Section 1.5: Spanning-Tree Protocol (STP)

A Layer 2 switch, which functions as a transparent bridge, offers no additional links for redundancy purposes. To add redundancy, a second switch must be added. Now two switches offer the transparent bridging function in parallel. LAN designs with redundant links introduce the possibility that frames might loop around the network forever. These looping frames would cause network performance problems. For example, when the switches receive an unknown unicast, both will flood the frame out all their available ports, including the ports that link to the other switch, resulting in what is known as a bridging loop, as the frame is forwarded around and around between two switches. This occurs because parallel switches are unaware of each other. The Spanning-Tree Protocol (STP), which allows the redundant LAN links to be used while preventing frames from looping around the LAN indefinitely through those redundant links, was developed to overcome the possibility of bridging loops. It enables switches to become aware of each other so that they can negotiate a loop-free path through the network. Loops are discovered before they are opened for use, and redundant links are shut down to prevent the loops from forming. STP is communicated between all connected switches on a network. Each switch executes the Spanning-Tree Algorithm (STA) based on information received from other neighboring switches. The algorithm chooses a reference point in the network and calculates all the redundant paths to that reference point. When redundant paths are found, STA picks one path to forward frames with and disables or blocks forwarding on the other redundant paths. STP computes a tree structure that spans all switches in a subnet or network. Redundant paths are placed in a blocking or standby state to prevent frame forwarding. The switched network is then in a loop-free condition. However, if a forwarding port fails or becomes disconnected, the STA will run again to recompute the Spanning-Tree topology so that blocked links can be reactivated.

By default, STP is enabled on all ports of a switch. STP should remain enabled in a network to prevent bridging loops from forming. However, if STP has been disabled on a CLI-based switch, it can be reenabled with the following command:

Switch (enable) set spantree enable [ all | module_number|port_number ]

If STP has been disabled on an IOS-based switch, it can be re-enabled with the following command:

Switch (config)# spantree vlan_list

You can use the show spantree [ vlan ] command to view the status of STP on either a CLI- or IOS-based switch.

The STA places each bridge/switch port in either a forwarding state or a blocking state. All the ports in forwarding state are considered to be in the current spanning tree. The collective set of forwarding ports creates a single path over which frames are sent between Ethernet segments. Switches can forward frames out ports and receive frames in ports that are in forwarding state; switches do not forward frames out ports and receive frames in ports that are in blocking state.

STP uses three criteria to choose whether to put an interface in forwarding state or a blocking state:

  • STP elects a root bridge and puts all interfaces on the root bridge in forwarding state.
  • Each nonroot bridge considers one of its ports to have the lowest administrative cost between itself and the root bridge. STP places this lowest-root-cost interface, called that bridge's root port, in forwarding state.
  • Many bridges can attach to the same Ethernet segment. The bridge with the lowest administrative cost from itself to the root bridge, as compared with the other bridges attached to the same segment, is placed in forwarding state. The lowest-cost bridge on each segment is called the designated bridge, and that bridge's interface, attached to that segment, is called the designated port.

All other interfaces are placed in blocking state.

1.5.1: Root Bridge Election

For all switches in a network to agree on a loop-free topology, a common frame of reference must exist. This reference point is called the Root Bridge. The Root Bridge is chosen by an election process among all connected switches. Each switch has a unique Bridge ID that it uses to identify itself to other switches. The Bridge ID is an 8-byte value. 2 bytes of the Bridge ID is used for a Bridge Priority field, which is the priority or weight of a switch in relation to all other switches. The other 6 bytes of the Bridge ID is used for the MAC Address field, which can come from the Supervisor module, the backplane, or a pool of 1024 addresses that are assigned to every Supervisor or backplane depending on the switch model. This address is hardcoded, unique, and cannot be changed.

