Network Working Group H. Song, Ed.
Internet-Draft Z. Li
Intended status: Standards Track T. Zhou
Expires: February 9, 2019 Huawei
L. Andersson
Bronze Dragon Consulting
August 8, 2018

MPLS Extension Header


Motivated by the need to support multiple in-network services and functions in an MPLS network, this document describes a method to encapsulate extension headers into MPLS packets. The encapsulation method allows stacking multiple extension headers and quickly accessing any of them as well as the original upper layer protocol header and payload. We show how the extension header can be used to support several new network applications.

Requirements Language

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "NOT RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in BCP 14 [RFC2119][RFC8174] when, and only when, they appear in all capitals, as shown here.

Status of This Memo

This Internet-Draft is submitted in full conformance with the provisions of BCP 78 and BCP 79.

Internet-Drafts are working documents of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Note that other groups may also distribute working documents as Internet-Drafts. The list of current Internet-Drafts is at

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This Internet-Draft will expire on February 9, 2019.

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Table of Contents

1. Motivation

Some applications require adding instructions and/or metadata to user packets within a network. Such examples include In-situ OAM (IOAM) and Service Function Chaining (SFC). New applications are emerging. It is possible that the instructions and/or metadata for multiple applications are stacked together in one packet to support a compound service.

However, the encapsulation of the new header(s) poses some challenges to the ubiquitous MPLS networks. The MPLS protocol header contains no explicit indicator for the upper layer protocols by design. The compact MPLS header, while beneficial to forwarding, allows little room for any extra information. Moreover, the backward compatibility issue discourages any attempts trying to overload the semantics of the existing MPLS header fields. While it is possible to designate "service labels" with special semantics by an operator, the non-standard approach burdens the control plane and impairs the interoperability.

The similar "header extension" requirement for MPLS has led to several proposals. A special Generic Associated Channel Label (GAL) is assigned to support the identification of an Associated Channel Header (ACH). Later, it was proposed to use GAL to indicate the presence of a Metadata Channel Header (MCH) as well.

GAL has several limitations:

In addition to the above limitations, it is not desirable to keep overloading GAL with new semantics. Instead of trying to patch on existing schemes, we propose a new mechanism to solve the above mentioned issues and create new innovation opportunities, similar to the way that IPv6 supports extension headers, which offer a huge innovation potential (e.g, network security, SRv6, network programming, SFC, etc.). Thanks to the existing of extension headers, it is straightforward to introduce new in-network services into IPv6 networks. For example, it has been proposed to carry IOAM header and NSH as new extension headers in IPv6 networks.

Nevertheless, IPv6 is not perfect either. It has two main issues. First, IPv6's header is large compared to MPLS, claiming extra bandwidth overhead and complicating the packet processing. We prefer to retain the header compactness in MPLS networks. Second, IPv6's extension headers are chained with the original upper layer protocol headers in a flat stack. One must scan all the extension headers to access the upper layer protocol headers and the payload. This is inconvenient and raises some performance concerns for some applications (e.g., DPI and ECMP). The new scheme for MPLS header extension needs to address these issues too.

2. MPLS Extension Header

From the previous discussion, we have laid out the design requirements to support extension headers in MPLS networks:

If possible, unnecessary label stack scanning for a label and extension header stack scanning for the upper layer protocol should be avoided.
New applications can be easily supported by introducing new extension headers. Multiple extension headers can be easily stacked together to support multiple services simultaneously.
Backward Compatibility:
Legacy devices which do not recognize the extension header option should still be able to forward the packets as usual. If a device recognize some of the extension headers but not the others in an extension header stack, it can process the known headers only while ignoring the others.

Extension headers can be be supported in several ways in an MPLS network, we have outlined some of them in this document. However, it should be noted that we do not intend to close this discussion yet, and are prepared to listen to arguments why and how any other methods could be used. One interesting line of thought is whether it would be possible to let a label that is received on top of the stack indicate whether there are extension headers beneath the stack.

