The Network Core

The Network Core

Having examined the internet’s edge, let us now delve more deeply inside the network core – the mesh of packet switches and links that interconnects the internet’s end system.

Packet Switching

In a network application, end systems exchange messages with each other. Messages can contain anything the application designer wants. Messages may perform a control function (for example , the “Hi” messages in one of the previous examples) or can contain data such as an email message, a JPEG image, or an MP3 audio file. To send a message from a source end system to a destination end system, the source breaks long messages into smaller chunks of data known as packets. Between source and destination, each packet travels through communication links and packet switches (for which there are two predominant types, routers and link-layer switches). Packets are transmitted over each communication link at a rate equal to the full transmission rate of the link. So, if a source end system or a packet switch is sending a packet of L bits over a link with transmission rate R bits/sec, then the time to transmit the packet is L/R seconds.

Store-and-Forward Transmission

Most packet switches use store-and-forward transmission at the inputs to the links. Store-and-forward transmission means that the packet switch must receive the entire packet before it can begin to transmit the first bit of the packet onto the outbound link. To explore store-and-forward transmission in more detail, consider a simple network consisting of two end systems connected by a single router. A router will typically have many incident links, since its job is to switch an incoming packet onto an outgoing link; in this simple example, the router has the rather simple task of transferring a packet from one
(input) link to the only other attached link. In this example, the source has three packets, each consisting of L bits, to send to the destination. At the snapshot of time shown in figure 1.11, the source has transmitted some of packet 1, and the front of packet 1 has already arrived at the router. Because the router employs store-and-forwarding, at this instant of time, the router cannot transmit the bits it has received; instead it must first buffer (i.e.”store”) the packet’s bits. Only after the router has received all of the packet’s bits can it begin to transmit (i.e. “forward”) the packet onto the outbound link. To gain some insight into store-and-forward transmission, let’s now calculate the amount of time that elapses from when the source begins to send the packet until the destination has received the entire packet. (Here we will ignore the propagation dealy-the time it takes for the bits to travel across the wire at the near the speed of light ). The source beings to transmit at time 0; at time L/R seconds, the source has transmitted the entire packet, and the entire packet has been received and stored at the router (since there is no propagation delay). At time L/R seconds, since the router has just received the entire packet, it can begin to transmit the packet onto the outbound link towards the destination; at time 2L/R, the router has transmitted the entire packet, and the entire packet has been received by the destination. Thus, the total delay is 2L/R. If the switch instead forwarded bits as soon as they arrive (without first receiving the entire packet), then the total delay would be L/R since bits are not held up at the router. But routers need to receive, store and process the entire packet before forwarding.

Now let’s calculate the amount of time elapses from when the source begins to send the first packet until the destination has received all three packets. As before, at time L/R, the router begins to forward the first packet. But also at time L/R the source will begin to send the second packet, since it has just finished sending the entire first packet. Thus at, time 2L/R, the destination has received the first packet and the router has received the second packet. Similarly, at time 3L/R, the destination has received the first two packets and the router has received the third packet. Finally, at time 4l/R the destination has received all three packets!

Let’s now consider the general case of sending one packet from source to destination over a path consisting of N links each of rate R (thus, there are N-1 routers between source and destination). Applying the same logic as above, we see that the end-to-end delay is:

dend-end = (NxL)/R

You may now want to try to determine what the delay would be for P packets sent over a series of N links.

Queuing Delays and Packet Loss

Each packet switch has multiple links attached to it. For each attacked link, the packet switch has an output buffer (also called an output queue), which stores packets that the router is about to send into that link. The output buffers play a key role in packet switching. If an arriving packet needs to be transmitted onto a link but finds the link busy with the transmission of another packet, the arriving packet ,must wait in the output buffer. Thus, in addition to the store-and-forward delay, packets suffer output buffer queuing delays. These delays are variable and depend on the level of congestion in the network. Since, the amount of buffer space is finite, an arriving packet may find that the buffer is completely full with other packets waiting for transmission. In this case, packet loss will occur – either the arriving packet or one of the already-queued packets will be dropped.

