Holy depeering, Batman!

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NANOG is all abuzz with the news that Level(3) has depeered Cogent. What the heck does this mean and why do you care?

A Network of Networks
Most people's experience of getting Internet access is simple: you call up your ISP and order a line. You pay them some chunk of money per month and they carry traffic to and from your house. Now, any real ISP has a big network, so they have lots of customers just like you. The figure below shows the simplest such network, where every one of the ISPs customers is connected to the same central router (this is called a star configuration). When customer C1 wants to talk to customer C2, they send traffic to the ISP router which forwards it to C2. Return traffic follows the same path in reverse.

This is of course a very simple network. A big ISP will have more than one router in multiple locations. These routers are somehow interconnected in a way we don't really care about here. For the purposes of this discussion we can just think of the ISP's network as one big opaque blob that knows how to route traffic from any customer to any other customer.

What I've just described works great when all you want to do is talk to other people on the same ISP but as you may have noticed, there's more than one ISP in the world. If a customer on ISP A wants to talk to a customer on ISP B, they must be connected somehow. The simplest such topology looks like this:

Clearly, you can extend this to three ISPs or more. If we ignore the interior structure of the ISPs networks, it looks something like this:

In the figure above, each ISP is connected to the other two ISPs. Now, think about what happens when a customer of A wants to send a message to a customer on B. A has two links, one to B and one to C. In order for this to work properly, it has to know to send it down link 1 rather than link 2. Routing protocols (BGP in this case) are used to let the router(s) at B know which hosts (or networks) are on which ISP and hence which link to send packets down. The details of how this works are complicated, but roughly speaking each ISP advertises the network addresses that it knows how to reach. (For technical reasons, these are known as prefixes.1) This lets each other ISP build up a table of routes for the traffic to follow.

Peering and Transit
What I've just described works great if every ISP is connected to every other (the technical term for this is a full mesh), but there are zillions of ISPs so that's not very convenient. What actually happens is that there are a relatively small number of big ISPs and that little ISPs, rather than being connected to each other, connect to some big ISP, who carries some or all of their traffic to the rest of the network. So, if we imagine adding two such small ISP to the network we drew before, we get something like this:

In this network, ISP D has connected to ISP A. Any traffic to any other part of the Internet not operated by D or by A must go through A. The technical term for this is that ISP D is buying transit from ISP A. E's situation is similar except that they're buying transit from C.

At this point, it's worth noting that ISP D's position with respect to ISP A is very much the same as your position with respect to your ISP. In both cases, you're paying someone else to carry your traffic to the rest of the Internet. In fact, it's very common for end user customers to connect not their host to their ISP but rather an entire network consisting of a number of computers, sometimes distributed over a variety of locations. You wouldn't be wrong to think of an end-user like this as a degenerate sort of ISP--one that doesn't have any customers but their own users.

Now, it's easy to get your Internet service this way, but there are disadvantages. The first disadvantage is that you're paying someone else to give you service. And much like the situation with your own ISP, the more bandwidth that ISP D consumes on the link to ISP A, the more ISP A charges him. The second disadvantage is that you're totally dependent on one ISP. If something goes wrong on that ISP, then you're totally cut off from the rest of the Internet. Finally, imagine that you're served by ISP D and you want to communicate to someone who's served by ISP E. Traffic needs to go from D to A to C to E. As the supply lines get longer, it introduces latency and brittleness.2 A partial solution to the second and third problems is to establish a connection to a second ISP. This gives you both redundancy and a shorter path to that ISP's customer. The technical term for this is multi-homing (if you only have one connection, you're single-homed).

Consider the case of ISP D and ISP E. They both have equivalently good connections to the Internet, through a big ISP (A and C respectively) that's connected to all the other big ISPs. However, as noted before, traffic between them goes through a fairly inefficient route (D,A,C,E). They can improve this situation by connecting up directly, through link 6, as shown below.