Our investigations indicate that a special purpose label and/or an extended special purpose label will be the optimal way to go. A new special purpose label, namely the Extension Header Label (EHL), can be used to indicate EHs. So far 8 special purpose label values are left unsigned by IANA (which are 4 to 6 and 8 to 12). Alternatively, a two label scheme with the use of the extension label (XL) plus an EHL is possible, but it does use one more label. It is also possible to use FEC labels to indicate the presence of extension headers. Although this approach avoid the need of a new special purpose label, it introduces a good deal of complexity into the control plane. In the remaining of the document, we assume a special EHL is assigned and use it as an example to illustrate the scheme. A formal recommendation on the Extension Header (EH) indicator approach will be given in a future revision of this document.

The format of the MPLS packets with extension headers is shown in Figure 1. An EHL can be located in anywhere in an MPLS label stack. However, if there are legacy devices which do not recognize the EHL in the network, then for backward compatibility, the EHL must be located at the bottom of the stack (i.e., only the MPLS tunnel ends and EHL-aware nodes will look up and process it). Otherwise, the EHL can be located close to the top of the stack for better lookup performance.

The format of an EHL is the same as an MPLS label. The first 20-bit label value will be assigned by IANA. The BoS bit is used to indicate the location of the label. The other fields, CoS and TTL, are unused in the context of EHL.

   0                                  31 
   |                                   |
   ~     MPLS Label Stack              ~
   |                                   |
   |     EHL                           |
   |                                   |
   ~     MPLS Label Stack              ~
   |                                   | 
   | Header of Extension Headers (HEH) |
   |                                   |
   ~     Extension Header (EH) 1       ~
   |                                   |
   ~                                   ~
   |                                   |
   ~     Extension Header (EH) N       ~ 
   |                                   |
   |                                   |
   ~    Upper Layer Protocols/Payload   ~
   |                                   |

Figure 1: MPLS with Extension Header

Following the MPLS label stack is the 4-octet Header of Extension Headers (HEH), which indicates the total number of extension headers in this packet, the overall length of the extension headers, and the type of the next header. The format of the HEH is shown in Figure 2.

    0          1          2          3		 
    0123 45678901 234567890123 45678901		 
   | R  | EHCNT  |   EHTLEN   |   NH   |

Figure 2: HEH Format

The meaning of the fields in an HEH is as follows:

4-bit reserved.
8-bit unsigned integer for the Extension Header Counter. This field keeps the total number of extension headers included in this packet. It does not count the original upper layer protocol headers.
12-bit unsigned integer for the Extension Header Total Length in 4-octet units. This field keeps the total length of the extension headers in this packet, not including the HEH itself.
8-bit selector for the Next Header. This field identifies the type of the header immediately following the HEH.

The EHCNT field can be used to keep track of the number of extension headers when some headers are inserted or removed at some network nodes. The EHLEN field can help to skip all the extension headers in one step if the original upper layer protocol headers or payload need to be accessed.

The format of an Extension Header (EH) is shown in Figure 3.

    0          1          2          3		 
    01234567 89012345 6789012345678901		 
   |  NH    |  HLEN  |                |
   +--------+--------+                +  
   |                                  |
   ~        Header Specific Data      ~
   |                                  |

Figure 3: EH Format

The meaning of the fields in an EH is as follows:

8-bit selector for the Next Header. This field identifies the type of the EH immediately following this EH.
8-bit unsigned integer for the Extension Header Length in 4-octet units, not including the first 4 octets.
Header Specific Data:
Variable length field for the specification of the EH. This field is 4-octet aligned.

The extension headers as well as the first original upper layer protocol header are chained together through the NH field in HEH and EHs. The encoding of NH uses the same values as the IPv4 protocol field. Values for new EH types shall be assigned by IANA.

Specifically, the NH field of the last EH in a chain can have two special values, which shall be assigned by IANA:

NONE (No Next Header):
Indicates that there is no other header and payload after this header. This can be used to transport packets with only extension header(s).
UNKNOWN (Unknown Next Header):
Indicates that the type of the header after this header is unknown. This is intended to be compatible with the original MPLS design in which the upper layer protocol type is unknown from the MPLS header alone.