The election process begins with every switch sending out BPDUs with a Root Bridge ID equal to its own Bridge ID as well as a Sender Bridge ID. The latter is used to identify the source of the BPDU message. Received BPDU messages are analyzed for a lower Root Bridge ID value. If the BPDU message has a Root Bridge ID of the lower value than the switch's own Root Bridge ID, it replaces its own Root Bridge ID with the Root Bridge ID announced in the BPDU. If two Bridge Priority values are equal, then the lower MAC address takes preference. The switch is then nominates the new Root Bridge ID in its own BPDU messages although it will still identify itself as the Sender Bridge ID. Once the process has converged, all switches will agree on the Root Bridge until a new switch is added.

The Root Bridge election is based on the idea that one switch is chosen as a common reference point, and all other switches choose ports that are closest to the Root. The Root Bridge election is also based on the idea that the Root Bridge can become a central hub that interconnects other legs of the network. Therefore, the Root Bridge can be faced with heavy switching loads in its central location. If heavy loads of traffic are expected to pass through the Root Bridge, the slowest switch is not the ideal candidate. Furthermore, only one Root Bridge is elected. This is thus not fault tolerant. To overcome these problems, you should set a Root Bridge in a determined fashion, and set a secondary Root Bridge in case of primary Root Bridge failure. The Root Bridge and the secondary Root Bridge should be placed near the center of the network.

To configure a CLI-based Catalyst switch to become the Root Bridge, use the following command to modify the Bridge Priority value so that a switch can be given a lower Bridge ID value to win a Root Bridge election:

Switch (enable) set spantree priority bridge_priority [ vlan ]

Alternatively, you can use the following command:

Switch (enable) set spantree root [ secondary ] [ vlan_list ] [ dia diameter ] [ hello hello_time ]

This command is a macro that executes several other commands. The result is a more direct and automatic way to force one switch to become the Root Bridge. Actual Bridge Priorities are not given in the command. Rather, the switch will modify STP values according to the current values in use within the active network.

To configure an IOS-based Catalyst switch to become the Root Bridge, use the following command to modify the Bridge Priority value so that a switch can be given a lower Bridge ID value to win a Root Bridge election:

Switch (config)# spanning-tree [ vlan vlan_list ] priority bridge_priority

1.5.2: Root Ports Election

Once a reference point has been nominated and elected for the entire switched network, each non-root switch must find its relation to the Root Bridge. This action can be performed by selecting only one Root Port on each non-root switch. STP uses the Root Path Cost to select a Root Port. The Root Path Cost is the cumulative cost of all the links leading to the Root Bridge. A particular switch link has a cost associated with it called the Port or Path Cost. This cost is inversely proportional to the port's bandwidth. As the Path Cost travels along, other switches can modify its value to make it cumulative. The Path Cost is known only to the local switch where the port or "path" to a neighboring switch resides as it is not contained in the BPDU. Only the Root Path Cost is contained in the BPDU. Path Costs are defined as a one-byte value.

The Root Bridge sends out a BPDU with a Root Path Cost value of zero because its ports sit directly on the Root Bridge. When the next closest neighbor receives the BPDU, it adds the Path Cost of its own port where the BPDU arrived. The neighbor then sends out BPDUs with this new cumulative value as the Root Path Cost. This value is incremented by subsequent switch port Path Costs as the BPDU is received by each switch on down the line. After incrementing the Root Path Cost, a switch also records the value in its memory. When a BPDU is received on another port and the new Root Path Cost is lower than the previously recorded value, this lower value becomes the new Root Path Cost. In addition, the lower cost tells the switch that the Root Bridge must be closer to this port than it was on other ports. The switch has now determined which of its ports is the closest to the root-the Root Port.