So, you'll remember that I said that D pays A for transit and E pays C. So, you might ask does D pay E or the other way around? The answer is, it depends. If D is much bigger than E, E may pay D (because getting to its customers is more valuable to E) and if E is much bigger than D, it may go the other way around. However, if they're roughly equivalent sizes, they may choose to just connect and exchange traffic for free (well, technically without paying a fee. There are still all the equipment costs associated with getting lines attached to the same location, etc. This can sometimes be more expensive than buying transit through an existing connection!). This is called peering. Most of the big ISPs do some peering and the very biggest ones (called Tier 1s) never pay anyone for transit. They either peer or sell transit. Generally, it's considered a point of prestige for carriers to peer rather than buy transit--nobody wants to feel like they're not one of the big boys.

In order to understand the situation with Cogent and Layer(3), you need to understand one more thing. When you peer with someone else, you often don't carry their traffic to other parts of the Internet. I.e., traffic from D to C goes D,A,C, not D,E,C. The way that this works technically is that A advertises D's prefixes D but E does not. D, of course, advertises its prefixes to both A and E, but E filters those prefixes when it advertises its own routes to C. This means that the link between D and E may provides redundancy only for D-E communication. If D's link to A goes down, he won't be able to talk to anyone but E.

Level(3) and Cogent
With this background, we're now equipped to understand what's going on between Level(3) and Cogent. Level(3) is a Tier 1 provider; they don't pay for transit. Cogent is an almost-Tier 1; generally they peer but occasionally they pay for transit but only to a few select networks. Until very recently, Level(3) and Cogent peered, but Level(3) was obviously unhappy with that relationship and wanted Cogent to pay them for transit. Cogent didn't want to, probably partly for financial reasons and partly for prestige reasons. When negotiation didn't work out, Level(3) terminated the peering relationship. Cogent responded by offering free transit for a year to Level(3) customers, which is an obvious attempt to take business away from Level(3). Level(3) has temporarily reconnected Cogent until November 9th.

Because Cogent isn't paying for transit to Level(3) (and Level(3) certainly isn't paying for transit to Cogent), packets can't pass between the two networks. This only affects you if you (or your ISP) is single-homed to either Level(3) or Cogent (which is a lot of people). If you are, you won't be able to talk to anyone else who is single-homed with the other ISP. If you aren't, then you won't have a problem.

Basically, what's going on here is a game of chicken. It's valuable to both Level(3) and Cogent to have their customers be able to talk to the other. They're both suffering when they're not connected, but they both figure that the other will give in first. Level(3) can give up by turning back on the connection with Cogent. Cogent can give up by agreeing to pay Level(3) for transit or someone else for transit to Level(3). In the past, Cogent has pursued this stragegy at least twice, once successfully (Teleglobe) and once unsuccessfully (OpenTransit). It will be interesting to see what the result is this time.

Acknowledgement:
This post relies heavily on the discussion of this event on NANOG (in particular this post by Richard A. Steenbergen), and on discussions with Dave Meyer. All errors are, as usual, my own.

1 The way that Internet routing works is that a route advertisement is for a contiguous block of IP addresses, For instance, the route 192.168/16 means "any IP address whose first two (most significant) bytes are 192.168". Because the addresses are written most significant to least significant, this means that any address in the block (e.g. 192.168.1.1) must have the block's prefix.

2 The key parameter here is the number of ISPs (actually Autonomous Systems (ASs) that the traffic has to pass through. BGP uses the AS_PATH parameter to carry this information.

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3 Comments

Dumb question: if a bulldozer hit the line between D and E, wouldn't BGP eventually find the D-A-C-E path connecting single-homed customers of D and single-homed customers of E? And if so, why is it any different if instead E gets grumpy and decides not to peer with D? Why would it be that "if you (or your ISP) is single-homed to either [D or E]....you won't be able to talk to anyone else who is single-homed with the other ISP"? Wouldn't the only result be somewhat longer, less redundant routes, rather than any connectivity interruption?

Not a dumb question. The reason that you would failover in that case is because D is paying A for transit. If D were peering with A, then it wouldn't failover. In the case of Cogent/L3, I believe that Cogent is paying for partial transit (i.e., that excludes the L3 routes), so when their direct route to L3 was cut off, the two networks were partitioned.

I've been with Realtime Communications in Austin since '94. I don't think of them as being a particularly large organization, but last time I checked, they bought transit off of three different tier-1s. This was in the nineties, and got started when their home (Sprint, I think) went down for a day. I have little simpathy for any but the smallest ISPs who aren't smart enough to multihome.

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