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Category: networking fundamentals

The Basics of Network Address Translation (NAT)

The last video in the 2-hour-long Network Addressing part of How Networks Really Work discusses Network Address Translation.

After watching it, you might want to spend some extra quality time (with a bit of soap opera vibe) enjoying the recent Dual ISP deployment operational issues and uncertainties thread on the v6ops mailing list with a “surprising” result: NPTv6 or NAT66 is the least horrible way to do it.

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VLAN Interfaces and Subinterfaces

Early bridges implemented a single bridging domain across all ports. Within a few years, we got multiple bridging domains within a single device (including bridging implementation in Cisco IOS). The capability to have multiple bridging domains stretched across several devices was still missing… until the modern-day Pandora opened the VLAN box and forever swamped us in the complexities of large-scale bridging.

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From Bits to Application Data

Long long time ago, Daniel Dib started an interesting Twitter discussion with this seemingly simple question:

How does a switch/router know from the bits it has received which layer each bit belongs to? Assume a switch received 01010101, how would it know which bits belong to the data link layer, which to the network layer and so on.

As is often the case, Peter Paluch provided an excellent answer in a Twitter thread, and allowed me to save it for posterity.

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How Routers Became Bridges

Network terminology was easy in the 1980s: bridges forwarded frames between Ethernet segments based on MAC addresses, and routers forwarded network layer packets between network segments. That nirvana couldn’t last long; eventually, a big-enough customer told Cisco: “I don’t want to buy another box if I already have your too-expensive router. I want your router to be a bridge.

Turning a router into a bridge is easier than going the other way round1: add MAC table and dynamic MAC learning, and spend an evening implementing STP.

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Router Interfaces and Switch Ports

When I started implementing the netlab VLAN module, I encountered (at least) three different ways of configuring physical interfaces and bridging domains even though the underlying packet forwarding operations (and sometimes even the forwarding hardware) are the same. That confusopoly is guaranteed to make your head spin for years, and the only way to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes is to go back to the fundamentals.

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When You Find Yourself on Mount Stupid

The early October 2021 Facebook outage generated a predictable phenomenon – couch epidemiologists became experts in little-known Bridging the Gap Protocol (BGP), including its Introvert and Extrovert variants. Unfortunately, I also witnessed several unexpected trips to Mount Stupid by people who should have known better.

To set the record straight: everyone’s been there, and the more vocal you tend to be on social media (including mailing lists), the more probable it is that you’ll take a wrong turn and end there. What matters is how gracefully you descend and what you’ve learned on the way back.

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Video: Combining Data-Link- and Network Layer Addresses

The previous videos in the How Networks Really Work webinar described some interesting details of data-link layer addresses and network layer addresses. Now for the final bit: how do we map an adjacent network address into a per-interface data link layer address?

If you answered ARP (or ND if you happen to be of IPv6 persuasion) you’re absolutely right… but is that the only way? Watch the Combining Data-Link- and Network Addresses video to find out.

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Flow-Based Packet Forwarding

In the Cache-Based Packet Forwarding blog post I described what happens when someone tries to bypass the complexities of IP routing table lookup with a forwarding cache.

Now imagine you want to implement full-featured fast packet forwarding including ingress- and egress ACL, NAT, QoS… but find the required hardware (TCAM) too expensive. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could send the first packet of every flow to a CPU to figure out what to do with it, and download the results into a high-speed flow cache where they could be used to switch the subsequent packets of the same flow. Welcome to flow-based packet forwarding.

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Video: Comparing TCP/IP and CLNP

If you were building networks in early 1990s you probably remember at least a half-dozen different network protocols. Only one of them survived (IPv6 came later), with another one (CLNP) providing an interesting view into a totally different parallel universe that evolved using a different set of fundamental principles.

After introducing the network-layer addressing, I compared the two and pointed out where one or the other was clearly better.

You might think that it makes no sense to talk about protocols that were rarely used in old days, and that are almost non-existent today, but as always those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, this time reinventing CLNP principles in IPv6-based layer-3-only data center fabrics.

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Cache-Based Packet Forwarding

In the previous blog post in this series I described how convoluted routing table lookups could become when you have to deal with numerous layers of indirection (BGP prefix ⇨ BGP next hop ⇨ IGP next hop ⇨ link bundle ⇨ outgoing interface). Modern high-end hardware can deal with the resulting complexity; decades ago we had to use router CPU to do multiple (potentially recursive) lookups in the IP routing table (there was no FIB at that time).

Network devices were always pushed to the bleeding edge of performance, and smart programmers always tried to optimize the CPU-intensive processes. One of the obvious packet forwarding optimizations relied on the fact that within a short timeframe most packets have to be forwarded to a small set of destinations. Welcome to the wonderful world of cache-based forwarding.

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Packet Forwarding 101: Header Lookups

Whenever someone asks me about LISP, I answer, “it’s a nice idea, but cache-based forwarding never worked well.” Oldtimers familiar with the spectacular failures of fast switching and various incarnations of flow switching usually need no further explanation. Unfortunately, that lore is quickly dying out, so let’s start with the fundamentals: how does packet forwarding work?

Packet forwarding used by bridges and routers (or Layer-2/3 switches if you believe in marketing terminology) is just a particular case of statistical multiplexing – a mechanism where many communication streams share the network resources by slicing the data into packets that are sent across the network. The packets are usually forwarded independently; every one of them must contain enough information to be propagated by each intermediate device it encounters on its way across the network.

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