If desired, the cost of a port can be modified from the default value. However, changing one port's cost may influence STP to choose that port as a Root Port. Therefore careful calculation is required to ensure that the desired path will be elected. On a CLI-based switch, the port cost can be modified by using one of the following commands:

Switch (enable) set spantree portcost module_number/port_number cost


Switch (enable) set spantree portvlancost module_number/port_number [ cost cost ] [ vlan_list ]

On an IOS-based switch, the port cost for individual VLANs can be modified by using the following command:

Switch (config-if)# spanning-tree [ vlan vlan_list ] cost cost

1.5.3: Designated Ports Election

Once the Root Path Cost values have been computed, the Root Ports have been identified; however, all other links are still connected and could be active, leaving bridging loops. To remove the bridging loops, STP makes a final computation to identify one Designated Port on each network segment which would forward traffic to and from that segment. Switches choose a Designated Port based on the lowest cumulative Root Path Cost to the Root Bridge. All ports are still active and bridging loops are still possible. STP has a set of progressive states that each port must go through, regardless of the type or identification. These states will actively prevent loops from forming.

1.5.4: STP States

To participate in STP, each port of a switch must progress through several states. A port begins in a Disabled state moving through several passive states and finally into an active state if allowed to forward traffic. The STP port states are: Disabled, Blocking, Listening, Learning, and Forwarding.

  • Ports that are administratively shut down by the network administrator or by the system due to a fault condition are in the Disabled state. This state is special and is not part of the normal STP progression for a port.
  • After a port initializes, it begins in the Blocking state so that no bridging loops can form. In the Blocking state, a port cannot receive or transmit data and cannot add MAC addresses to its address table. Instead, a port is only allowed to receive BPDUs. Also, ports that are put into standby mode to remove a bridging loop enter the Blocking state.
  • The port will be moved from the Blocking state to the Listening state if the switch thinks that the port can be selected as a Root Port or Designated Port. In the Listening state, the port still cannot send or receive data frames. However, the port is allowed to receive and send BPDUs so that it can actively participate in the Spanning-Tree topology process. Here the port is finally allowed to become a Root Port or Designated Port because the switch can advertise the port by sending BPDUs to other switches. Should the port lose its Root Port or Designated Port status, it is returned to the Blocking state.
  • After a period of time called the Forward Delay in the Listening state, the port is allowed to move into the Learning state. The port still sends and receives BPDUs as before. In addition, the switch can now learn new MAC addresses to add into its address table.
  • After another Forward Delay period in the Learning state, the port is allowed to move into the Forwarding state. The port can now send and receive data frames, collect MAC addresses into its address table, and send and receive BPDUs. The port is now a fully functioning switch port within the Spanning-Tree topology.

1.5.5: STP Timers

STP operates as switches send BPDUs to each other in an effort to form a loop-free topology. The BPDUs take a finite amount of time to travel from switch to switch. In addition, news of a topology change such as a link or Root Bridge failure can suffer from propagation delays as the announcement travels from one side of a network to the other. Because of the possibility of these delays, preventing the Spanning-Tree topology from converging until all switches have had time to receive accurate information is important. STP uses three timers for this purpose. There are three timers: Hello Time, Forward Delay, and Max Age.

  • Hello Time is the time interval between Configuration BPDUs sent by the Root Bridge. The Hello Time value configured in the Root Bridge switch will determine the Hello Time for all non-root switches. However, all switches have a locally configured Hello Time that is used to time Topology Change Notification (TCN) BPDUs when they are retransmitted. The IEEE 802.1D standard specifies a default Hello Time value of two seconds.
  • Forward Delay is the time interval that a switch port spends in both the Listening and Learning states. The default value is 15 seconds.
  • Max Age is the time interval that a switch stores a BPDU before discarding it. While executing the STP, each switch port keeps a copy of the "best" BPDU that it has heard. If the source of the BPDU loses contact with the switch port, the switch will notice that a topology change has occurred after the Max Age time elapses and the BPDU is aged out. The default Max Age value is 20 seconds.

