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10.4: Provider-Based Routing

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  • In provider-based routing, large CIDR blocks are allocated to large-scale providers. The different providers each know how to route to one another. Subscribers (usually) obtain their IP addresses from within their providers’ blocks; thus, traffic from the outside is routed first to the provider, and then, within the provider’s routing domain, to the subscriber. We may even have a hierarchy of providers, so packets would be routed first to the large-scale provider, and eventually to the local provider. There may no longer be a central backbone; instead, multiple providers may each build parallel transcontinental networks.

    Here is a simpler example, in which providers have unique paths to one another. Suppose we have providers P0, P1 and P2, with customers as follows:

    • P0: customers A,B,C

    • P1: customers D,E

    • P2: customers F,G

    We will also assume that each provider has an IP address block as follows:

    • P0:

    • P1:

    • P2:

    Let us now allocate addresses to the customers:

    C: (16 = 0001 0000)

    The routing model is that packets are first routed to the appropriate provider, and then to the customer. While this model may not in general guarantee the shortest end-to-end path, it does in this case because each provider has a single point of interconnection to the others. Here is the network diagram:


    With this diagram, P0’s forwarding table looks something like this:










    That is, P0’s table consists of

    • one entry for each of P0’s own customers

    • one entry for each other provider

    If we had 1,000,000 customers divided equally among 100 providers, then each provider’s table would have only 10,099 entries: 10,000 for its own customers and 99 for the other providers. Without CIDR, each provider’s forwarding table would have 1,000,000 entries.

    CIDR enables hierarchical routing by allowing the routing decision to be made on different prefix lengths in different contexts. For example, when a packet is sent from D to A, P1 looks at the first 8 bits while P0 looks at the first 16 bits. Within customer A, routing might be made based on the first 24 bits.

    Even if we have some additional “secondary” links, that is, additional links that do not create alternative paths between providers, the routing remains relatively straightforward. Shown here are the private customer-to-customer links C–D and E–F; these are likely used only by the customers they connect. Two customers, A and E, are multihomed; that is, they have connections to alternative providers: A–P1 and E–P2. (The term “multihomed” is often applied to any host with multiple network interfaces on different LANs, which includes any router; here we mean more specifically that there are multiple network interfaces connecting to different providers.)

    Typically, though, while A and E may use their alternative-provider links all they want for outbound traffic, their respective inbound traffic would still go through their primary providers P0 and P1 respectively.


    10.4.1 Internet Exchange Points

    The long links joining providers in these diagrams are somewhat misleading; providers do not always like sharing long links and the attendant problems of sharing responsibility for failures. Instead, providers often connect to one another at Internet eXchange Points or IXPs; the link P0──────P1 might actually be P0───IXP───P1, where P0 owns the left-hand link and P1 the right-hand. IXPs can either be third-party sites open to all providers, or private exchange points. The term “Metropolitan Area Exchange”, or MAE, appears in the names of the IXPs MAE-East, originally near Washington DC, and MAE-West, originally in San Jose, California; each of these is now actually a set of IXPs. MAE in this context is now a trademark.

    10.4.2 CIDR and Staying Out of Jail

    Suppose we want to change providers. One way we can do this is to accept a new IP-address block from the new provider, and change all our IP addresses. The paper Renumbering: Threat or Menace [LKCT96] was frequently cited – at least in the early days of CIDR – as an intimation that such renumbering was inevitably a Bad Thing. In principle, therefore, we would like to allow at least the option of keeping our IP address allocation while changing providers.

    An address-allocation standard that did not allow changing of providers might even be a violation of the US Sherman Antitrust Act; see American Society of Mechanical Engineers v Hydrolevel Corporation, 456 US 556 (1982). The IETF thus had the added incentive of wanting to stay out of jail, when writing the CIDR standard so as to allow portability between providers (actually, antitrust violations usually involve civil penalties).

    The CIDR longest-match rule turns out to be exactly what we (and the IETF) need. Suppose, in the diagrams above, that customer C wants to move from P0 to P1, and does not want to renumber. What routing changes need to be made? One solution is for P0 to add a route ⟨, P1⟩ that routes all of C’s traffic to P1; P1 will then forward that traffic on to C. P1’s table will be as follows, and P1 will use the longest-match rule to distinguish traffic for its new customer C from traffic bound for P0.










