Strictly speaking, CIDR is simply a mechanism for routing to IP address blocks of any prefix length; that is, for setting the network/host division point to an arbitrary place within the 32-bit IP address.
However, by making this network/host division point variable, CIDR introduced support for routing on different prefix lengths at different places in the backbone routing infrastructure. For example, top-level routers might route on /8 or /9 prefixes, while intermediate routers might route based on prefixes of length 14. This feature of routing on fewer bits at one point in the Internet and more bits at another point is exactly what is meant by hierarchical routing.
We earlier saw hierarchical routing in the context of subnets: traffic might first be routed to a class-B site 184.108.40.206/16, and then, within that site, to subnets such as 220.127.116.11/24, 18.104.22.168/24, etc. But with CIDR the hierarchy can be much more flexible: the top level of the hierarchy can be much larger than the “customer” level, lower levels need not be administratively controlled by the higher levels (as is the case with subnets), and more than two levels can be used.
CIDR is an address-block-allocation mechanism; it does not directly speak to the kinds of policy we might wish to implement with it. Here are four possible applications; the latter two involve hierarchical routing:
Application 1 (legacy): CIDR allows the allocation of multiple blocks of Class C, or fragments of a Class A, to a single customer, so as to require only a single forwarding-table entry for that customer
Application 2 (legacy): CIDR allows opportunistic aggregation of routes: a router that sees the four 200.7.x.0/24 routes above in its table may consolidate them into a single entry.
Application 3 (current): CIDR allows huge provider blocks, with suballocation by the provider. This is known as provider-based routing.
Application 4 (hypothetical): CIDR allows huge regional blocks, with suballocation within the region, somewhat like the original scheme for US phone numbers with area codes. This is known as geographical routing.
Each of these has the potential to achieve a considerable reduction in the size of the backbone forwarding tables, which is arguably the most important goal here. Each involves using CIDR to support the creation of arbitrary-sized address blocks and then routing to them as a single unit. For example, the Internet backbone might be much happier if all its routers simply had to maintain a single entry ⟨22.214.171.124/8, R1⟩, versus 256 entries ⟨200.x.0.0/16, R1⟩ for every value of x. (As we will see below, this is still useful even if a few of the x’s have a different next_hop.) Secondary CIDR goals include bringing some order to IP address allocation and (for the last two items in the list above) enabling a routing hierarchy that mirrors the actual flow of most traffic.
Hierarchical routing does introduce one new wrinkle: the routes chosen may no longer be globally optimal, at least if we also apply the routing-update algorithms hierarchically. Suppose, for example, at the top level forwarding is based on the first eight bits of the address, and all traffic to 126.96.36.199/8 is routed to router R1. At the second level, R1 then routes traffic (hierarchically) to 188.8.131.52/16 via R2. A packet sent to 184.108.40.206 by an independent router R3 might therefore pass through R1, even if there were a lower-cost path R3→R4→R2 that bypassed R1. The top-level forwarding entry ⟨220.127.116.11/8,R1⟩, in other words, may represent a simplification of the real situation. Prohibiting “back-door” routes like R3→R4→R2 is impractical (and would not be helpful either); customers are independent entities.
This non-optimal routing issue cannot happen if all routers agree upon one of the shortest-path mechanisms of 9 Routing-Update Algorithms; in that case R3 would learn of the lower-cost R3→R4→R2 path. But then the potential hierarchical benefits of decreasing the size of forwarding tables would be lost. More seriously, complete global agreement of all routers on one common update protocol is simply not practical; in fact, one of the goals of hierarchical routing is to provide a workable alternative. We will return to this below in 10.4.3 Hierarchical Routing via Providers.