BIRD Journey to Threads. Chapter 1: The Route and its Attributes

Data structures used by BIRD have to be changed in order to allow multithreading safely. This chapter covers necessary changes of them. BIRD is a fast, robust and memory-efficient routing daemon designed and implemented at the end of 20th century. We’re doing a significant amount of BIRD’s internal structure changes to make it possible to run in multiple threads in parallel.

If you want to see the changes in code, look at the route-storage-updates branch. Not all of them are already implemented, anyway most of them are pretty finished as of end of March, 2021.

How routes are stored

BIRD routing table is just a hierarchical noSQL database. On top level, the routes are keyed by their destination, called net. Due to historic reasons, the net is not only IPv4 prefix, IPv6 prefix, IPv4 VPN prefix etc., but also MPLS label, ROA information or BGP Flowspec record. As there may be several routes for each net, an obligatory part of the key is src aka. route source. The route source is a tuple of the originating protocol instance and a 32-bit unsigned integer. If a protocol wants to withdraw a route, it is enough and necessary to have the net and src to identify what route is to be withdrawn.

The route itself consists of (basically) a list of key-value records, with value types ranging from a 16-bit unsigned integer for preference to a complex BGP path structure. The keys are pre-defined by protocols (e.g. BGP path or OSPF metrics), or by BIRD core itself (preference, route gateway). Finally, the user can declare their own attribute keys using the keyword attribute in config.

Attribute list implementation

Currently, there are three layers of route attributes. We call them route (rte), attributes (rta) and extended attributes (ea, eattr).

The first layer, rte, contains the net pointer, several fixed-size route attributes (mostly preference and protocol-specific metrics), flags, lastmod time and a pointer to rta.

The second layer, rta, contains the src (a pointer to a singleton instance), a route gateway, several other fixed-size route attributes and a pointer to ea list.

The third layer, ea list, is a variable-length list of key-value attributes, containing all the remaining route attributes.

Distribution of the route attributes between the attribute layers is somehow arbitrary. Mostly, in the first and second layer, there are attributes that were thought to be accessed frequently (e.g. in best route selection) and filled in in most routes, while the third layer is for infrequently used and/or infrequently accessed route attributes.

Attribute list deduplication

When protocols originate routes, there are commonly more routes with the same attribute list. BIRD could ignore this fact, anyway if you have several tables connected with pipes, it is more memory-efficient to store the same attribute lists only once.

Therefore, the two lower layers (rta and ea) are hashed and stored in a BIRD-global database. Routes (rte) contain a pointer to rta in this database, maintaining a use-count of each rta. Attributes (rta) contain a pointer to normalized (sorted by numerical key ID) ea.

Attribute list rework

The first thing to change is the distribution of route attributes between attribute list layers. We decided to make the first layer (rte) only the key and other per-record internal technical information. Therefore we move src to rte and preference to rta (beside other things). This is already done.

We also found out that the nexthop (gateway), originally one single IP address and an interface, has evolved to a complex attribute with several sub-attributes; not only considering multipath routing but also MPLS stacks and other per-route attributes. This has led to a too complex data structure holding the nexthop set.

We decided finally to squash rta and ea to one type of data structure, allowing for completely dynamic route attribute lists. This is also supported by adding other net types (BGP FlowSpec or ROA) where lots of the fields make no sense at all, yet we still want to use the same data structures and implementation as we don’t like duplicating code. Multithreading doesn’t depend on this change, anyway this change is going to happen soon anyway.

Route storage

The process of route import from protocol into a table can be divided into several phases:

  1. (In protocol code.) Create the route itself (typically from protocol-internal data) and choose the right channel to use.
  2. (In protocol code.) Create the rta and ea and obtain an appropriate hashed pointer. Allocate the rte structure and fill it in.
  3. (Optionally.) Store the route to the import table.
  4. Run filters. If reject, free everything.
  5. Check whether this is a real change (it may be idempotent). If not, free everything and do nothing more.
  6. Run the best route selection algorithm.
  7. Execute exports if needed.

We found out that the rte structure allocation is done too early. BIRD uses global optimized allocators for fixed-size blocks (which rte is) to reduce its memory footprint, therefore the allocation of rte structure would be a synchronization point in multithreaded environment.

The common code is also much more complicated when we have to track whether the current rte has to be freed or not. This is more a problem in export than in import as the export filter can also change the route (and therefore allocate another rte). The changed route must be therefore freed after use. All the route changing code must also track whether this route is writable or read-only.

We therefore introduce a variant of rte called rte_storage. Both of these hold the same, the layer-1 route information (destination, author, cached attribute pointer, flags etc.), anyway rte is always local and rte_storage is intended to be put in global data structures.

This change allows us to remove lots of the code which only tracks whether any rte is to be freed as rte’s are almost always allocated on-stack, naturally limiting their lifetime. If not on-stack, it’s the responsibility of the owner to free the rte after import is done.

This change also removes the need for rte allocation in protocol code and also rta can be safely allocated on-stack. As a result, protocols can simply allocate all the data on stack, call the update routine and the common code in BIRD’s nest does all the storage for them.

Allocating rta on-stack is however not required. BGP and OSPF use this to import several routes with the same attribute list. In BGP, this is due to the format of BGP update messages containing first the attributes and then the destinations (BGP NLRI’s). In OSPF, in addition to rta deduplication, it is also presumed that no import filter (or at most some trivial changes) is applied as OSPF would typically not work well when filtered.

This change is already done.

Route cleanup and table maintenance

In some cases, the route update is not originated by a protocol/channel code. When the channel shuts down, all routes originated by that channel are simply cleaned up. Also routes with recursive routes may get changed without import, simply by changing the IGP route.

This is currently done by a rt_event (see nest/rt-table.c for source code) which is to be converted to a parallel thread, running when nobody imports any route. This change is freshly done in branch guernsey.

Parallel protocol execution

The long-term goal of these reworks is to allow for completely independent execution of all the protocols. Typically, there is no direct interaction between protocols; everything is done thought BIRD’s nest. Protocols should therefore run in parallel in future and wait/lock only when something is needed to do externally.

We also aim for a clean and documented protocol API.

It’s still a long road to the version 2.1. This series of texts should document what is needed to be changed, why we do it and how. The previous chapter was an introduction. In the next chapter, we’re going to describe how the route is exported from table to protocols and how this process is changing. Stay tuned!


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