tunneling situation sketched above, routers R1 and R2 can rely
   on the flow labels set by TEP A and TEP B being assigned by a known
   method.  This allows an ECMP or LAG method to be based on the flow
   label consistently with [RFC3697], regardless of whether the non-
   tunnel traffic carries non-zero flow label values.

   The IETF has recently revised RFC 3697 [RFC6437].  That revision is
   fully compatible with the present document and obviates the concerns
   resulting from the above three rules.  Therefore, the present
   specification applies both to RFC 3697 and to RFC 6437.

2.  Normative Notation

   The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT",
   document are to be interpreted as described in [RFC2119].

RFC 6438             Flow Label for Tunnel ECMP/LAG        November 2011

3.  Guidelines

   We assume that the routers supporting ECMP or LAG (R1 and R2 in the
   above figure) are unaware that they are handling tunneled traffic.
   If it is desired to include the IPv6 flow label in an ECMP or LAG
   hash in the tunneled scenario shown above, the following guidelines

   o  Inner packets MUST be encapsulated in an outer IPv6 packet whose
      source and destination addresses are those of the tunnel endpoints

   o  The flow label in the outer packet SHOULD be set by the sending
      TEP to a 20-bit value in accordance with [RFC6437].  The same flow
      label value MUST be used for all packets in a single user flow, as
      determined by the IP header fields of the inner packet.

   o  To achieve this, the sending TEP MUST classify all packets into
      flows once it has determined that they should enter a given tunnel
      and then write the relevant flow label into the outer IPv6 header.
      A user flow could be identified by the sending TEP most simply by
      its {destination, source} address 2-tuple or by its 5-tuple {dest
      addr, source addr, protocol, dest port, source port}.  At present,
      there would be little point in using the {dest addr, source addr,
      flow label} 3-tuple of the inner packet, but doing so would be a
      future-proof option.  The choice of n-tuple is an implementation
      choice in the sending TEP.

      *  As specified in [RFC6437], the flow label values should be
         chosen from a uniform distribution.  Such values will be
         suitable as input to a load-balancing hash function and will be
         hard for a malicious third party to predict.

      *  The sending TEP MAY perform stateless flow label assignment by
         using a suitable 20-bit hash of the inner IP header's 2-tuple
         or 5-tuple as the flow label value.

      *  If the inner packet is an IPv6 packet, its flow label value
         could also be included in this hash.

      *  This stateless method creates a small probability of two
         different user flows hashing to the same flow label.  Since
         [RFC6437] allows a source (the TEP in this case) to define any
         set of packets that it wishes as a single flow, occasionally
         labeling two user flows as a single flow through the tunnel is

RFC 6438             Flow Label for Tunnel ECMP/LAG        November 2011

   o  At intermediate routers that perform load distribution, the hash
      algorithm used to determine the outgoing component-link in an ECMP
      and/or LAG toward the next hop MUST minimally include the 3-tuple
      {dest addr, source addr, flow label} and MAY also include the
      remaining components of the 5-tuple.  This applies whether the
      traffic is tunneled traffic only or a mixture of normal traffic
      and tunneled traffic.

      *  Intermediate IPv6 router(s) will presumably encounter a mixture
         of tunneled traffic and normal IPv6 traffic.  Because of this,
         the design should also include {protocol, dest port, source
         port} as input keys to the ECMP and/or LAG hash algorithms, to
         provide additional entropy for flows whose flow label is set to
         zero, including non-tunneled traffic flows.

   o  Individual nodes in a network are free to implement different
      algorithms that conform to this specification without impacting
      the interoperability or function of the network.

   o  Operations, Administration, and Maintenance (OAM) techniques will
      need to be adapted to manage ECMP and LAG based on the flow label.
      The issues will be similar to those that arise for MPLS [RFC4379]
      and pseudowires [RFC6391].

4.  Security Considerations

   The flow label is not protected in any way and can be forged by an
   on-path attacker.  However, it is expected that tunnel endpoints and
   the ECMP or LAG paths will be part of a managed infrastructure that
   is well protected against on-path attacks (e.g., by using IPsec
   between the two tunnel endpoints).  Off-path attackers are unlikely
   to guess a valid flow label if an apparently pseudo-random and
   unpredictable value is used.  In either case, the worst an attacker
   could do against ECMP or LAG is attempt to selectively overload a
   particular path.  For further discussion, see [RFC6437].

5.  Acknowledgements

   This document was suggested by corridor discussions at IETF 76.  Joel
   Halpern made crucial comments on an early version.  We are grateful
   to Qinwen Hu for general discussion about the flow label.  Valuable
   comments and contributions were made by Miguel Garcia, Brian
   Haberman, Sheng Jiang, Thomas Narten, Jarno Rajahalme, Brian Weis,
   and others.

RFC 6438             Flow Label for Tunnel ECMP/LAG        November 2011

6.  References

6.1.  Normative References

   [RFC2119]      Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate
                  Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, March 1997.

   [RFC2460]      Deering, S. and R. Hinden, "Internet Protocol, Version
                  6 (IPv6) Specification", RFC 2460, December 1998.

   [RFC3697]      Rajahalme, J., Conta, A., Carpenter, B., and S.
                  Deering, "IPv6 Flow Label Specification", RFC 3697,
                  March 2004.

   [RFC6437]      Amante, S., Carpenter, B., Jiang, S., and J.
                  Rajahalme, "IPv6 Flow Label Specification", RFC 6437,
                  November 2011.

6.2.  Informative References

   [IEEE802.1AX]  Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers,
                  "Link Aggregation", IEEE Standard 802.1AX-2008, 2008.

   [Lee10]        Lee, D., Carpenter, B., and N. Brownlee, "Observations
                  of UDP to TCP Ratio and Port Numbers", Fifth
                  International Conference on Internet Monitoring and
                  Protection ICIMP 2010, May 2010.

   [MPLS-LABEL]   Kompella, K., Drake, J., Amante, S., Henderickx, W.,
                  and L. Yong, "The Use of Entropy Labels in MPLS
                  Forwarding", Work in Progress, May 2011.

   [RFC2474]      Nichols, K., Blake, S., Baker, F., and D. Black,
                  "Definition of the Differentiated Services Field (DS
                  Field) in the IPv4 and IPv6 Headers", RFC 2474,
                  December 1998.

   [RFC2784]      Farinacci, D., Li, T., Hanks, S., Meyer, D., and P.
                  Traina, "Generic Routing Encapsulation (GRE)",
                  RFC 2784, March 2000.

   [RFC2991]      Thaler, D. and C. Hopps, "Multipath Issues in Unicast
                  and Multicast Next-Hop Selection", RFC 2991,
                  November 2000.

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

RFC 6438             Flow Label for Tunnel ECMP/LAG        November 2011

   [RFC6391]      Bryant, S., Filsfils, C., Drafz, U., Kompella, V.,
                  Regan, J., and S. Amante, "Flow-Aware Transport of
                  Pseudowires over an MPLS Packet Switched Network",
                  RFC 6391, November 2011.

Authors' Addresses

   Brian Carpenter
   Department of Computer Science
   University of Auckland
   PB 92019
   Auckland  1142
   New Zealand

   EMail: brian.e.carpenter@gmail.com

   Shane Amante
   Level 3 Communications, LLC
   1025 Eldorado Blvd
   Broomfield, CO  80021

   EMail: shane@level3.net