3. Operation on MPLS Extension Headers

When the first EH X needs to be added to an MPLS packet, an EHL is inserted into the proper location in the MPLS label stack. A HEH is then inserted after the MPLS label stack, in which EHCNT is set to 1, EHTLEN is set to the length of X in 4-octet units, and NH is set to the header value of X. At last, X is inserted after the HEH, in which NH and HELN are set accordingly. Note that if this operation happens at a PE device, the upper layer protocol is known before the MPLS encapsulation, so its value can be saved in the NH field if desired. Otherwise, the NH field is filled with the value of "UNKNOWN".

When an EH Y needs to be added to an MPLS packet which already contains extension header(s), the EHCNT and EHTLEN in the HEH are updated accordingly (i.e., EHCNT is incremented by 1 and EHTLEN is incremented by the size of Y in 4-octet units). Then a proper location for Y in the EH chain is located. Y is inserted at this location. The NH field of Y is copied from the previous EH's NH field (or from the HEH's NH field, if Y is the first EH in the chain). The previous EH's NH value, or, if Y is the first EH in the chain, the HEH's NH, is set to the header value of Y.

Deleting an EH simply reverses the above operation. If the deleted EH is the last one, the EHL and HEH can also be deleted.

When processing an MPLS packet with extension headers, the node needs to scan through the entire EH chain and process the EH one by one. The node should ignore any unrecognized EH.

4. Use Cases

In this section, we show how MPLS extension header can be used to support several new network applications.

In-situ OAM:
In-situ OAM (IOAM) records flow OAM information within user packets while the packets traverse a network. The instruction and collected data are kept in an IOAM header [I-D.ietf-ippm-ioam-data]. When applying IOAM in an MPLS network, the IOAM header can be encapsulated as an MPLS extension header.
Network Service Header (NSH) provides a service plane for Service Function Chaining (SFC). NSH maintains the SFC context and metadata. If MPLS is used as the transport protocol for NSH, NSH can be encapsulated as an MPLS extension header.
Network Telemetry and Measurement:
A network telemetry and instruction header can be carried as an extension header to instruct a node what type of network measurements should be done. For example, the method described in [RFC8321] can be implemented in MPLS networks since the EH provides a natural way to color MPLS packets.
Network Security:
Security related functions often require user packets to carry some metadata. In a DoS limiting network architecture, a "packet passport" header is used to embed packet authentication information for each node to verify.
Segment Routing:
MPLS extension header can support the implementation of a new flavor of the MPLS-based segment routing, with better performance and richer functionalities. The details will be described in another draft.

With MPLS extension headers, multiple in-network applications can be stacked together. For example, IOAM and SFC can be applied at the same time to support network OAM and service function chaining. A node can stop scanning the extension header stack if all the known headers it can process have been located. For example, if IOAM is the first EH in a stack and a node is configured to process IOAM only, it will stop searching the EH stack when the IOAM EH is found.

5. Summary

Evidenced by the existing and emerging use cases, MPLS networks need a standard way to support extension headers. In Figure 4, we summarize the potential schemes that allow MPLS packets to carry extension headers and list the main issues for each scheme.

   |No.|    Description            |       Issues                    |
   | 1 | GAL + MCH with multi-     |- Label location limitation lead | 
   |   | header extension          |  to performance concern         |
   |   |                           |- Interfere with load balancing  |
   |   |                           |  and DPI functions              |
   |   |                           |- Overload GAL semantics         | 
   |   |                           |- Need standard extension        |
   | 2 | GAL + another nibble value|- Same as above                  |
   |   | to encode the EHs (e.g.,  |                                 |
   |   | "0010")                   |                                 |
   | 3 | FEC label to indicate EH  |- Complex control plane          |
   |   |                           |- Interoperability               |
   | 4 | XL(15) + EHL              |- One extra label                |
   |   |                           |- Need standard extension        |
   | 5 | Special purpose EHL       |- Need standard extension        |

Figure 4: Potential Schemes for MPLS Extension Headers

Through comprehensive considerations on the pros and cons of each scheme, we currently recommend the scheme No.5. The proposed MPLS extension header scheme provides a generic way to support in-network services and functions in MPLS networks.

6. Security Considerations


7. IANA Considerations

If the EHL approach is adopted to indicate the presence of MPLS extension header(s), this document requests IANA to assign a new Special-Purpose MPLS Label Value from the Special-Purpose Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) Label Values Registry of "Extension Header Label (EHL)".

