BGP Multi-Exit-Discriminator

The following is an extract from a recently submitted update of mine to the Quagga documentation. Republished here under the licence of the Quagga documentation1:

The BGP MED (Multi_Exit_Discriminator) attribute has properties which can cause subtle convergence problems in BGP. These properties and problems have proven to be hard to understand, at least historically, and may still not be widely understood. The following attempts to collect together and present what is known about MED, to help operators and Quagga users in designing and configuring their networks.

The BGP MED attribute is intended to allow one AS to indicate its preferences for its ingress points to another AS. The MED attribute will not be propagated on to another AS by the receiving AS – it is ‘non-transitive’ in the BGP sense. E.g., if AS X and AS Y have 2 different BGP peering points, then AS X might set a MED of 100 on routes advertised at one and a MED of 200 at the other. When AS Y selects between otherwise equal routes to or via AS X, AS Y should prefer to take the path via the lower MED peering of 100 with AS X. Setting the MED allows an AS to influence the routing taken to it within another, neighbouring AS.

In this use of MED it is not really meaningful to compare the MED value on routes where the next AS on the paths differs. E.g., if AS Y also had a route for some destination via AS Z in addition to the routes from AS X, and AS Z had also set a MED, it wouldn’t make sense for AS Y to compare AS Z’s MED values to those of AS X. The MED values have been set by different administrators, with different frames of reference.

The default behaviour of BGP therefore is to not compare MED values across routes received from different neighbouring ASes. In Quagga this is done by comparing the neighbouring, left-most AS in the received AS_PATHs of the routes and only comparing MED if those are the same.

Unfortunately, this behaviour of MED, of sometimes being compared across routes and sometimes not, depending on the properties of those other routes, means MED can cause the order of preference over all the routes to be undefined. That is, given routes A, B, and C, if A is preferred to B, and B is preferred to C, then a well-defined order should mean the preference is transitive (in the sense of orders 2) and that A would be preferred to C.

However, when MED is involved this need not be the case. With MED it is possible that C is actually preferred over A. So A is preferred to B, B is preferred to C, but C is preferred to A. This can be true even where BGP defines a deterministic “most preferred” route out of the full set of A,B,C. With MED, for any given set of routes there may be a deterministically preferred route, but there need not be any way to arrange them into any order of preference. With unmodified MED, the order of preference of routes literally becomes undefined.

That MED can induce non-transitive preferences over routes can cause issues. Firstly, it may be perceived to cause routing table churn locally at speakers; secondly, and more seriously, it may cause routing instability in iBGP topologies, where sets of speakers continually oscillate between different paths.

The first issue arises from how speakers often implement routing decisions. Though BGP defines a selection process that will deterministically select the same route as best at any given speaker, even with MED, that process requires evaluating all routes together. For performance and ease of implementation reasons, many implementations evaluate route preferences in a pair-wise fashion instead. Given there is no well-defined order when MED is involved, the best route that will be chosen becomes subject to implementation details, such as the order the routes are stored in. That may be (locally) non-deterministic, e.g. it may be the order the routes were received in.

This indeterminism may be considered undesirable, though it need not cause problems. It may mean additional routing churn is perceived, as sometimes more updates may be produced than at other times in reaction to some event.

This first issue can be fixed with a more deterministic route selection that ensures routes are ordered by the neighbouring AS during selection, e.g. with the bgp deterministic-med command. This may reduce the number of updates as routes are received, and may in some cases reduce routing churn. Though, it could equally deterministically produce the largest possible set of updates in response to the most common sequence of received updates.

A deterministic order of evaluation tends to imply an additional overhead of sorting over any set of n routes to a destination. The implementation of deterministic MED in Quagga scales significantly worse than most sorting algorithms at present, with the number of paths to a given destination. That number is often low enough to not cause any issues, but where there are many paths, the deterministic comparison may quickly become increasingly expensive in terms of CPU.

Deterministic local evaluation can not fix the second, more major, issue of MED however. Which is that the non-transitive preference of routes MED can cause may lead to routing instability or oscillation across multiple speakers in iBGP topologies. This can occur with full-mesh iBGP, but is particularly problematic in non-full-mesh iBGP topologies that further reduce the routing information known to each speaker. This has primarily been documented with iBGP route-reflection topologies. However, any route-hiding technologies potentially could also exacerbate oscillation with MED.

This second issue occurs where speakers each have only a subset of routes, and there are cycles in the preferences between different combinations of routes – as the undefined order of preference of MED allows – and the routes are distributed in a way that causes the BGP speakers to ’chase’ those cycles. This can occur even if all speakers use a deterministic order of evaluation in route selection.

