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UnixWorld Online: Technical Feature Article: No. 002

To RIP or To OSPF?

That is the question: should you use the older, more established RIP
(Routing Information Protocol) or the new-kid-on-the-block OSPF (Open
Shortest Path First) IGP (Interior Gateway Protocol)? This article can help
you make the right decision--it describes the pro's and con's for using
either protocol and provides some specific recommendations.

By Eddie Rabinovitch.

The ``Subnet Addressing'' tutorial by Ron Cooney gives a detailed overview
of the IP subnetworking scheme. This article demystifies IP subnetworking
further and provides some insights on how dynamic routing is done in the IP
world, by describing the more popular routing techniques.

The routing algorithm in an IP network is straightforward: if the network
and subnetwork part match a directly connected network, then send the IP
datagram to the destination IP address on that subnet (resolving the
complete IP address into a physical address). Otherwise, examine the routing
table to find the longest match to the destination IP address. If a matching
entry is found, route to the indicated IP address (next hop). If no match
found then discard the packet (and send Destination Unreachable message).

TCP/IP products can use static route definitions or a dynamic routing
protocol, such as RIP (Routing Information Protocol), OSPF (Open Shortest
Path First), Border Gateway Protocols, and other dynamic routing schemes
that exchange routing information to resolve routing errors. This article
compares the two most important routing mechanisms for interior
(intra-domain) routing: RIP and OSPF. It does not include a comparison with
the more advanced (but less popular) modification of RIP, RIP II, described
in RFC 1387 (6K text file), RFC 1388 (16K text file), and RFC 1389 (24K text


RIP is an Interior Gateway Protocol (originally defined by RFC 1058 (90K
text file) is the most widely accepted routing protocol. It is also known by
the name of the Unix daemon program routed, which was originally designed at
U.C. Berkeley to provide consistent routing and reachability information
among machines on a local area network. RIP's popularity is not necessarily
based on its technical merits, but probably results because U.C. Berkeley
distributed routed along with their popular 4.x BSD UNIX systems. Thus, many
Internet sites adopted and installed routed and started using RIP without
even considering its technical merits and limitations. Once installed and
running, it became the basis for local routing.

RIP is straightforward: it arranges to have routers to broadcast their
entire current routing database periodically, typically every 30 seconds.
This message lists each destination along with a ``distance'' to that
destination measured in number of router hops. RIP is also known as a
distance-vector routing algorithm, which means that there is a distance (a
cost) and a vector (a direction) for each destination (the vector just shows
the name of the neighboring router, not the entire path).

As a distance-vector based algorithm, RIP works fine for small, stable
high-speed networks. Instead of passing along the status of the links to the
networks, the router tells its neighbors about the entire world, where the
``best link'' is precomputed, not necessarily the fastest one. Here,
``best'' means a route with the least number of gateway hops, relative to
the active routing table.

In times of network instability--because every router is broadcasting his
entire routing table--it takes awhile for those states to converge into a
common view of the network topology. Specifically, RIP does not address well
these major types of problems:

   * There is no protection from routing loops within RIP based networks.
     Therefore, the implementation must trust all network participants to
     prevent such loops.
   * RIP uses a hop count of 15 do denote infinity, which makes it
     unsuitable for large networks.
   * RIP has the so called slow convergency or count-to-infinity problem, in
     which inconsistencies arise because routing update message propagate
     slowly across the network. Particularly, in large networks (or networks
     with slow links), some routers may still advertise a route that has
     vanished. (That, by the way, was one of the reasons 15 was chosen as
     the value of infinity to limit the slow convergency).

Slow convergency can be addressed by a technique called hold down, which
forces the router to ignore information about a network for a fixed period
of time (typically, 60 seconds). The idea is to wait long enough so that all
machines receive the bad news of the vanished link and do not mistakenly
accept outdated information. The disadvantage of this technique is that
incorrect routes and routing loops will be preserved for the duration of the
hold down, even when a valid alternate path is available.

Another, more popular approach to address the slow convergency problem is a
technique known as split-horizon update. This technique is widely used by
router vendors. With split horizon, a router records the interface over
which it received a particular route and does not propagate its higher-cost
route back over the same interface. However, split horizon does not resolve
the slow convergency problem for all topologies. It also introduces a
problem for a frame relay network that would not permit full-meshed
connectivity for partially meshed networks.

