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The Limits of Cloud: Gratuitous ARP and Failover

Understanding the limitations of cloud will better enable a successful migration strategy

Cloud is great at many things. At other things, not so much. Understanding the limitations of cloud will better enable a successful migration strategy.

One of the truisms of technology is that takes a few years of adoption before folks really start figuring out what it excels at – and conversely what it doesn't. That's generally because early adoption is focused on lab-style experimentation that rarely extends beyond basic needs.

It's when adoption reaches critical mass and folks start trying to use the technology to implement more advanced architectures that the "gotchas" start to be discovered.

Cloud is no exception.



A few of the things we've learned over the past years of adoption is that cloud is always on, it's simple to manage, and it makes applications and infrastructure services easy to scale.

Some of the things we're learning now is that cloud isn't so great at supporting application mobility, monitoring of deployed services and at providing advanced networking capabilities.

The reason that last part is so important is that a variety of enterprise-class capabilities we've come to rely upon are ultimately enabled by some of the advanced networking techniques cloud simply does not support.

Take gratuitous ARP, for example. Most cloud providers do not allow or support this feature which ultimately means an inability to take advantage of higher-level functions traditionally taken for granted in the enterprise – like failover.


For those unfamiliar with gratuitous ARP let's get you familiar with it quickly. A gratuitous ARP is an unsolicited ARP request made by a network element (host, switch, device, etc… ) to resolve its own IP address. The source and destination IP address are identical to the source IP address assigned to the network element. The destination MAC is a broadcast address. Gratuitous ARP is used for a variety of reasons. For example, if there is an ARP reply to the request, it means there exists an IP conflict. When a system first boots up, it will often send a gratuitous ARP to indicate it is "up" and available. And finally, it is used as the basis for load balancing failover. To ensure availability of load balancing services, two load balancers will share an IP address (often referred to as a floating IP). Upstream devices recognize the "primary" device by means of a simple ARP entry associating the floating IP with the active device. If the active device fails, the secondary immediately notices (due to heartbeat monitoring between the two) and will send out a gratuitous ARP indicating it is now associated with the IP address and won't the rest of the network please send subsequent traffic to it rather than the failed primary. VRRP and HSRP may also use gratuitous ARP to implement router failover.   how-failure-lb-works

Most cloud environments do not allow broadcast traffic of this nature. After all, it's practically guaranteed that you are sharing a network segment with other tenants, and thus broadcasting traffic could certainly disrupt other tenant's traffic. Additionally, as security minded folks will be eager to remind us, it is fairly well-established that the default for accepting gratuitous ARPs on the network should be "don't do it".

The astute observer will realize the reason for this; there is no security, no ability to verify, no authentication, nothing. A network element configured to accept gratuitous ARPs does so at the risk of being tricked into trusting, explicitly, every gratuitous ARP – even those that may be attempting to fool the network into believing it is a device it is not supposed to be.

That, in essence, is ARP poisoning, and it's one of the security risks associated with the use of gratuitous ARP. Granted, someone needs to be physically on the network to pull this off, but in a cloud environment that's not nearly as difficult as it might be on a locked down corporate network. Gratuitous ARP can further be used to execute denial of service, man in the middle and MAC flooding attacks. None of which have particularly pleasant outcomes, especially in a cloud environment where such attacks would be against shared infrastructure, potentially impacting many tenants.

Thus cloud providers are understandably leery about allowing network elements to willy-nilly announce their own IP addresses.

That said, most enterprise-class network elements have implemented protections against these attacks precisely because of the reliance on gratuitous ARP for various infrastructure services. Most of these protections use a technique that will tentatively accept a gratuitous ARP, but not enter it in its ARP cache unless it has a valid IP-to-MAC mapping, as defined by the device configuration. Validation can take the form of matching against DHCP-assigned addresses or existence in a trusted database.

Obviously these techniques would put an undue burden on a cloud provider's network given that any IP address on a network segment might be assigned to a very large set of MAC addresses.

Simply put, gratuitous ARP is not cloud-friendly, and thus it is you will be hard pressed to find a cloud provider that supports it.

What does that mean?

That means, ultimately, that failover mechanisms in the cloud cannot be based on traditional techniques unless a means to replicate gratuitous ARP functionality without its negative implications can be designed.

Which means, unfortunately, that traditional failover architectures – even using enterprise-class load balancers in cloud environments – cannot really be implemented today. What that means for IT preparing to migrate business critical applications and services to cloud environments is a careful review of their requirements and of the cloud environment's capabilities to determine whether availability and uptime goals can – or cannot – be met using a combination of cloud and traditional load balancing services.

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By Lori MacVittie

Lori MacVittie is responsible for education and evangelism of application services available across F5’s entire product suite. Her role includes authorship of technical materials and participation in a number of community-based forums and industry standards organizations, among other efforts. MacVittie has extensive programming experience as an application architect, as well as network and systems development and administration expertise. Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was an award-winning Senior Technology Editor at Network Computing Magazine, where she conducted product research and evaluation focused on integration with application and network architectures, and authored articles on a variety of topics aimed at IT professionals. Her most recent area of focus included SOA-related products and architectures. She holds a B.S. in Information and Computing Science from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

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