Multicasting Strategies: Protocols And Topologies

Brad Huntting, University of Colorado
David Mertz, Gnosis Software
March 2003

The first installment of this series provided a general introduction to multicasting, and touched on some protocols and topologies. We expand on topologies in this installment, and look at the "last mile" problem.

Routing Multicast Traffic With Dvmrp

When an application joins an IP multicast group G, the host OS issues an Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP) membership report on the local network. From this point it becomes the local routers' responsibility to locate multicast traffic for group G, and forward it to the local network. How does the Internet assure the right traffic gets forwarded to interested routers?

The first attempt to route multicast was the Distance-Vector Multicast Routing Protocol (DVMRP). DVMRP is commonly implemented by "mrouted" on Unix-like operating systems. In DVMRP's "flood-and-prune" model, a router maintains a list of interesting multicast groups for each network the router connect to. When a new source S sends traffic to a group G, it first "floods" the entire network to establish a source based tree. Then, starting with the leaves of the tree, routers that have no interested networks send prune messages back toward the root of the tree. When things work optimally, it costs just a single packet from each source to each group to setup an optimal distribution tree.

If your network has only a few dozen routers, and only a few dozen multicast groups active at any given time, DVMRP is a reasonable solution. And if your network hardware doesnt implement DVMRP, you can setup a tunnel and run mrouted on a Linux or BSD machine.

The global Internet, however, outgrew the DVMRP backbone many years ago. The requirement that every router maintain state for every sender simply does not scale. In addition, DVMRP shares some basic limitations with its unicast sibling RIP: rather than distribute actual network topology information, these protocols propagate digested information about which network addresses or multicast groups should be sent in which general direction. Rita Perlman called this "routing on rumor." DVMRP and RIP give rise to a host of well-known network pathologies, including very slow convergence time after network change.

Better Scaling Models

In 1997, Tony Ballardie proposed what is to-date the most elegant multicast routing solution. Core Based Trees (CBT) creates a bidirectional tree for each multicast group, and distribute the roots of these trees throughout the Internet. Routers need only keep state information for groups that are of local interest; traffic for unknown groups is simply directed toward the the groups' core. CBT centralizes the problem of multicast routing in a distributed directory of core locations.

Unfortunately, CBT came out at the same time as Protocol Independent Multicast-Sparse Mode (PIM-SM). Despite its shortcomings PIM has become the de facto standard for Internet multicast because PIM is the solution Cisco implemented.

PIM has both source based trees (traffic flows directly from source to listeners) and shared trees (traffic is directed through intermediary Rendezvous Points (RPs)). Like DVMRP, RPs have to keep information about every multicast sender on the entire Internet. Fortunately, the other PIM routers can forget this information. A PIM router requests a multicast group by sending a message to the local RP. This sets up a shared tree to the RP, and multicast traffic will start to flow.

For single-homed networks with a single uplink, PIM was a great improvement over DVMRP. By the late 1990s, however, flood-and-prune created a maelstrom of traffic that could not be effectively pruned. PIM produces very little traffic unless a multicast group is actually requested.

PIM-SM has a flood-and-prune sibling, PIM-Dense Mode (PIM-DM). PIM-DM has been largely eclipsed by Multicast Source Distribution Protocol (MSDP) which allows PIM rendezvous points to more efficiently share information about known senders. But MSDP is a temporary hack to hold the Any Source Multicast backbone together long enough for Border Gateway Multicast Protocol (BGMP) to be developed, debugged, and deployed. Maybe--some network developers think that BGMP is too complex to be implemented.

Fortunately, PIM-SM works quite well for Single Source Multicast (SSM) since the source is known routers can build a source based tree, and bypass the Rendezvous Points all together.

Multicasting To The "last Mile" With Igmp Proxy

Most core routers on the Internet today support multicast, and many ISPs run multicast traffic across the backbone. Unfortunately, getting multicast all the way to end users is not so simple. Most customer equipment (e.g. DSL and cable modems) cannot handle PIM, so their only option is IGMP proxy. Unfortunately, IGMP proxy can wreak havok with upstream connections.

Suppose you start up a multicast video conference on your LAN, with no participants outside your local network. If you ran a full multicast routing protocol on your Internet gateway, it would tell your ISP about the multicast session. With no participants (group members) on the Internet at large, the distribution tree is pruned to your local network. Your link to the Internet stays free of unnecessary traffic. Should someone else on the Internet join, the multicast traffic will then flow over your Internet connection.

With IGMP proxy, however, there is no mechanism to inform your router that no one else on the Internet is interested in your multicast. Consequently, your Internet connection becomes swamped with potentially unnecessary traffic.

It may seem like a bad idea to allow just anyone to join your video conference. But that is the way the Internet is supposed to work; physical location should not matter. If the conference is private, the proper approach is encryption; even though anyone can join, they won't be able to make sense of the data without the decryption key.

A Better Last Mile Protocol

Multimedia is currently the primary application for multicast. The bandwidth requirements for multimedia limit its market to high speed DSL, cable modem, and traditional leased line customers. Moreover, many business customers associate multimedia with non-productive entertainment. As a result, many ISPs have back-burnered multicast. Those Internet users who want to experiment with multicast have been forced to use specialized (usually higher priced) ISPs, or construct Rube Goldberg-esque tunnels with people and institutions that support MBone access.

Automatic Multicast Tunnels (AMT) is a recent instantiation of an idea Tony Ballardie proposed to the IETF in 2000. AMT allows any host or network to receive both Any Source and Single Source multicast through a User Datagram Protocol (UDP) tunnel, even from behind a firewall.

On the client end is an "AMT gateway," i.e. a router or a single Intel PC host. Once the gateway has located an "AMT relay" (which may be a PC rather than a traditional router), it periodically sends IGMP message, in much the same way it would to request native multicast traffic from a local router. The IGMP messages are encapsulated in UDP, so they create connection state on any packet filtering firewalls they pass through. The mechanism is wonderfully simple and allows anyone on the Internet to create a dynamic tunnel to download multicast data streams. AMT may also allow end users to send Single Source multicast data, once some details are worked out.

An ingenious aspect of AMT is the way in which AMT gateways locate an AMT relay. "Anycast" is a mechanism wherein a sender transmits data to the single nearest member of a group of network nodes. Each node, announces to the local routing protocol that it is a gateway to the special anycast address A; normal unicast dynamic routing takes care of the rest. Packets destined for address A will naturally find their way to the nearest node in the anycast group. This mechanism is a simple way to distribute load among a group of machines providing a service, such as DNS.

AMT gateways and hosts only use anycast as a means to discover the "real" address of the nearest anycast relay point. This mechanism helps spread the load among all the AMT relays on the Internet.

Using AMT, an ISP can deploy a single AMT relay to provide service to all its customers. Before that relay becomes overloaded--or if the tunnel traffic it generates causes an undue load on certain links in the network--the ISP can deploy additional AMT relays, both to distribute the server load and to lessen the network load. Since the AMT relays fetch data using native multicast, only their outgoing tunnel traffic that taxes the network.

Whither Multicast?

AMT allows otherwise unicast-only Internet users to receive multicast data streams; AMT may prove exactly what is necessary to generate enough demand for multicast that multicast becomes a standard component of Internet service.

In the final installment, we will introduce the concept of "reliable multicast" and discuss multicast applications in some more detail.