To announce a change in the active network topology, switches send a Topology Change Notification (TCN) BPDU. This occurs when a switch either moves a port into the Forwarding state or moves a port from Forwarding or Learning into the Blocking state. The switch sends a TCN BPDU out its Designated Port. The TCN BPDU carries no data about the change, but only informs recipients that a change has occurred. However, the switch will not send TCN BPDUs if the port has been configured with PortFast enabled. The switch will continue sending TCN BPDUs every Hello Time interval until it gets an acknowledgement from an upstream neighbor. As the upstream neighbors receive the TCN BPDU, they will propagate it on toward the Root Bridge. When the Root Bridge receives the BPDU, the Root Bridge sends out an acknowledgement. The Root Bridge also sends out the Topology Change flag in a Configuration BPDU so that all other bridges will shorten their bridge table aging times down from the default 300 seconds to the Forward Delay value. This condition causes the learned locations of MAC addresses to be flushed out sooner than they normally would, easing the bridge table corruption that might occur due to the change in topology. However, any stations that are actively communicating during this time will be kept in the bridge table. This condition lasts for the sum of the Forward Delay and the Max Age.

The three STP timers can be adjusted. These timers need only be modified on the Root Bridge and any secondary or backup Root Bridges because the Root Bridge propagates all three timer values throughout the network in the Configuration BPDU.

1.5.6: Optional STP Features

Cisco has added several proprietary enhancements to STP and to the logic used by its switches. Also, the IEEE, which owns the STP specifications, has made other enhancements, some similar to Cisco's proprietary enhancements. EtherChannel

EtherChannel combines from two to eight parallel Ethernet trunks between the same pair of switches, bundled into an EtherChannel. STP treats an EtherChannel as a single link, so if at least one of the links is up, STP convergence does not have to occur. With each pair of Ethernet links configured as an EtherChannel, STP treats each EtherChannel as a single link. Thus, both links to the same switch must fail for a switch to need to cause STP convergence. Without EtherChannel, if you have multiple parallel links between two switches, STP blocks all the links except one. With EtherChannel, all the parallel links can be up and working at the same time, while reducing the number of times STP must converge, which in turn makes the network more available.

EtherChannel also provides more network bandwidth. All trunks in an EtherChannel are either forwarding or blocking, because STP treats all the trunks in the same EtherChannel as one trunk. When an EtherChannel is in forwarding state, the switches forward traffic over all the trunks, providing more bandwidth. PortFast

PortFast allows a switch to place a port in forwarding state immediately when the port becomes physically active. However, the only ports on which you can safely enable PortFast are ports on which you know that no bridges, switches, or other STP devices are connected. Thus, PortFast is most appropriate for connections to end-user devices. If you turn on PortFast for end-user devices, when an end-user PC boots, as soon as the Ethernet card is active, the switch port can forward traffic. Without PortFast, each port must wait MaxAge plus twice the Forward Delay, which is 50 seconds with the default MaxAge and Forward Delay settings. Rapid Spanning Tree (IEEE 802.1w)

The IEEE has improved the 802.1d protocol, which defines STP, with the definition of Rapid Spanning Tree Protocol (RSTP), as defined in standard 802.1w. RSTP is similar to STP in that it elects the root switch using the same parameters and tiebreakers; elects the root port on nonroot switches with the same rules; elects designated ports on each LAN segment with the same rules; and places each port in either a forwarding state or a blocking state, with the latter being called the discarding state instead of the blocking state.

RSTP can be deployed alongside traditional STP bridges and switches, with RSTP features working in switches that support it, and STP features working in the switches that support only STP.

The advantage RSTP has over STP is improved network convergence when network topology changes occur. STP convergence has essentially wait periods: a switch must first cease to receive root BPDUs for MaxAge: seconds before it can begin to transition any interfaces from blocking to forwarding. For any interfaces that need to transition from blocking to forwarding, the interface must endure Forward Delay seconds in listening state and Forward Delay more seconds in learning state before being placed in forwarding state. By default, these three wait periods of are 20, 15, and 15 seconds.

RSTP convergence times typically take less than 10 seconds. In some cases, they can be as low as 1 to 2 seconds.