I was recently interacting with our pre-sales team for a large MPLS deployment and was reading the network design that was proposed. I saw that they had suggested IS-IS over OSPF as the IGP to use at the core. One of the reasons cited was the inherent security that IS-IS provides by running natively over the Layer 2. Another was that IS-IS is more modular and thus easier to extend as compared to OSPF. OSPF, its alleged is very rigid and required a complete protocol rewrite to support something as basic as IPv6! Then there was this overload feature that IS-IS provides which can signal memory overload that does not exist in OSPF and finally a point about IS-IS showing superior scalability (faster convergence). In case you’re intrigued about the last point, as i clearly was, then it was explained that IS-IS uses just one Link State Packet (LSP) per level for exchanging the routing information. This LSP contains many TLVs, each of which represents a piece of routing information. OSPF on the other hand, needs to originate multiple LSAs, one for each type and as a consequence is a lot more chattier and hence not suitable for large flat networks.
I personally dont agree to any one of the reasons listed above and anyone who favors IS-IS over OSPF for the above reasons is patently mistaken. These are all extremely weak arguments and have mostly been overtaken by reality. Lets look at each one by one.
Security – While its true that one cant lob an IS-IS packet from a distance without a tunnel it was never really a compelling reason for some one to pick up IS-IS over OSPF. The same holds good for OSPF multicast packets as well which cannot be launched by some script kidde sitting miles away from his personal laptop. Both the protocols have been extended to support stronger algorithms (RFC 5310 for IS-IS and RFC5709 for OSPF) and have similar authentication mechanisms. I can say this with some degree of confidence as i have co-authored both these standards.
Modularity – While its somewhat easier to extend IS-IS in a backward compatible way this sort of thing doesnt happen much any more. Both protocols have been extended to support multiple instances, traffic engineering, multi-topology, graceful restart, etc. This isnt imo a showstopper for someone picking up OSPF as the IGP to use.
Overload Mechanism – IS-IS has the ability to set the Overload (OL) bit in its LSAs. This results in other routers in that area treating this router as a leaf router in their shortest path trees, which means that its only used for reaching the directly connected interfaces and is never placed on the transit path to reach other routers. So does this happen any more? No, it doesnt. This feature was required in the jurassic age when routers came with severely constrained memory, CPU power and the original intention of the OL mechanism is now mostly irrelevant. Most core routers today have enough memory and CPU that they will not get inundated by the IS-IS routes in any sane network design.
These days OL bit is used to prevent unintentional blackholing of packets in BGP transit networks. Due to the nature of these protocols, IS-IS and OSPF converge must faster than BGP. Thus there is a possibility that while the IGP has converged, IBGP is still learning the routes. In that case if other IBGP routers start sending traffic towards this IBGP router that has not yet completely converged it will start dropping traffic. This is because it isnt yet aware of the complete BGP routes. OL bit comes handy in such situations. When a new IBGP neighbor is added or a router restarts, the IS-IS OL bit is set. Since directly connected (including loopbacks) addresses on an “overloaded” router are considered by other routers, IBGP can be bought up and can begin exchanging routes. Other routers will not use this router for transit traffic and will route the packets out through an alternate path. Once BGP has converged, the OL bit is cleared and this router can begin forwarding transit traffic.
So how can we do this in OSPF since there is no OL bit in its LSAs?
Simple. We can set the metric of all transit links on an “overloaded” router to 0xffff in its Router LSAs. This will result in the router not being included as a transit node in the SPF tree. Stub links can still be advertised with their normal metrics so that they are reachable even when the router is “overloaded”. Thus this point against OSPF is also not valid.
Finally we come to the scalability and the convergence part. This one is slightly tricky and is not so easy. I wrote a few posts around 4 years back discussing this here and here. You might want to read these.
IMO one of the big reasons why most big providers use (or have used) IS-IS is because way back in 90s Cisco OSPF implementation was a disaster. The first big ISPs (UUnet, MCI) came to them and said “we want to build big infrastructures, should we use OSPF?” and Cisco basically said “No, thats not a good idea, use IS-IS instead”. Dave Katz in Cisco had recently rewritten Cisco’s IS-IS implementation as a side effect of implementing NetWare Link Services Protocol – NLSP (basically IS-IS for Novel IPX) so Cisco was quite confident of its IS-IS implementation. The operators thus picked up IS-IS and continue using it even today as there is really no real difference between IS-IS and OSPF, so no motivation to move from one to the other.
IS-IS was also an advantage in the early days as a router vendor because it was an “open proprietary spec”. It was out there, and published, but unless you had some background in OSI you didn’t know much about it and the spec was scary and weird. This wasn’t on purpose, but it was handy.
