This post compares how the two link state protocols hold their routing information in their databases as this affects their behavior in how they flood/distribute the change of routing information and the internal implementation complexity.
o Organization of Routing Information
OSPF encodes the routing information into small chunks, which it calls Link State Advertisement (LSA). Each LSA has its own 20-byte header in order to be identified uniquely. This header is called the LSA Header. There is no limitation on the size of a LSA, though the actual LSA size is limited by IP packet size limitation: 65,535 bytes minus the LSA Header size and IP packet header size. The database access in OSPF is per LSA basis.
In OSPF routing, the information within an area is described by type 1 and type 2 LSAs (known as Router-LSA and Network-LSA respectively). These LSAs can become big depending upon the number of adjacencies to be advertised and prefixes to be carried inside an area. In other words, the routing information with respect to a single node (either router or network node) is encoded inside a single LSA. On the other hand, each inter-area or external prefix is advertised in a separate LSA (AS-External LSA).
An OSPFv2 router may originate only one Router-LSA for itself, while in OSPFv3, a router is allowed to originate multiple Router-LSAs. A router may originate a Network-LSA for each IP subnet on which the router acts as a designated router (DR). A router may originate one LSA for each inter-area and external prefix, with no limitations on the number of LSAs that it may originate.
Originating a new and a unique LSA for each inter-area route and an external prefix implies that there is a LSA Header overhead involved while the information is kept in the database or is flooded to the neighbors. There is thus some extra memory and bandwidth consumed in total.
o Carrying Routing Information
LSAs are carried in Link State Update packets (called LS Updates or LSUs). Each LS Update packet has its own header, consists of a 24 byte OSPF protocol header, and a 4-bytes field indicating the number of LSAs contained in the packet. Thus multiple LSAs can be packed into a single LS Update packet. Some implementations may not do this as its considered difficult achieving this during flooding.
In the face of network changes, OSPF floods only the updated LSAs. Therefore, even if an implementation does not pack multiple LSAs into a single LS Update packet (and so bandwidth is consumed by LS Update header for each update of a single LSA), the bandwidth consumption for each network change can be considered adequately small.
o Organization of the Routing Information
In IS-IS, protocol packets are called Protocol Data Units or PDUs. IS-IS encodes the link state information into the set of TLVs and packs these TLVs into one or more Link State PDUs (LSPs). The size limit of a LSP is configurable. The Routing database consists of these PDUs and the access to the database is per PDU basis. The original IS-IS specification places an upper bound on the number of LSPs a router can originate to 255. There are however techniques which enable a router to originate more than 255 LSPs, by using multiple system-id’s for itself.
Since routing information in IS-IS for each router is packed in fewer LSPs, the memory consumed for bookkeeping of the routing data within the database is less and is more efficient.
o Carrying Routing Information
Each LSP is flooded independently, without being modified all the way from the originator through the routers till the very end. This results in all the routers having the same LSPs as that originated by the first router.
Since LSPs are not modified in any way and are not allowed to be fragmented, in order to be flooded successfully over all links existing in the IS-IS network, great care must be ensured when configuring the size limit of LSP that routers can originate and receive.
If the size limit of the LSP is set without taking into account the minimum value of the MTUs throughout the network, or if the size limit of LSPs conflict among some the routers in the network, the database synchronization may not be achieved, and this can result in routing loops and/or blackholes.
When a change occurs to a LSP, the whole LSP needs to be flooded, and therefore the bandwidth usage can be non-optimal. There is however a solution which exists in theory. If an implementation finds some of the entities to be flapping, then they may be packed into smaller LSPs or may be isolated from the other stable entities. This way one needs to only advertise the unstable LSP/LSPs. I have not btw come across any implementation that does that. Leave a comment if you know one that does this!
Database granularity also affects when two routers need to synchronize their databases. In OSPF, because of its high database granularity there are a lot of items which it needs to synchronize and that process is somewhat complicated with a lot of DBD packets being exchanged back and forth. This gets worse if the router trying to sync is being inundated with a lot of other data traffic also. This is not much of an issue these days as any router worth its salt would prioritize the OSPF control packets.
This is however much simpler in case of IS-IS and there isn’t any finite state machine that the neighbors need to go through to synchronize their databases. It just uses it regular flooding mechanism (a couple of CSNPs describe their entire topology information) to exchange its entire database. You plug in the new IS-IS router and before you realize the router is already sync’ed up with all the other IS-IS routers in the network!