VXLAN is an overlay network to carry Ethernet traffic over an existing (highly available and scalable) IP network while accommodating a very large number of tenants. It is defined in RFC 7348.

Starting from Linux 3.12, the VXLAN implementation is quite complete as both multicast and unicast are supported as well as IPv6 and IPv4. Let’s explore the various methods to configure it.

VXLAN setup
VXLAN deployment example

To illustrate our examples, we use the following setup:

  • an underlay IP network (highly available and scalable, possibly the Internet),
  • three Linux bridges acting as VXLAN tunnel endpoints (VTEP),
  • four servers believing they share a common Ethernet segment.

A VXLAN tunnel extends the individual Ethernet segments accross the three bridges, providing a unique (virtual) Ethernet segment. From one host (e.g. H1), we can reach directly all the other hosts in the virtual segment:

$ ping -c10 -w1 -t1 ff02::1%eth0
PING ff02::1%eth0(ff02::1%eth0) 56 data bytes
64 bytes from fe80::5254:33ff:fe00:8%eth0: icmp_seq=1 ttl=64 time=0.016 ms
64 bytes from fe80::5254:33ff:fe00:b%eth0: icmp_seq=1 ttl=64 time=4.98 ms (DUP!)
64 bytes from fe80::5254:33ff:fe00:9%eth0: icmp_seq=1 ttl=64 time=4.99 ms (DUP!)
64 bytes from fe80::5254:33ff:fe00:a%eth0: icmp_seq=1 ttl=64 time=4.99 ms (DUP!)

--- ff02::1%eth0 ping statistics ---
1 packets transmitted, 1 received, +3 duplicates, 0% packet loss, time 0ms
rtt min/avg/max/mdev = 0.016/3.745/4.991/2.152 ms

Basic usage

The reference deployment for VXLAN is to use an IP multicast group to join the other VTEPs:

# ip -6 link add vxlan100 type vxlan \
>   id 100 \
>   dstport 4789 \
>   local 2001:db8:1::1 \
>   group ff05::100 \
>   dev eth0 \
>   ttl 5
# brctl addbr br100
# brctl addif br100 vxlan100
# brctl addif br100 vnet22
# brctl addif br100 vnet25
# brctl stp br100 off
# ip link set up dev br100
# ip link set up dev vxlan100

The above commands create a new interface acting as a VXLAN tunnel endpoint, named vxlan100 and put it in a bridge with some regular interfaces1. Each VXLAN segment is associated to a 24-bit segment ID, the VXLAN Network Identifier (VNI). In our example, the default VNI is specified with id 100.

When VXLAN was first implemented in Linux 3.7, the UDP port to use was not defined. Several vendors were using 8472 and Linux took the same value. To avoid breaking existing deployments, this is still the default value. Therefore, if you want to use the IANA-assigned port, you need to explicitely set it with dstport 4789.

As we want to use multicast, we have to specify a multicast group to join (group ff05::100), as well as a physical device (dev eth0). With multicast, the default TTL is 1. If your multicast network leverages some routing, you’ll have to increase the value a bit, like here with ttl 5.

The vxlan100 device acts as a bridge device with remote VTEPs as virtual ports:

  • it sends broadcast, unknown unicast and multicast (BUM) frames to all VTEPs using the multicast group, and
  • it discovers the association from Ethernet MAC addresses to VTEP IP addresses using source-address learning.

The following figure summarizes the configuration, with the FDB of the Linux bridge (learning local MAC addresses) and the FDB of the VXLAN device (learning distant MAC addresses):

Bridged VXLAN device
VXLAN device enslaved with a Linux bridge and communicating with two remote VTEPs

The FDB of the VXLAN device can be observed with the bridge command. If the destination MAC is present, the frame is sent to the associated VTEP (unicast). The all-zero address is only used when a lookup for the destination MAC fails.

# bridge fdb show dev vxlan100 | grep dst
00:00:00:00:00:00 dst ff05::100 via eth0 self permanent
50:54:33:00:00:0b dst 2001:db8:3::1 self
50:54:33:00:00:08 dst 2001:db8:1::1 self

If you are interested to get more details on how to setup a multicast network and build VXLAN segments on top of it, see my “Network virtualization with VXLAN” article.

Without multicast

Using VXLAN over a multicast IP network has several benefits:

  • automatic discovery of other VTEPs sharing the same multicast group,
  • good bandwidth usage (packets are replicated as late as possible),
  • decentralized and controller-less design2.

However, multicast is not available everywhere and managing it at scale can be difficult. In Linux 3.8, the DOVE extensions have been added to the VXLAN implementation, removing the dependency on multicast.

Unicast with static flooding

We can replace multicast by head-end replication of BUM frames to a statically configured lists of remote VTEPs3:

# ip -6 link add vxlan100 type vxlan \
>   id 100 \
>   dstport 4789 \
>   local 2001:db8:1::1
# bridge fdb append 00:00:00:00:00:00 dev vxlan100 dst 2001:db8:2::1
# bridge fdb append 00:00:00:00:00:00 dev vxlan100 dst 2001:db8:3::1

The VXLAN is defined without a remote multicast group. Instead, all the remote VTEPs are associated with the all-zero address: a BUM frame will be duplicated to all those destinations. The VXLAN device will still learn remote addresses automatically using source-address learning.