This document also requests IANA to assign two new Internet Protocol Numbers from the "Protocol Numbers" Registry to indicate "No Next Header" or "Unknown Next Header".

This document does not create any new registries.

8. Contributors

The other contributors of this document are listed as follows.

9. Acknowledgments


10. References

10.1. Normative References

[RFC2119] Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, March 1997.
[RFC5586] Bocci, M., Vigoureux, M. and S. Bryant, "MPLS Generic Associated Channel", RFC 5586, DOI 10.17487/RFC5586, June 2009.
[RFC7665] Halpern, J. and C. Pignataro, "Service Function Chaining (SFC) Architecture", RFC 7665, DOI 10.17487/RFC7665, October 2015.
[RFC8174] Leiba, B., "Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC 2119 Key Words", BCP 14, RFC 8174, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174, May 2017.
[RFC8300] Quinn, P., Elzur, U. and C. Pignataro, "Network Service Header (NSH)", RFC 8300, DOI 10.17487/RFC8300, January 2018.
[RFC8321] Fioccola, G., Capello, A., Cociglio, M., Castaldelli, L., Chen, M., Zheng, L., Mirsky, G. and T. Mizrahi, "Alternate-Marking Method for Passive and Hybrid Performance Monitoring", RFC 8321, DOI 10.17487/RFC8321, January 2018.

10.2. Informative References

[I-D.brockners-inband-oam-requirements] Brockners, F., Bhandari, S., Dara, S., Pignataro, C., Gredler, H., Leddy, J., Youell, S., Mozes, D., Mizrahi, T., <>, P. and r., "Requirements for In-situ OAM", Internet-Draft draft-brockners-inband-oam-requirements-03, March 2017.
[I-D.brockners-inband-oam-transport] Brockners, F., Bhandari, S., Govindan, V., Pignataro, C., Gredler, H., Leddy, J., Youell, S., Mizrahi, T., Mozes, D., Lapukhov, P. and R. Chang, "Encapsulations for In-situ OAM Data", Internet-Draft draft-brockners-inband-oam-transport-05, July 2017.
[I-D.filsfils-spring-srv6-network-programming] Filsfils, C., Camarillo, P., Leddy, J.,, d., Matsushima, S. and Z. Li, "SRv6 Network Programming", Internet-Draft draft-filsfils-spring-srv6-network-programming-05, July 2018.
[I-D.guichard-sfc-mpls-metadata] Guichard, J., Pignataro, C., Spraggs, S. and S. Bryant, "Carrying Metadata in MPLS Networks", Internet-Draft draft-guichard-sfc-mpls-metadata-00, September 2013.
[I-D.ietf-ippm-ioam-data] Brockners, F., Bhandari, S., Pignataro, C., Gredler, H., Leddy, J., Youell, S., Mizrahi, T., Mozes, D., Lapukhov, P., Chang, R.,, d. and J. Lemon, "Data Fields for In-situ OAM", Internet-Draft draft-ietf-ippm-ioam-data-03, June 2018.
[I-D.ietf-spring-segment-routing] Filsfils, C., Previdi, S., Ginsberg, L., Decraene, B., Litkowski, S. and R. Shakir, "Segment Routing Architecture", Internet-Draft draft-ietf-spring-segment-routing-15, January 2018.
[I-D.xu-clad-spring-sr-service-chaining] Clad, F., Xu, X., Filsfils, C.,, d., Decraene, B., Yadlapalli, C., Henderickx, W., Salsano, S. and S. Ma, "Segment Routing for Service Chaining", Internet-Draft draft-xu-clad-spring-sr-service-chaining-00, December 2017.

Authors' Addresses

Haoyu Song (editor) Huawei 2330 Central Expressway Santa Clara, USA EMail:
Zhenbin Li Huawei 156 Beiqing Road Beijing, 100095, P.R. China EMail:
Tianran Zhou Huawei 156 Beiqing Road Beijing, 100095, P.R. China EMail:
Loa Andersson Bronze Dragon Consulting Stockholm, Sweden EMail: