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3.4: Virtual Circuits

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    Before we can get to our final LAN example, ATM, we need to detour briefly through virtual circuits.

    Virtual circuits are The Road Not Taken by IP.

    The Road Not Taken

    A close reading of Robert Frost’s poem referenced here reveals that the supposed great difference between the two roads exists only in the narrator’s retrospective imaginings; the roads were in fact “really about the same”. Perhaps this would also apply to datagram and virtual-circuit forwarding, though see below on per-connection billing.

    Virtual-circuit switching (or routing) is an alternative to datagram switching, which was introduced in Chapter 1. In datagram switching, routers know the next_hop to each destination, and packets are addressed by destination. In virtual-circuit switching, routers know about end-to-end connections, and packets are “addressed” by a connection ID.

    Before any data packets can be sent, a connection needs to be established first. For that connection, the route is computed and then each link along the path is assigned a connection ID, traditionally called the VCI, for Virtual Circuit Identifier. In most cases, VCIs are only locally unique; that is, the same connection may use a different VCI on each link. The lack of global uniqueness makes VCI allocation much simpler. Although the VCI keeps changing along a path, the VCI can still be thought of as identifying the connection. To send a packet, the host marks the packet with the VCI assigned to the host–router1 link.

    Packets arrive at (and depart from) switches via one of several ports, which we will assume are numbered beginning at 0. Switches maintain a connection table indexed by ⟨VCI,port⟩ pairs; unlike a forwarding table, the connection table has a record of every connection through that switch at that particular moment. As a packet arrives, its inbound VCIin and inbound portin are looked up in this table; this yields an outbound ⟨VCIout,portout⟩ pair. The VCI field of the packet is then rewritten to VCIout, and the packet is sent via portout.

    Note that typically there is no source address information included in the packet (although the sender can be identified from the connection, which can be identified from the VCI at any point along the connection). Packets are identified by connection, not destination. Any node along the path (including the endpoints) can in principle look up the connection and figure out the endpoints.

    Note also that each switch must rewrite the VCI. Datagram switches never rewrite addresses (though they do update hopcount/TTL fields). The advantage to this rewriting is that VCIs need be unique only for a given link, greatly simplifying the naming. Datagram switches also do not make use of a packet’s arrival interface.

    As an example, consider the network below. Switch ports are numbered 0,1,2,3. Two paths are drawn in, one from A to F in red and one from B to D in green; each link is labeled with its VCI number in the same color.


    We will construct virtual-circuit connections between

    • A and F (shown above in red)
    • A and E
    • A and C
    • B and D (shown above in green)
    • A and F again (a separate connection)

    The following VCIs have been chosen for these connections. The choices are made more or less randomly here, but in accordance with the requirement that they be unique to each link. Because links are generally taken to be bidirectional, a VCI used from S1 to S3 cannot be reused from S3 to S1 until the first connection closes.

    • A to F: A──4──S1──6──S2──4──S4──8──S5──5──F; this path goes from S1 to S4 via S2
    • A to E: A──5──S1──6──S3──3──S4──8──E; this path goes, for no particular reason, from S1 to S4 via S3, the opposite corner of the square
    • A to C: A──6──S1──7──S3──3──C
    • B to D: B──4──S3──8──S1──7──S2──8──D
    • A to F: A──7──S1──8──S2──5──S4──9──S5──2──F

    One may verify that on any one link no two different paths use the same VCI.

    We now construct the actual ⟨VCI,port⟩ tables for the switches S1-S4, from the above; the table for S5 is left as an exercise. Note that either the ⟨VCIin,portin⟩ or the ⟨VCIout,portout⟩ can be used as the key; we cannot have the same pair in both the in columns and the out columns. It may help to display the port numbers for each switch, as in the upper numbers in following diagram of the above red connection from A to F (lower numbers are the VCIs):


    Switch S1:

    VCIin portin VCIout portout connection
    4 0 6 2 A⟶F #1
    5 0 6 1 A⟶E
    6 0 7 1 A⟶C
    8 1 7 2 B⟶D
    7 0 8 2 A⟶F #2

    Switch S2:

    VCIin portin VCIout portout connection
    6 0 4 1 A⟶F #1
    7 0 8 2 B⟶D
    8 0 5 1 A⟶F #2

    Switch S3:

    VCIin portin VCIout portout connection
    6 3 3 2 A⟶E
    7 3 3 1 A⟶C
    4 0 8 3 B⟶D

    Switch S4:

    VCIin portin VCIout portout connection
    4 3 8 2 A⟶F #1
    3 0 8 1 A⟶E
    5 3 9 2 A⟶F #2

    The namespace for VCIs is small, and compact (eg contiguous). Typically the VCI and port bitfields can be concatenated to produce a ⟨VCI,Port⟩ composite value small enough that it is suitable for use as an array index. VCIs work best as local identifiers. IP addresses, on the other hand, need to be globally unique, and thus are often rather sparsely distributed.

    Virtual-circuit switching offers the following advantages:

    • connections can get quality-of-service guarantees, because the switches are aware of connections and can reserve capacity at the time the connection is made
    • headers are smaller, allowing faster throughput
    • headers are small enough to allow efficient support for the very small packet sizes that are optimal for voice connections. ATM packets, for instance, have 48 bytes of data; see below.

    Datagram forwarding, on the other hand, offers these advantages:

    • Routers have less state information to manage.
    • Router crashes and partial connection state loss are not a problem.
    • If a router or link is disabled, rerouting is easy and does not affect any connection state. (As mentioned in Chapter 1, this was Paul Baran’s primary concern in his 1962 paper introducing packet switching.)
    • Per-connection billing is very difficult.

    The last point above may once have been quite important; in the era when the ARPANET was being developed, typical daytime long-distance rates were on the order of $1/minute. It is unlikely that early TCP/IP protocol development would have been as fertile as it was had participants needed to justify per-minute billing costs for every project.

    It is certainly possible to do virtual-circuit switching with globally unique VCIs – say the concatenation of source and destination IP addresses and port numbers. The IP-based RSVP protocol (20.6 RSVP) does exactly this. However, the fast-lookup and small-header advantages of a compact namespace are then lost.

    Multi-Protocol Label Switching (20.12 Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS)) is another IP-based application of virtual circuits.

    Note that virtual-circuit switching does not suffer from the problem of idle channels still consuming resources, which is an issue with circuits using time-division multiplexing (eg shared T1 lines)

    3.4: Virtual Circuits is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Peter Lars Dordal.

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