9.3 Route Descriptor

MPLS-based VPNs employ BGP to communicate between PEs to facilitate customer routes. This is made possible through extensions to BGP that carry addresses other than IPv4 addresses. A notable extension is called the route distinguisher or the route descriptor (RD).

The purpose of the route distinguisher (RD) is to make the prefix value unique across the backbone. Prefixes should use the same RD if they are associated with the same set of route targets (RTs) and anything else that is used to select routing policy. The community of interest association is based on the route target (RT) extended community attributes distributed with the Network Layer Reachability Information (NLRI).The RD value must be a globally unique value to avoid conflict with other prefixes.

The MPLS label is part of a BGP routing update. The routing update also carries the addressing and reachability information. When the RD is unique across the MPLS VPN network, proper connectivity is established even if different customers use non-unique IP addresses.

For the RD, every CE that has the same overall role should use a VRF with the same name, same RD, and same RT values. The RDs and RTs are only for route exchange between the PEs running BGP. That is, for the PEs to do MPLS VPN work, they have to exchange routing information with more fields than usual for IPv4 routes; that extra information includes (but is not limited to) the RDs and RTs.

9.3.1 Route Targets

One of the most perplexing concepts for engineers, when first learning about MPLS VPNs, is the concept of Route Targets. Understanding the basic question of what RTs do is relatively easy, but understanding why MPLS needs RTs and how to best choose the actual values to use for RTs, can be a topic for long conversation when building an MPLS VPN. In fact, MPLS RTs enable MPLS to support all sorts of complex VPN topologies-for example, allowing some sites to be reachable from multiple VPNs, a concept called overlapping VPNs.

PEs advertise RTs in BGP Updates as BGP Extended Community path attributes (PAs). Generally speaking, BGP extended communities are 8 bytes in length, with the flexibility to be used for a wide variety of purposes. More specifically, MPLS defines the use of the BGP Extended Community PA to encode one or more RT values.

RT values follow the same basic format as the values of an RD. However, note that while a particular prefix can have only one RD, that same prefix can have one or more RTs assigned to it.

9.3.2 MP-BGP and Route Distinguishers

MPLS deals with the overlapping prefix problem by adding another number in front of the original BGP NLRI (prefix). Each different number can represent a different customer, making the NLRI values unique. To do this, MPLS took advantage of a BGP RFC, called MP-BGP (RFC 4760), which allows for the redefinition of the NLRI field in BGP Updates. This re-definition allows for an additional variable-length number, called an address family, to be added in front of the prefix. MPLS RFC 4364, "BGP/MPLS IP Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)," defines a specific new address family to support IPv4 MPLS VPNs- namely, an MP-BGP address family called Route Distinguishers (RDs).

RDs allow BGP to advertise and distinguish between duplicate IPv4 prefixes. The concept is simple: advertise each NLRI (prefix) as the traditional IPv4 prefix, but add another number (the RD) that uniquely identifies the route. In particular, the new NLRI format, called VPN-V4, has the following two parts:

  • A 64-bit RD

  • A 32-bit IPv4 prefix

The RD itself is 8 bytes with some required formatting conventions. The first 2 bytes identify which of the three formats is followed. Incidentally, because IOS can tell which of the three formats is used based on the value, the IOS rd VRF subcommand only requires that you type the integer values for the last 6 bytes, with IOS inferring the first 2 bytes (the type) based on the value. The last 6 bytes, as typed in the rd command and seen in show commands, follow one of these formats:

  • 2-byte-integer:4-byte-integer

  • 4-byte-integer:2-byte-integer

  • 4-byte-dotted-decimal:2-byte-integer

In all three cases, the first value (before the colon) should be either an ASN or an IPv4 address. The second value, after the colon, can be any value you wish. For example, you might choose an RD that lists an LSR's BGP ID using the third format, like, or you may use the BGP ASN, for example, 432:1.

At this point in the ongoing example, PE1 has learned about the two routes for for VPN-A and one for VPN-B-and the routes are in the BGP table.