Decoupling Routing and Forwarding

IP routing is a hop-by-hop forwarding paradigm. When an IP packet arrives at a router, the router looks at the destination address in the IP header, does a route lookup, and forwards the packet to the next hop. If no route exists, the packet is then dropped. This process is repeated at each hop until the packet reaches its destination. In an MPLS network, nodes also forward the packet hop by hop, but this forwarding is based on a fixed-length label. Chapter 2, "MPLS Forwarding Basics," covers the details of what a label is and how it is prepended to a packet. It is this capability to decouple the forwarding of packets from IP headers that enables MPLS applications such as traffic engineering.

The concept of being able to break from Layer 3-based (IP destination-based) forwarding is certainly not new. You can decouple forwarding and addressing in an IP network using concepts such as policy-based routing (PBR). Cisco IOS Software has had PBR support since Cisco IOS Software Release 11.0 (circa 1995). Some of the problems with using PBR to build end-to-end network services are as follows:

• The complexity in configuration management.

• PBR does not offer dynamic rerouting. If the forwarding path changes for whatever reason, you have to manually reconfigure the nodes along the new path to reflect the policy.

• The possibility of routing loops.

The limitations of PBR apply when PBR is used in an IP network to influence hop-by-hop routing behavior. PBR is easier to use in an MPLS TE-based network because PBR is used only at the tunnel headend. Using PBR in combination with MPLS does not overcome all PBR's limitations; see Chapter 5, "Forwarding Traffic Down Tunnels," for more information.

The advent of MPLS forwarding and MPLS TE enables successful decoupling of the forwarding process from the routing process by basing packet forwarding on labels rather than on an IP address.

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