E.g., speaker 4 in AS A might receive a route from speaker 2 in AS X, and from speaker 3 in AS Y; while speaker 5 in AS A might receive that route from speaker 1 in AS Y. AS Y might set a MED of 200 at speaker 1, and 100 at speaker 3. I.e, using ASN:ID:MED to label the speakers:

 Y:3:100--|-/               |

Assuming all other metrics are equal (AS_PATH, ORIGIN, 0 IGP costs), then based on the RFC4271 decision process speaker 4 will choose X:2 over Y:3:100, based on the lower ID of 2. Speaker 4 advertises X:2 to speaker 5. Speaker 5 will continue to prefer Y:1:200 based on the ID, and advertise this to speaker 4. Speaker 4 will now have the full set of routes, and the Y:1:200 it receives from 5 will beat X:2, but when speaker 4 compares Y:1:200 to Y:3:100 the MED check now becomes active as the ASes match, and now Y:3:100 is preferred. Speaker 4 therefore now advertises Y:3:100 to 5, which will also agrees that Y:3:100 is preferred to Y:1:200, and so withdraws the latter route from 4. Speaker 4 now has only X:2 and Y:3:100, and X:2 beats Y:3:100, and so speaker 4 implicitly updates its route to speaker 5 to X:2. Speaker 5 sees that Y:1:200 beats X:2 based on the ID, and advertises Y:1:200 to speaker 4, and the cycle continues.

The root cause is the lack of a clear order of preference caused by how MED sometimes is and sometimes is not compared, leading to this cycle in the preferences between the routes:

       /---> X:2 ---beats---> Y:3:100 --\
      |                                  |
      |                                  |
       \---beats--- Y:1:200 <---beats---/

This particular type of oscillation in full-mesh iBGP topologies can be avoided by speakers preferring already selected, external routes rather than choosing to update to new a route based on a post-MED metric (e.g. router-ID), at the cost of a non-deterministic selection process. Quagga implements this, as do many other implementations, so long as it is not overridden by setting bgp bestpath compare-routerid.

However, more complex and insidious cycles of oscillation are possible with iBGP route-reflection, which are not so easily avoided. These have been documented in various places. See, e.g., McPherson, D. and Gill, V. and Walton, D., “Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) Persistent Route Oscillation Condition”, IETF RFC3345, and Flavel, A. and M. Roughan, “Stable and flexible iBGP”, ACM SIGCOMM 2009, and Griffin, T. and G. Wilfong, “On the correctness of IBGP configuration”, ACM SIGCOMM 2002 for concrete examples and further references.

There is as of this writing no known way to use MED for its original purpose; and reduce routing information in iBGP topologies; and be sure to avoid the instability problems of MED due the non-transitive routing preferences it can induce; in general on arbitrary networks.

There may be iBGP topology specific ways to reduce the instability risks, even while using MED, e.g. by constraining the reflection topoology and by tuning IGP costs between route-reflector clusters, see RFC3345 for details. In the near future, the Add-Path extension to BGP may also solve MED oscillation while still allowing MED to be used as intended, by distributing “best-paths per neighbour AS”. However this would be at the cost of distributing at least as many routes as a full-mesh iBGP would, if not more, while also imposing similar CPU overheads as the “Deterministic MED” feature at each Add-Path speaker.

More generally, the instability problems that MED can introduce on more complex, non-full-mesh, iBGP topologies may be avoided either by:

  • Setting bgp always-compare-med, however this allows MED to be compared across values set by different neighbour ASes, which may not produce coherent desirable results, of itself.
  • Effectively ignoring MED by setting MED to the same value (e.g. 0) using a route-map with set metric on all received routes, in combination with setting bgp always-compare-med on all speakers. This is the simplest and most performant way to avoid MED oscillation issues, where an AS is happy not to allow neighbours to inject this problematic metric.

As MED is evaluated after the AS_PATH length check, another possible use for MED is for intra-AS steering of routes with equal AS_PATH length, as an extension of the last case above. As MED is evaluated before IGP metric, this can allow cold-potato routing to be implemented, sending traffic to preferred hand-offs with neighbours, rather than the closest hand-off according to the IGP metric.

Note that even if action is taken to address the MED non-transitivity issues, other oscillations may still be possible. E.g., on IGP cost if iBGP and IGP topologies are at cross-purposes with each other – see the Flavel and Roughan paper above for an example. Hence the guideline that the iBGP topology should follow the IGP topology.

Copyright (C) 2015 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Development LP.

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this manual provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

Permission is granted to copy and distribute modified versions of this manual under the conditions for verbatim copying, provided that the entire resulting derived work is distributed under the terms of a permission notice identical to this one.

Permission is granted to copy and distribute translations of this manual into another language, under the above conditions for modified versions, except that this permission notice may be stated in a translation approved by Kunihiro Ishiguro.

For some set of objects to have an order, there must be some binary ordering relation that is defined for every combination of those objects, and that relation must be transitive. I.e., if the relation operator is , and if a ≺ b and b ≺ c then that relation must carry over and it must be that a ≺ c for the objects to have an order. The ordering relation may allow for equality, i.e. a ≺ b and b ≺ a may both be true amd imply that a and b are equal in the order and not distinguished by it, in which case the set has a partial order. Otherwise, if there is an order, all the objects have a distinct place in the order and the set has a total order.

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