It was also nice in the IETF because IS-IS was viewed, at least at the time, as the poor cousin of OSPF and so nobody really cared that much other than the handful of folks that were doing the work. This made the extension of IS-IS a lot easier and a lot less political than OSPF. In fact i have heard about a t-shirt which said “IS – IS = 0” that was distributed in one of the IETF meetings long time ago! Things however have changed and IS-IS is considered at par with OSPF today and both the working groups are quite active in the IETF.
There was one real technical advantage to IS-IS in common deployment scenarios of that day as well. Back then, it was popular to build full meshes of ATM or Frame Relay as the Layer 2 topology for large backbones, because of the perception that healing faults at L2 would happen faster and cleaner than letting the IP routing protocols take care of it (arguably true at the time). Full mesh topologies are the worst possible topologies for standard flooding protocols (IS-IS and OSPF both) and the cost of topology changes was huge. However, IS-IS lent itself to the “mesh group” hack by which you could manually prune the flooding topology to be a subset of the links. OSPF doesn’t easily allow this because of details about the flooding model it uses. Cisco apparently did implement a hack to get around this problem, but its probably more gross than the IS-IS “mesh groups” hack!
Another reason i believe people prefer IS-IS over OSPF is the belief that you can design large networks by building a single large Level 1 (L1) area without any hierarchies in IS-IS and still be able to manage – something that would be difficult with OSPF. There are issues with inter-area traffic engineering and such and most people would like to keep their network as a single area if the routing protocol can manage it.
I used to believe that operators can design big networks without hierarchies in IS-IS since all IP prefixes (i.e. network interfaces, routes aka reachabilities in ISO-speak) are considered as leaf nodes in the SPF for IS-IS. Thus a full SPF will not be triggered for an interface or a route flap in case of IS-IS. OSPF otoh, would go ballistic running SPF each time any IP information changes. The only time we dont run a full SPF in when a Type 5 LSA information changes, but thats hardly an optimization. Compared to this, the only time we run a full SPF in IS-IS is when an actual node goes down (which OSPF would also anyways do).
I was recently having a discussion with Dave Katz from Juniper on this and i realized that this really is an implementation choice. “The graph theory”, he very aptly pointed out, “is the same in both cases!”. The IS-IS spec makes it easier to put an IS-IS reachability as leaf nodes as all routers are identified by a different set of TLVs. This information while its available in OSPF is slightly tricky as the node information is mixed with the link information. Thus while even a naive IS-IS implementation may be able to optimize SPF, it would require a good understanding of the spec to get it right in OSPF.
You could get the exact same optimization in OSPF as IS-IS if you realize that OSPF calculates the routes to the *router IDs* and not the addresses. The distinction between nodes and destinations is syntactically (and semantically) quite clear in OSPF as well. The spec considers the Router IDs which i concede look like IP addresses, something that most people miss.
Actual addresses and prefixes are quite distinct, even in OSPF. So as long as you can keep track of what’s an address and what’s an ID, it’s not that hard, for what it’s worth. The bigger problem is that only a handful of people really understand *why* things in the OSPF spec are done the way they are, and there are less and less of those folks because hardly anybody *needs* to understand it.
But having said all that, the cost of an SPF is so small on the scale of things that it’s not really the issue (which is also why I am not a big fan of partial-SPF optimizations: “See how great it works when you have around O(50K) nodes and there is this one little node that goes down!” is sort of silly because lots of other things would break before a network ever got that big.)
Part of the SPF fear was I believe because Cisco’s original SPF implementation in OSPF was horribly inefficient (and everyone was using slow processors back then) and IOS was a non-preemptive, single threaded environment, and so an SPF (or any slow process) would block other things (like sending and receiving Hellos and other important bits) and would affect *everything*. I am btw sure that its changed now since i am aware of a couple of large Cisco deployments that are running OSPF in the core! Overall system state management is a *much* bigger problem these days than the algorithmic efficiency of these protocols, particularly as we build larger and more distributed environments that require message passing internally.
Also what could have pushed providers back then to IS-IS was the deployment guidelines that Cisco used to publish (including the number of routes in an area) back then which were absurdly small. I am sure, its changed now.
There’s no technical reason why very large flat topologies can’t be supported by a good implementation of either protocol, but ISPs need to be conservative and suspicious of their vendors in order to survive. ;-) I guess that nobody wants to be the first to deploy a large flat OSPF topology; best practices tend to be sticky. However, there is no reason why you cant do it with OSPF today.
I suspect that, at this point, ISPs choose based on culture and familiarity and comfort rather than real technical differences. The perception still exists that while IS-IS can support large flat networks, OSPF cant. However, as i said its just a perception and is not really true any more.