Figure 1.12 illustrates a simple packet-switched network. As in figure 1.11, packets are represented by three-dimensional slabs. The width of a slab represents the number of bits in the packet. In this figure, all the packets have the same width and hence the same length. Suppose Host A and B are sending packets to Host E. Host A and B first send their packets along 10 Mbps Ethernet links to the first router. The router then directs these packets to the 1.5 Mbps link. If, during a short interval of time, the arrival rate of packets to the router (when converted to bits per second) exceeds 1.5 Mbps, congestion will occur at the router as packets queue in the link’s output buffer before being transmitted onto the link. For example, if Host A and Host B each send a burst of 5 packets back-to-back at the same time, then most of these packets will spend some time waiting in the queue. The situation is, in fact, entirely analogous to many common-day situation – for example, when we wait in line for a bank teller or wait in front of a tollbooth.

Forwarding Tables and Routing Protocols

Earlier we said that a router takes a packet arriving on one of its attached communication links and forwards that packet onto another one of its attached communication links. But how does the router determine which link it should forward the packet onto? Packet forwarding is actually done in different ways in different types of computer networks. Here, we briefly describe how it is done in the Internet.

In the internet, every end system has an address called an IP address. When a source end system wants to send a packet to a destination end system, the source includes the destination’s IP address in the packet’s header. As with postal addresses, this address has a hierarchical structure. When a packet arrives at a router in the network, the router examines a portion of the packet’s destination address and forwards the packet to an adjacent router. More specifically, each router has a forwarding table that maps destination addresses (or portions of the destination addresses) to the router’s outbound links. When a packet arrives at a router, the router examines the address and searches its forwarding table, using this destinations address, to find the appropriate outbound link. The router then directs the packet to this outbound link.

The end-to-end routing process is analogous to a car driver who does not use maps but instead prefers to ask for directions. For example, suppose Joe is driving from Philadelphia to 156 Lakeside Drive in Orlando, Florida. Joe first drives to his neighbourhood gas station and asks how to get to 156 Lakeside Drive in Orlando, Florida. The gas station attendant extracts the Florida portion of the address and tells Joe that he needs to get onto the interstate highway I-95South, which has an entrance just next to the gas station. He also tells joe that once he enters Florida, he should ask someone else there. Joes then takes I-95 South until her gets to Jacksonville, Florida, at which point he asks another gas station attendant for directions. The attendant extracts the Orlando portion of the address and tells Joe that he should continue on I-95 to Daytona Beach and then ask someone else. In Daytona Beach, another gas station attendant also extracts the Orlando portion of the address and tells Joe that he should take I-4 directly to Orlando. Joe takes I-4 and gets off at the Orlando exit. Joes goes to another gas station attendant, and this time the attendant extracts the Lakeside Drive portion of the address and tells Joe the road he must follow to get to Lakeside Drive. Once Joe reaches Lakeside Drive, he asks a kid on a bicycle how to get to his destination. The kid extracts the 156 portion of the address and points to the house. Joe finally reaches his ultimate destination. In the above analogy, the gas station attendants and kids on bicycles are analogous to routers.

We just learned that a router uses a packet’s destination address to index a forwarding table and determine the appropriate outbound link. But this statement begs yet another question: How do forwarding tables get set? Are they configured by hand in each and every router, or does the internet use a more automated procedure? This issue will be studies in depth in Module 4. But to whet your appetite here, we’ll note now that the internet has a number of special routing protocols that are used to automatically set the forwarding tables. A routing protocol may, for example , determine the shortest path from each router to each destination and use the shortest path results to configure the forwarding tables in the routers.

How would you actually like to see the end-to-end route that packets take in the internet? We now invite you to get your hands dirty interacting with the Traceroute program. Simply visit the site, choose a source in a particular country, and trace the route from that source to your computer.