Viptela SEN – DMVPN Done Right

Recently I had the treat of listening to two Layer 3 routing protocol maestros when the CTO of the startup Viptela, Khalid Raza, appeared on Ivan Pepelnjak’s Software Gone Wild podcast. Interestingly, the first time I had ever heard of Khalid or Ivan was through the Cisco Press books that they each authored. Ivan had the famous ‘MPLS and VPN Architectures‘ and Khalid, one of the first CCIEs, wrote ‘CCIE Professional Development: Large Scale IP Network Solutions‘, (which I owned an autographed copy of).

In a nutshell, Viptela’s Secure Extensible Network (SEN) creates hybrid connectivity (VPNs) across the WAN. Their target market is any large retailer or financial company, that has many branches. Khalid and the founder Amir Khan (of Juniper MX product line fame), come from super strong Layer 3 background and, consequently, they don’t purport to have a revolutionary solution. Instead, they have harnessed that background to improve on what DMVPN has been attempting to solve for the past 10 years. In Khalid’s words, they have “evolved MPLS concepts for overlay networks”.

Viptela SEN comprises a controller, VPN termination endpoints, and a proprietary protocol that is heavily inspired by BGP. In fact, one of the advisors of Viptela is Tony Li, author of 29 RFCs (mostly BGP-related), and one of the main architects of BGP. Viptela SEN can discover local site characteristics (such as the IGP) and report them to the controller, which then determines the branch’s connectivity policy. So it essentially reduces the number of control planes, which reduces the number of configurations for the WAN. This looks incredibly similar to what DMVPN sought out to do a decade ago. Viptela calls these endpoints dataplane points, but they still run routing protocols, so to me they’re just routers.

DMVPN, itself, started as a Cisco proprietary solution, spearheaded by Cisco TAC, in particular a gentleman by the name of Mike Sullenberger, who served as an escalation engineer. He has since coauthored an IETF draft on DMVPN. In fact, one of the earliest tech docs on touts how ‘for a 1000-site deployment, DMVPN reduces the configuration effort at the hub from 3900 lines to 13 lines’.

Getting back to Viptela SEN, the endpoints (aka routers) authenticate with the controller (through exchange of certificates). Different circuits from different providers (MPLs or broadband) can be balanced through L3 ECMP. Their datapath endpoints are commodity boxes with Cavium processors that can give predictable (AES-256) encryption performance that tunnel to other endpoints (via peer-to-peer keys) as prescribed by the orchestrator/controller. In the event of a site-controller failures, if a site still has dataplane connectivity to another site that it needs to communicate with, then traffic can still forward (provided the keys are still valid) and all is well though the entries are stale.

One of the differentiators between Viptela and others in this space is that they do not build overlay subnet-based routing adjacencies. This allows them to offer each line of business in a large company to have a network topology that is service driven rather than the other way round. Translated in technical terms, each line of business effectively has a VRF with different default routes, but a single peering connection to the controller. In DMVPN terms, the controller is like the headend router, or hub. The biggest difference that I could tell between Viptela SEN and DMVPN is the preference given to L3 BGP over L2 NHRP. One of the biggest advantages of BGP has always been the outbound attribute change in the sense that a hub router could manipulate, via BGP MED, how a site could exit an AS. It is highly customizable. For example, majority of the sites could exit via a corporate DMZ while some branches (like Devtest in an AWS VPC) could exit through a regional exit point. In DMVPN, NHRP (which is a L2 ARP-like discovery protocol) has more authority and doesn’t allow outbound attribute manipulation which BGP, a L3 routing protocol has been doing successfully throughout the Internet for decades. NHRP just isn’t smart enough to provide that level of control-plane complexity.

Viptela SEN allows for each site to have different control policies – it could be a control plane path that says

The flexibility that Viptela SEN extends to a site can be at a control plane path level (e.g. ensure that certain VPNs trombone through a virtual path or service point like a firewall or IDS before exiting, as done in NFV with service chaining ) or data plane level (e.g. PBR). Since it promises easy bring-up and configuration, to alleviate concerns about SOHO endpoint boxes being stolen, they have a GPS installed in these lower end boxes. The controller only allows these boxes to authenticate with it if they are in the prescribed GPS coordinates. If the box is moved, it is flagged as a potentially unauthorized move and second-factor authentication is required in order to be considered as permissible. The controller can permit this but silently monitor the activities of this new endpoint box without its knowledge, akin to a honeypot. That’s innovation!


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