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To understand the key principles behind the operation of a network, let us analyze all the operations that need to be performed to allow host `A` in the above network to send one byte to host `B`. Thanks to the datalink layer used above the `A-R1` link, host `A` can easily send a byte to router `R1` inside a frame. However, upon reception of this frame, router `R1` needs to understand that this byte is destined to host `B` and not to itself. This is the objective of the network layer.
The network layer enables the transmission of information between hosts that are not directly connected through intermediate routers. This transmission is carried out by putting the information to be transmitted inside a data structure which is called a `packet`. As a frame that contains useful data and control information, a packet also contains both data supplied by the user and control information. An important issue in the network layer is the ability to identify a node (host or router) inside the network. This identification is performed by associating an address to each node. An :term:`address` is usually represented as a sequence of bits. Most networks use fixed-length addresses. At this stage, let us simply assume that each of the nodes in the above network has an address which corresponds to the binary representation of its name on the figure.
To send one byte of information to host `B`, host `A` needs to place this information inside a `packet`. In addition to the data being transmitted, the packet also contains either the addresses of the source and the destination nodes or information that indicates the path that needs to be followed to reach the destination.
There are two possible organizations for the network layer :
`virtual circuits`
The datagram organization
The first and most popular organization of the network layer is the datagram organization. This organization is inspired by the organization of the postal service. Each host is identified by a `network layer address`. To send information to a remote host, a host creates a packet that contains:
the network layer address of the destination host
its own network layer address
the information to be sent
To understand the datagram organization, let us consider the figure below. A network layer address, represented by a letter, has been assigned to each host and router. To send some information to host `J`, host `A` creates a packet containing its own address, the destination address and the information to be exchanged.
With the datagram organization, routers use `hop-by-hop forwarding`. This means that when a router receives a packet that is not destined to itself, it looks up the destination address of the packet in its `forwarding table`. A `forwarding table` is a data structure that maps each destination address (or set of destination addresses) to the outgoing interface over which a packet destined to this address must be forwarded to reach its final destination. The router consults its forwarding table to forward each packet that it handles.
The figure illustrates some possible forwarding tables in this network. By inspecting the forwarding tables of the different routers, one can find the path followed by packets sent from a source to a particular destination. In the example above, host `A` sends its packet to router `R1`. `R1` consults its forwarding table and forwards the packet towards `R2`. Based on its own table, `R2` decides to forward the packet to `R5` that can deliver it to its destination. Thus, the path from `A` to `J` is `A -> R1 -> R2 -> R5 -> J`.
The computation of the forwarding tables of all the routers inside a network is a key element for the correct operation of the network. This computation can be carried out by using either distributed or centralized algorithms. These algorithms provide different performance, may lead to different types of paths, but their composition must lead to valid paths.
In a network, a path can be defined as the list of all intermediate routers for a given source destination pair. For a given source/destination pair, the path can be derived by first consulting the forwarding table of the router attached to the source to determine the next router on the path towards the chosen destination. Then, the forwarding table of this router is queried for the same destination... The queries continue until the destination is reached. In a network that has valid forwarding tables, all the paths between all source/destination pairs contain a finite number of intermediate routers. However, if forwarding tables have not been correctly computed, two types of invalid paths can occur.
A path may lead to a `black hole`. In a network, a black hole is a router that receives packets for at least one given source/destination pair but does not have an entry inside its forwarding table for this destination. Since it does not know how to reach the destination, the router cannot forward the received packets and must discard them. Any centralized or distributed algorithm that computes forwarding tables must ensure that there are not black holes inside the network.
A second type of problem may exist in networks using the datagram organization. Consider a path that contains a cycle. For example, router `R1` sends all packets towards destination `D` via router `R2`. Router `R2` forwards these packets to router `R3` and finally router `R3`'s forwarding table uses router `R1` as its nexthop to reach destination `D`. In this case, if a packet destined to `D` is received by router `R1`, it will loop on the `R1 -> R2 -> R3 -> R1` cycle and will never reach its final destination. As in the black hole case, the destination is not reachable from all sources in the network. In practice the loop problem is more annoying than the black hole problem because when a packet is caught in a forwarding loop, it unnecessarily consumes bandwidth. In the black hole case, the problematic packet is quickly discarded. We will see later that network layer protocols include techniques to minimize the impact of such forwarding loops.
