A potential drawback to datagram forwarding is the possibility of a routing loop: a set of entries in the forwarding tables that cause some packets to circulate endlessly. For example, in the previous picture we would have a routing loop if, for (nonexistent) destination C, S1 forwarded to S2, S2 forwarded to S4, S4 forwarded to S3, and S3 forwarded to S1. A packet sent to C would not only not be delivered, but in circling endlessly it might easily consume a large majority of the bandwidth. Routing loops typically arise because the creation of the forwarding tables is often “distributed”, and there is no global authority to detect inconsistencies. Even when there is such an authority, temporary routing loops can be created due to notification delays.
Routing loops can also occur in networks where the underlying link topology is loop-free; for example, in the previous diagram we could, again for destination C, have S1 forward to S2 and S2 forward back to S1. We will refer to such a case as a linear routing loop.
All datagram-forwarding protocols need some way of detecting and avoiding routing loops. Ethernet, for example, avoids nonlinear routing loops by disallowing loops in the underlying network topology, and avoids linear routing loops by not having switches forward a packet back out the interface by which it arrived. IP provides for a one-byte “Time to Live” (TTL) field in the IP header; it is set by the sender and decremented by 1 at each router; a packet is discarded if its TTL reaches 0. This limits the number of times a wayward packet can be forwarded to the initial TTL value, typically 64.
In datagram routing, a switch is responsible only for the next hop to the ultimate destination; if a switch has a complete path in mind, there is no guarantee that the next_hop switch or any other downstream switch will continue to forward along that path. Misunderstandings can potentially lead to routing loops. Consider this network:
D might feel that the best path to B is D–E–C–B (perhaps because it believes the A–D link is to be avoided). If E similarly decides the best path to B is E–D–A–B, and if D and E both choose their next_hop for B based on these best paths, then a linear routing loop is formed: D routes to B via E and E routes to B via D. Although each of D and E have identified a usable path, that path is not in fact followed. Moral: successful datagram routing requires cooperation and a consistent view of the network.