RIP allows the use of subnet masks with static information defined in the
routers. RIP has no provision to exchange subnet mask information between
routers. The routers in your network should use the same subnet masks and
RIP to make IP datagrams travel from source to destination within your
network. This is another technical limitation of RIP. For example, with
frame relay, the entire frame relay network can be assigned one subnet, but
as was mentioned above, because of the split horizon technique it would not
allow connectivity between two remote sites via a centrally based router,
and require explicit definitions of additional routes for all remote sites.

If the subnet mask is not constant in a RIP based network, it becomes
impossible for the routers to distinguish between network part and host part
because RIP cannot dynamically update or change the subnet mask. Hence one
mask should be used throughout the subnetwork. If a variable subnet mask is
needed, static routes or more advanced routing protocols, for instance,
OSPF, have to be used.


OSPF, as defined by RFC 1131 (781K PostScript file), is a link-state
algorithm. In contrast to a distance-vector algorithm, where a router
``tells all neighbors about the world,'' link-state routers ``tell the world
about the neighbors.'' OSPF specifies a class of messages called link-state
advertisements (LSAs) that allow routers to update each other about the LAN
and WAN links to which they are connected. When a change is made to the
network, LSAs flow between routers.

OSPF routers receive link-state updates and store them in a topology
database in memory. The typical OSPF database contains a representation of
every link and router in the enterprise network. When routers receive
internetwork traffic that needs to be forwarded towards a destination end
node, they use their topology database to calculate a table of the best
routes through an Internet.

OSPF addresses all RIP shortcomings and thus is better suited for modern
large, dynamic networks. For example, in contrast to RIP sending the entire
routing table from router to router every 30 seconds, OSPF sends its link
state information every 30 minutes. OSPF can get away with this, because
OSPF routers also send each other small update messages (typically less than
75 bytes), whenever they detect a change in the network (for instance, a
failure or a new link). When routers exchange updates that reflect changes
in the network, they ``"converge'' on a new representation of the topology
quickly and accurately.

Although, it addresses all of the problems with RIP, OSPF itself is not an
absolutely perfect routing protocol (if there is such a thing?). For small
and medium-size networks, the basic services of OSPF works very well,
enabling a wide range of robust TCP/IP and multiprotocol topologies. But in
really large configurations, the huge number of router updates--that flow
between routers--can become an issue. For instance, in a mesh network with
over a hundred routers a single link change can precipitate a flood of
thousands of link-state messages that propagate across the entire network
from router to router. In each router, the database that stores these
messages can grow to over a megabyte of live data. Each time there is a
change to the network, routers must recalculate new routes. In very large
OSPF networks, topology convergence can be delayed, while routers exchange
link-state messages, update databases, and recalculate routes.

This delay in network convergence is the natural effect of very large
topologies, and it will occur with any router protocol. Fortunately, OSPF
was designed and implemented in a much better way than RIP to address this
issue by what's know as the OSPF area. OSPF areas are simply logical
subdivisions of an OSPF network. Typically, an enterprise is divided into
areas that correspond to buildings, campuses, regions, or other
administrative domains. An enterprise can have a practically unlimited
number of areas.

OSPF routers within one area do not exchange topology updates with the
routers in the other areas. When a LAN or WAN link is added to one area,
topology updates flow only to routers within that area. This reduces the
number of updates that flow through the network and the size of the topology
databases in each router. In an enterprise with 500 routers, the creation of
10 areas of 50 routers means that each router only needs to store link
information for 50 routers, not 500.

OSPF areas are connected to each other by means of a backbone that is just
another area unto itself. A router that connects its area to the backbone
must maintain a topology database for both areas. These special "multi-area"
routers are called area border routers, and they serve as a filter for
topology updates that move between areas and the backbone. Area border
routers communicate with each other using special link-state messages that
contain a short-hand summarization of the LAN or WAN topology in their

Area border routers summarize topology information with an addressing
technique that is analogous to the U.S. Post Office ZIP codes. When a post
office in New York City, for instance, handles a letter addressed to San
Francisco, it only needs to look at the first few digits in the ZIP code to
know that the letter is bound for San Francisco; the remaining digits are
not relevant at that point in the process. The U.S. phone-switching system
works the same way: when routing a call, major phone switches decode just
the three-digit area-code prefix of a phone number to determine which
long-distance trunk line to select; the rest of the digits are ignored until
the call is routed to the right state and city.