It is a very simple solution. With a bit of automation, you can keep the default FDB entries up-to-date easily. However, the host will have to duplicate each BUM frame (head-end replication) as many times as there are remote VTEPs. This is quite reasonable if you have a dozen of them. This may become out-of-hand if you have thousands of them.

Cumulus vxfld daemon is an example of use of this strategy (in the head-end replication mode).

Unicast with static L2 entries

When the associations of MAC addresses and VTEPs are known, it is possible to pre-populate the FDB and disable learning:

# ip -6 link add vxlan100 type vxlan \
>   id 100 \
>   dstport 4789 \
>   local 2001:db8:1::1 \
>   nolearning
# bridge fdb append 00:00:00:00:00:00 dev vxlan100 dst 2001:db8:2::1
# bridge fdb append 00:00:00:00:00:00 dev vxlan100 dst 2001:db8:3::1
# bridge fdb append 50:54:33:00:00:09 dev vxlan100 dst 2001:db8:2::1
# bridge fdb append 50:54:33:00:00:0a dev vxlan100 dst 2001:db8:2::1
# bridge fdb append 50:54:33:00:00:0b dev vxlan100 dst 2001:db8:3::1

Thanks to the nolearning flag, source-address learning is disabled. Therefore, if a MAC is missing, the frame will always be sent using the all-zero entries.

The all-zero entries are still needed for broadcast and multicast traffic (e.g. ARP and IPv6 neighbor discovery). This kind of setup works well to provide virtual L2 networks to virtual machines (no L3 information available). You need some glue to update the FDB entries.

BGP EVPN with Cumulus Quagga is an example of use of this strategy (see “VXLAN: BGP EVPN with Cumulus Quagga” for additional information).

Unicast with static L3 entries

In the previous example, we had to keep the all-zero entries for ARP and IPv6 neighbor discovery to work correctly. However, Linux can answer to neighbor requests on behalf of the remote nodes4. When this feature is enabled, the default entries are not needed anymore (but you could keep them):

# ip -6 link add vxlan100 type vxlan \
>   id 100 \
>   dstport 4789 \
>   local 2001:db8:1::1 \
>   nolearning \
>   proxy
# ip -6 neigh add 2001:db8:ff::11 lladdr 50:54:33:00:00:09 dev vxlan100
# ip -6 neigh add 2001:db8:ff::12 lladdr 50:54:33:00:00:0a dev vxlan100
# ip -6 neigh add 2001:db8:ff::13 lladdr 50:54:33:00:00:0b dev vxlan100
# bridge fdb append 50:54:33:00:00:09 dev vxlan100 dst 2001:db8:2::1
# bridge fdb append 50:54:33:00:00:0a dev vxlan100 dst 2001:db8:2::1
# bridge fdb append 50:54:33:00:00:0b dev vxlan100 dst 2001:db8:3::1

This setup totally eliminates head-end replication. However, protocols relying on multicast won’t work either. With some automation, this is a setup that should work well with containers: if there is a registry keeping a list of all IP and MAC addresses in use, a program could listen to it and adjust the FDB and the neighbor tables.

The VXLAN backend of Docker’s libnetwork is an example of use of this strategy (but it also uses the next method).

Unicast with dynamic L3 entries

Linux can also notify a program an (L2 or L3) entry is missing. The program queries some central registry and dynamically adds the requested entry. However, for L2 entries, notifications are issued only if:

  • the destination MAC address is not known,
  • there is no all-zero entry in the FDB, and
  • the destination MAC address is not a multicast or broadcast one.

Those limitations prevent us to do a “unicast with dynamic L2 entries” scenario.

First, let’s create the VXLAN device with the l2miss and l3miss options5:

ip -6 link add vxlan100 type vxlan \
   id 100 \
   dstport 4789 \
   local 2001:db8:1::1 \
   nolearning \
   l2miss \
   l3miss \
   proxy

Notifications are sent to programs listening to an AF_NETLINK socket using the NETLINK_ROUTE protocol. This socket needs to be bound to the RTNLGRP_NEIGH group. The following is doing exactly that and decodes the received notifications:

# ip monitor neigh dev vxlan100
miss 2001:db8:ff::12 STALE
miss lladdr 50:54:33:00:00:0a STALE

The first notification is about a missing neighbor entry for the requested IP address. We can add it with the following command:

ip -6 neigh replace 2001:db8:ff::12 \
    lladdr 50:54:33:00:00:0a \
    dev vxlan100 \
    nud reachable

The entry is not permanent so that we don’t need to delete it when it expires. If the address becomes stale, we will get another notification to refresh it.

