Is BGP Good Enough?

In a recent podcast, Ivan and Dinesh ask why there is a lot of interest in running link state protocols on data center fabrics. They begin with this point: if you have less than a few hundred switches, it really doesn’t matter what routing protocol you run on your data center fabric. Beyond this, there do not seem to be any problems to be solved that BGP cannot solve, so… why bother with a link state protocol? After all, BGP is much simpler than any link state protocol, and we should always solve all our problems with the simplest protocol possible.


-this will take more than 5 minutes to read-

  • BGP is both simple and complex, depending on your perspective
  • BGP is sometimes too much, and sometimes too little for data center fabrics
  • We are danger of treating every problem as a nail, because we have decided BGP is the ultimate hammer

Will these these contentions stand up to a rigorous challenge?

I will begin with the last contention first—BGP is simpler than any link state protocol. Consider the core protocol semantics of BGP and a link state protocol. In a link state protocol, every network device must have a synchronized copy of the Link State Database (LSDB). This is more challenging than BGP’s requirement, which is very distance-vector like; in BGP you only care if any pair of speakers have enough information to form loop-free paths through the network. Topology information is (largely) stripped out, metrics are simple, and shared information is minimized. It certainly seems, on this score, like BGP is simpler.

Before declaring a winner, however, this simplification needs to be considered in light of the State/Optimization/Surface triad.

When you remove state, you are always also reducing optimization in some way. What do you lose when comparing BGP to a link state protocol? You lose your view of the entire topology—there is no LSDB. Perhaps you do not think an LSDB in a data center fabric is all that important; the topology is somewhat fixed, and you probably are not going to need traffic engineering if the network is wired with enough bandwidth to solve all problems. Building a network with tons of bandwidth, however, is not always economically feasible. The more likely reality is there is a balance between various forms of quality of service, including traffic engineering, and throwing bandwidth at the problem. Where that balance is will probably vary, but to always assume you can throw bandwidth at the problem is naive.

There is another cost to this simplification, as well. Complexity is inserted into a network to solve hard problems. The most common hard problem complexity is used to solve is guarding against environmental instability. Again, a data center fabric should be stable; the topology should never change, reachability should never change, etc. We all know this is simply not true, however, or we would be running static routes in all of our data center fabrics. So why aren’t we?

Because data center fabrics, like any other network, do change. And when they do change, you want them to converge somewhat quickly. Is this not what all those ECMP parallel paths are for? In some situations, yes. In others, those ECMP paths actually harm BGP convergence speed. A specific instance: move an IP address from one ToR on your fabric to another, or from one virtual machine to another. In this situation, those ECMP paths are not working for you, they are working against you—this is, in fact, one of the worst BGP convergence scenarios you can face. IS-IS, specifically, will converge much faster than BGP in the case of detaching a leaf node from the graph and reattaching it someplace else.

Complexity can be seen from another perspective, as well. When considering BGP in the data center, we are considering one small slice of the capabilities of the protocol.

in the center of the illustration above there is a small grey circle representing the core features of BGP. The sections of the ten sided figure around it represent the features sets that have been added to BGP over the years to support the many places it is used. When we look at BGP for one specific use case, we see the one “slice,” the core functionality, and what we are building on top. The reality of BGP, from a code base and complexity perspective, is the total sum of all the different features added across the years to support every conceivable use case.

Essentially, BGP has become not only a nail, but every kind of nail, including framing nails, brads, finish nails, roofing nails, and all the other kinds. It is worse than this, though. BGP has also become the universal glue, the universal screw, the universal hook-and-loop fastener, the universal building block, etc.

BGP is not just the hammer with which we turn every problem into a nail, it is a universal hammer/driver/glue gun that is also the universal nail/screw/glue.

When you run BGP on your data center fabric, you are not just running the part you want to run. You are running all of it. The L3VPN part. The eVPN part. The intra-AS parts. The inter-AS parts. All of it. The apparent complexity may appear to be low, because you are only looking at one small slice of the protocol. But the real complexity, under the covers, where attack and interaction surfaces live, is very complex. In fact, by any reasonable measure, BGP might have the simplest set of core functions, but it is the most complicated routing protocol in existence.

In other words, complexity is sometimes a matter of perspective. In this perspective, IS-IS is much simpler. Note—don’t confuse our understanding of a thing with its complexity. Many people consider link state protocols more complex simply because they don’t understand them as well as BGP.

Let me give you an example of the problems you run into when you think about the complexity of BGP—problems you do not hear about, but exist in the real world. BGP uses TCP for transport. So do many applications. When multiple TCP streams interact, complex problems can result, such as the global synchronization of TCP streams. Of course we can solve this with some cool QoS, including WRED. But why do you want your application and control plane traffic interacting in this way in the first place? Maybe it is simpler just to separate the two?

Is BGP really simpler? From one perspective, it is simpler. From another, however, it is more complex.

Is BGP “good enough?” For some applications, it is. For others, however, it might not be.

You should decide what to run on your network based on application and business drivers, rather than “because it is good enough.” Which leads me back to where I often end up: If you haven’t found the trade-offs, you haven’t look hard enough.