These techniques of ``hierarchical'' addressing reduce the complexity of the
phone and postal systems, because routing elements do not need to know all
the details of end-to-end routes to every possible destination. Route
information at the top of the hierarchy only relates to regions or areas.
The OSPF area feature works the same way. Area border routers send-out
special LSA update messages that advertise a range of IP addresses that
reside in an area. Area border routers store these summarization messages in
a special database that tells them how to forward inter-area traffic between
areas. Route calculations based on summarization only need to determine what
range an IP destination address falls within, based on the first few bytes
of the address, not the complete address. However, this addressing feature
does not come for free: before this process begins, OSPF summarization
parameters must be administratively configured in area border routers. This
task is similar to the configuration of router traffic filters or

A good example of OSPF areas' benefits can be seen in a campus environment,
where each building is defined as an area. For example, lets take a campus
where each building has 12 floors and a multiprotocol router on each floor.
Without OSPF areas, routers would have to exchange updates with every other
router on the campus, creating, in the process, topology databases that
represent every routing node and link. When areas are deployed, routers only
exchange link state information with routers in the same building. An area
border router in each building forms a link between the building and the
campus backbone.

Another OSPF area scenario is a national internetwork that is divided into
areas that correspond to different regions of the country. For example, all
the routers in the New York area would have identical databases that cover
the New York region only, and the same would apply to other regions as well,
Chicago, Tampa, and so forth. In each area, an area border router is
attached to the national backbone. This approach eliminates the need to
propagate router update messages across entire national (or international)

The area feature of OSPF is not the only factor in building large reliable
networks, but it is one of the most important. When deploying OSPF areas, it
is critical that area border routers have enough resources (memory,
processing power) to handle topology chores for both the local and the
backbone areas. Low-end routers may be overwhelmed by the demands of
maintaining multiple databases.

Some additional considerations to keep in mind:

   * Choose the correct topology (hub, mesh, hierarchical, collapsed
     backbone, and so forth).
   * Fine-tune OSPF timers within routers. The frequency of OSPF
     administrative messages often can be adjusted, and the right settings
     conserve bandwidth and speed convergence.
   * Use variable subnet addressing to maximize the number of viable IP
     addresses within an organization; in TCP/IP networks, the 32 bits of an
     IP address are divided up into parts that identify an end-node and its
     attached network; variable subnet addressing allows the 32 bits to be
     divided differently for different areas of a network, which allows more
     nodes, networks, and subnetworks to be addressed, given a finite
     address space.
   * Assign a meaningful OSPF ``cost'' to each link. OSPF computes its
     routes based on a least-cost metric: in configuring a network, each
     link is assigned a relative cost, based on its bandwidth, security,
     reliability, and so on. The ability of an OSPF network to adapt to
     end-user demands is directly proportional to the care invested in
     assigning cost values to links.


In many places, RIP is still used in TCP/IP networks that have not been
upgraded to OSPF. It is also used on OSPF networks as an
end-station-to-router protocol. OSPF addresses all the deficiencies of RIP,
without affecting connectivity to RIP based networks. Fast growing networks
must be designed properly if the capabilities of OSPF are to be fully
exploited. Because of its ability to handle variable networking masks, OSPF
also helps to reduce waste of today's precious IP addresses. Ideally,
network design should include a consistent enterprise-wide IP address
assignment policy that lends itself to the creation of OSPF areas and
address summarization. If correct design and router-tuning takes place, OSPF
will allow networks to scale to very large topologies, while maintaining
high levels of availability and performance.

Copyright © 1995 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Edited by Becca Thomas / Online Editor / UnixWorld Online / [email protected]

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Last Modified: Saturday, 04-Nov-95 07:07:15 PST