Once the host receives our proxy answer for the neighbor discovery request, it can send a frame with the MAC we gave as destination. The second notification is about the missing FDB entry for this MAC address. We add the appropriate entry with the following command6:

bridge fdb replace 50:54:33:00:00:0a \
    dst 2001:db8:2::1 \
    dev vxlan100 dynamic

The entry is not permanent either as it would prevent the MAC to migrate to the local VTEP (a dynamic entry cannot override a permanent entry).

This setup works well with containers and a global registry. However, there is small latency penalty for the first connections. Moreover, multicast and broadcast won’t be available in the underlay network. The VXLAN backend for flannel, a network fabric for Kubernetes, is an example of this strategy.

Decision

There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

You should consider the multicast solution if:

  • you are in an environment where multicast is available,
  • you are ready to operate (and scale) a multicast network,
  • you need multicast and broadcast inside the virtual segments,
  • you don’t have L2/L3 addresses available beforehand.

The scalability of such a solution is pretty good if you take care of not putting all VXLAN interfaces into the same multicast group (e.g. use the last byte of the VNI as the last byte of the multicast group).

When multicast is not available, another generic solution is BGP EVPN: BGP is used as a controller to ensure distribution of the list of VTEPs and their respective FDBs. As mentioned earlier, an implementation of this solution is Cumulus Quagga. I explore this option in a separate post: VXLAN: BGP EVPN with Cumulus Quagga.

If you operate in a container-like environment where L2/L3 addresses are known beforehand, a solution using static and/or dynamic L2 and L3 entries based on a central registry and no source-address learning would also fit the bill. This provides a more security-tight solution (bound resources, MiTM attacks dampened down, inability to amplify bandwidth usage through excessive broadcast). Various environment-specific solutions are available7 or you can build your own.

Other considerations

Independently of the chosen strategy, here are a few important points to keep in mind when implementing a VXLAN overlay.

Isolation

While you may expect VXLAN interfaces to only carry L2 traffic, Linux doesn’t disable IP processing. If the destination MAC is a local one, Linux will route or deliver the encapsulated IP packet. Check my post about the proper isolation of a Linux bridge.

Encryption

VXLAN enforces isolation between tenants, but the traffic is totally unencrypted. The most direct solution to provide encryption is to use IPsec. Some container-based solutions may come with IPsec support out-of-the box (notably Docker’s libnetwork, but flannel has plan for it too). This is quite important for a deployment over a public cloud.

Overhead

The format of a VXLAN-encapsulated frame is the following:

VXLAN encapsulation
VXLAN encapsulation inside an UDP datagram (additional overhead: 50 bytes)

VXLAN adds a fixed overhead of 50 bytes. If you also use IPsec, the overhead depends on many factors. In transport mode, with AES and SHA256, the overhead is 56 bytes. With NAT traversal, this is 64 bytes (additional UDP header). In tunnel mode, this is 72 bytes. See Cisco IPsec Overhead Calculator Tool.

Some users will expect to be able to use an Ethernet MTU of 1500 for the overlay network. Therefore, the underlay MTU should be increased. If it is not possible, ensure the inner MTU (inside the containers or the virtual machines) is correctly decreased8.

IPv6

While all the examples above are using IPv6, the ecosystem is not quite ready yet. The multicast L2-only strategy works fine with IPv6 but every other scenario currently needs some patches (1, 2, 3).

On top of that, IPv6 may not have been implemented in VXLAN-related tools:

Multicast

Linux VXLAN implementation doesn’t support IGMP snooping. Multicast traffic will be broadcasted to all VTEPs unless multicast MAC addresses are inserted into the FDB.


  1. This is one possible implementation. The bridge is only needed if you require some form of source-address learning for local interfaces. Another strategy is to use MACVLAN interfaces. 

  2. The underlay multicast network may still need some central components, like rendez-vous points for PIM-SM protocol. Fortunately, it’s possible to make them highly available and scalable (e.g. with Anycast-RP, RFC 4610). 

  3. For this example and the following ones, a patch is needed for the ip command (to be included in 4.11) to use IPv6 for transport. In the meantime, here is a quick workaround:

    # ip -6 link add vxlan100 type vxlan \
    >   id 100 \
    >   dstport 4789 \
    >   local 2001:db8:1::1 \
    >   remote 2001:db8:2::1
    # bridge fdb append 00:00:00:00:00:00 \
    >   dev vxlan100 dst 2001:db8:3::1
    

  4. You may have to apply an IPv6-related patch to the kernel (to be included in 4.12). 

  5. You have to apply an IPv6-related patch to the kernel (to be included in 4.12) to get appropriate notifications for missing IPv6 addresses. 

  6. Directly adding the entry after the first notification would have been smarter to avoid unnecessary retransmissions. 

  7. flannel and Docker’s libnetwork were already mentioned as they both feature a VXLAN backend. There are also some interesting experiments like BaGPipe BGP for Kubernetes which leverages BGP EVPN and is therefore interoperable with other vendors. 

  8. There is no such thing as MTU discovery on an Ethernet segment.