    This does work, but all C’s inbound traffic except for that originating in P1 will now be routed through C’s ex-provider P0, which as an ex-provider may not be on the best of terms with C. Also, the routing is inefficient: C’s traffic from P2 is routed P2→P0→P1 instead of the more direct P2→P1.

    A better solution is for all providers other than P1 to add the route ⟨, P1⟩. While traffic to otherwise goes to P0, this particular sub-block is instead routed by each provider to P1. The important case here is P2, as a stand-in for all other providers and their routers: P2 routes traffic to P0 except for the block, which goes to P1.

    Having every other provider in the world need to add an entry for C has the potential to cost some money, and, one way or another, C will be the one to pay. But at least there is a choice: C can consent to renumbering (which is not difficult if they have been diligent in using DHCP and perhaps NAT too), or they can pay to keep their old address block.

    As for the second diagram above, with the various private links (shown as dashed lines), it is likely that the longest-match rule is not needed for these links to work. A’s “private” link to P1 might only mean that

    • A can send outbound traffic via P1

    • P1 forwards A’s traffic to A via the private link

    P2, in other words, is still free to route to A via P0. P1 may not advertise its route to A to anyone else.

    10.4.3 Hierarchical Routing via Providers

    With provider-based routing, the route taken may no longer be end-to-end optimal; we have replaced the problem of finding an optimal route from A to B with the two problems of finding an optimal route from A to B’s provider P, and then from P’s entry point to B. This strategy mirrors the two-stage hierarchical routing process of first routing on the address bits that identify the provider, and then routing on the address bits including the subscriber portion.

    This two-stage strategy may not yield the same result as finding the globally optimal route. The result will be the same if B’s customers can only be reached through P’s single entry-point router RP, which models the situation that P and its customers look like a single site. However, either or both of the following can disrupt this model:

    • There may be multiple entry-point routers into provider P’s network, eg RP1, RP2 and RP3, with different costs from A.

    • P’s customer B may have an alternative connection to the outside world via a different provider, as in the second diagram in 10.4   Provider-Based Routing.

    Consider the following example representing the first situation (the more important one in practice), in which providers P1 and P2 have three interconnection points IX1, IX2, IX3 (from Internet eXchange, 10.4.1   Internet Exchange Points). Links are labeled with costs; we assume that P1’s costs happen to be comparable with P2’s costs.


    The globally shortest path between A and B is via the R2–IX2–S2 crossover, with total length 5+1+0+4=10. However, traffic from A to B will be routed by P1 to its closest crossover to P2, namely the R3–IX3–S3 link. The total path is 3+0+1+8+4=16. Traffic from B to A will be routed by P2 via the R1–IX1–S1 crossover, for a length of 3+0+1+7+5=16. This routing strategy is sometimes called hot-potato routing; each provider tries to get rid of any traffic (the potatoes) as quickly as possible, by routing to the closest exit point.

    Not only are the paths taken inefficient, but the A⟶B and B⟶A paths are now asymmetric. This can be a problem if forward and reverse timings are critical, or if one of P1 or P2 has significantly more bandwidth or less congestion than the other. In practice, however, route asymmetry is seldom important.

    As for the route inefficiency itself, this also is not necessarily a significant problem; the primary reason routing-update algorithms focus on the shortest path is to guarantee that all computed paths are loop-free. As long as each half of a path is loop-free, and the halves do not intersect except at their common midpoint, these paths too will be loop-free.

    The BGP “MED” value (   MULTI_EXIT_DISC) offers an optional mechanism for P1 to agree that A⟶B traffic should take the r1–s1 crossover. This might be desired if P1’s network were “better” and customer A was willing to pay extra to keep its traffic within P1’s network as long as possible.

    10.4.4 IP Geolocation

    In principle, provider-based addressing may mean that consecutive IP addresses are scattered all over a continent. In practice, providers (even many mobile providers) do not do this; any given small address block – perhaps /24 – is used in a limited geographical area. Different blocks are used in different areas. A consequence of this is that it is possible in principle to determine, from a given IP address, the corresponding approximate geographical location; this is known as IP geolocation. Even satellite-Internet users can be geolocated, although sometimes only to within a couple hundred miles. Several companies have created detailed geolocation maps, identifying many locations roughly down to the zip code [], and typically available as an online service.

    IP geolocation was originally developed so that advertisers could serve up regionally appropriate advertisements. It is, however, now used for a variety of purposes including identification of the closest CDN edge server (1.12.2   Content-Distribution Networks), network security, compliance with national regulations, higher-level user tracking, and restricting the streaming of copyrighted content.