Any solution which is used to compute the forwarding tables of a network must ensure that all destinations are reachable from any source. This implies that it must guarantee the absence of black holes and forwarding loops.
The `forwarding tables` and the precise format of the packets that are exchanged inside the network are part of the `data plane` of the network. This `data plane` contains all the protocols and algorithms that are used by hosts and routers to create and process the packets that contain user data. On high-end routers, the data plane is often implemented in hardware for performance reasons.
Besides the `data plane`, a network is also characterized by its `control plane`. The control plane includes all the protocols and algorithms (often distributed) that compute the forwarding tables that are installed on all routers inside the network. While there is only one possible `data plane` for a given networking technology, different networks using the same technology may use different control planes.
The simplest `control plane` for a network is to manually compute the forwarding tables of all routers inside the network. This simple control plane is sufficient when the network is (very) small, usually up to a few routers.
In most networks, manual forwarding tables are not a solution for two reasons. First, most networks are too large to enable a manual computation of the forwarding tables. Second, with manually computed forwarding tables, it is very difficult to deal with link and router failures. Networks need to operate 24h a day, 365 days per year. Many events can affect the routers and links that compose a network. Link failures are regular events in deployed networks. Links can fail for various reasons, including electromagnetic interference, fiber cuts, hardware or software problems on the terminating routers,... Some links also need to be either added to or removed from the network because their utilization is too low or their cost is too high.
Similarly, routers also fail. There are two types of failures that affect routers. A router may stop forwarding packets due to hardware or software problems (e.g., due to a crash of its operating system). A router may also need to be halted from time to time (e.g., to upgrade its operating system or to install new interface cards). These planned and unplanned events affect the set of links and routers that can be used to forward packets in the network. Still, most network users expect that their network will continue to correctly forward packets despite all these events. With manually computed forwarding tables, it is usually impossible to pre-compute the forwarding tables while taking into account all possible failure scenarios.
An alternative to manually computed forwarding tables is to use a network management platform that tracks the network status and can push new forwarding tables on the routers when it detects any modification to the network topology. This solution gives some flexibility to the network managers in computing the paths inside their network. However, this solution only works if the network management platform is always capable of reaching all routers even when the network topology changes. This may require a dedicated network that allows the management platform to push information on the forwarding tables. Openflow is a modern example of such solutions [MAB2008]_. In a nutshell, Openflow is a protocol that enables a network controller to install specific entries in the forwarding tables of remote routers and much more.
Another interesting point that is worth being discussed is when the forwarding tables are computed. A widely used solution is to compute the entries of the forwarding tables for all destinations on all routers. This ensures that each router has a valid route towards each destination. These entries can be updated when an event occurs and the network topology changes. A drawback of this approach is that the forwarding tables can become large in large networks since each router must always maintain one entry for each destination inside its forwarding table.
Some networks use the arrival of packets as the trigger to compute the corresponding entries in the forwarding tables. Several technologies have been built upon this principle. When a packet arrives, the router consults its forwarding table to find a path towards the destination. If the destination is present in the forwarding table, the packet is forwarded. Otherwise, the router needs to find a way to forward the packet and update its forwarding table.
Computing forwarding tables
Networks deployed several techniques to update the forwarding tables upon the arrival of a packet. In this section, we briefly present the principles that underlie three of these techniques.
The first technique assumes that the underlying network topology is a tree. A tree is the simplest network to be considered when forwarding packets. The main advantage of using a tree is that there is only one path between any pair of nodes inside the network. Since a tree does not contain any cycle, it is impossible to have forwarding loops in a tree-shaped network.
In a tree-shaped network, it is relatively simple for each node to automatically compute its forwarding table by inspecting the packets that it receives. For this, each node uses the source and destination addresses present inside each packet. Thanks to the source address, a node can learn the location of the different sources inside the network. Each source has a unique address. When a node receives a packet over a given interface, it learns that the source (address) of this packet is reachable via this interface. The node maintains a data structure that maps each known source address to an incoming interface. This data structure is often called the `port-address table` since it indicates the interface (or port) to reach a given address.


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locale/pot/principles/network.pot, string 26