4.9 Summary

In this chapter we began our journey into the network core. We learned that the network layer requires the coordination of each and every host and router in the network. Because of this, network layer protocols are among the most challenging in the protocol stack.

We learned that one of the biggest challenges in the network layer is routing packets through a network of millions of hosts and routers. We saw that this scaling problem is solved by partitioning large networks into independent administrative domains, which are called autonomous systems (ASs) in the jargon of computer networking. Each AS independently routes its packets through the AS, just as each country independently routes its postal mail through the country. In the Internet, the two most popular protocols for intra-AS routing are currently RIP and OSPF. To route packets among ASs, an inter-AS routing protocol is needed. The dominant inter-AS protocol today is BGP4.

Performing routing on two levels -- one level for within each of the ASs and another level for among the ASs -- is referred to as hierarchical routing. We saw that the scaling problem of routing packets through millions of hosts and routers is largely solved by a hierarchical organization of the network. This is a general principle we should keep in mind when designing protocols, particularly for network-layer protocols: scaling problems can often be solved by hierarchical organizations. It is interesting to note that this principle has been applied throughout the ages to many of other disciplines besides computer networking, including corporate, government, religious and military organizations.

In this chapter we also learned about a second scaling issue: For large computer networks, a router may need to process millions of flows of packets between different source-destination pairs at the same time. To permit a router to process such a large number of flows, network designers have learned over the years that the router's tasks should be as simple as possible. Many measures can be taken to make the router's job easier, including using a datagram network layer rather than virtual-circuit network layer, using a streamlined and fixed-sized header (as in IPv6) , eliminating fragmentation (also done in IPv6) and providing the one and only best-effort service. Perhaps the most important trick here is to not keep track of individual flows, but instead base routing decisions solely on a hierachical-structured destination addresses in the packets. It is interesting to note that the postal service has been using this same trick for many years.

In this chapter we also looked at the underlying principles of routing algorithms. We learned that designers of routing algorithms abstract the computer network to a graph with nodes and links. With this abstraction, we can exploit the rich theory of shortest-path routing in graphs, which has been developed over the past 40 years in the operations research and algorithms communities. We saw that are two broad approaches, a centralized approach in which each node obtains a complete map of the network and applies independently a shortest-path routing algorithm; and a decentralized approach, in which individual nodes only have a partial picture of the entire network, yet the nodes work together to deliver packets along the shortest routes. Routing algorithms in computer networks had been an active research area for many years, and will undoubtedly remain so.

At the end of this chapter we examined two advanced subjects, reflecting current trends in computer networking and the Internet. The first subject is IPv6, which provides a streamlined network layer and resolves the IPv4 address space problem. The second subject is multicast routing, which can potentially save tremendous amounts of bandwidth, router and server resources in a computer networking. It will be interesting to see how the deployment of IPv6 and multicast routing protocols plays out over the next decade of computer networking.

Having competed our study of the network layer, our journey now takes us one further step down the protocol stack, namely, to the link layer. Like the network layer, the link layer is also part of the network core. But we will see in the next chapter that the link layer has the much more localized task of moving packets between nodes on the same link or LAN. Although this task may appear on the surface trivial compared to that of network layer's tasks, we will see that the link layer involves a lot of important and fascinating issues that can keep us busy for a long time.

Copyright 1996–2000. Keith W. Ross and James F. Kurose . All Rights Reserved.