Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
Request for Comments: 7690
Category: Informational
ISSN: 2070-1721
M. Byerly
M. Hite
J. Jaeggli
January 2016

Close Encounters of the ICMP Type 2 Kind

(Near Misses with ICMPv6 Packet Too Big (PTB))


This document calls attention to the problem of delivering ICMPv6 type 2 "Packet Too Big" (PTB) messages to the intended destination (typically the server) in ECMP load-balanced or anycast network architectures. It discusses operational mitigations that can be employed to address this class of failures.

Status of This Memo

This document is not an Internet Standards Track specification; it is published for informational purposes.

This document is a product of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). It represents the consensus of the IETF community. It has received public review and has been approved for publication by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). Not all documents approved by the IESG are a candidate for any level of Internet Standard; see Section 2 of RFC 5741.

Information about the current status of this document, any errata, and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at

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Table of Contents

   1.  Introduction  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   2
   2.  Problem . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   3
   3.  Mitigation  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   4
     3.1.  Alternative Mitigations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   5
     3.2.  Implementation  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   5
       3.2.1.  Alternative Implementation  . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
   4.  Improvements  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   7
   5.  Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8
   6.  Informative References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8
   Acknowledgements  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9
   Authors' Addresses  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9

1. Introduction

Operators of popular Internet services face complex challenges associated with scaling their infrastructure. One scaling approach is to utilize equal-cost multipath (ECMP) routing to perform stateless distribution of incoming TCP or UDP sessions to multiple servers or to middle boxes such as load balancers. Distribution of traffic in this manner presents a problem when dealing with ICMP signaling. Specifically, an ICMP error is not guaranteed to hash via ECMP to the same destination as its corresponding TCP or UDP session. A case where this is particularly problematic operationally is path MTU discovery (PMTUD) [RFC1981].

2. Problem

A common application for stateless load balancing of TCP or UDP flows is to perform an initial subdivision of flows in front of a stateful load-balancer tier or multiple servers so that the workload becomes divided into manageable fractions of the total number of flows. The flow division is performed using ECMP forwarding and a stateless but sticky algorithm for hashing across the available paths (see [RFC2991] for background on ECMP routing). For the purposes of flow distribution, this next-hop selection is a constrained form of anycast topology, where all anycast destinations are equidistant from the upstream router responsible for making the last next-hop forwarding decision before the flow arrives on the destination device. In this approach, the hash is performed across some set of available protocol headers. Typically, these headers may include all or a subset of (IPv6) Flow-Label, IP-source, IP-destination, protocol, source-port, destination-port, and potentially others such as ingress interface.

A problem common to this approach of distribution through hashing is impact on path MTU discovery. An ICMPv6 type 2 PTB message generated on an intermediate device for a packet sent from a server that is part of an ECMP load-balanced service to a client will have the load- balanced anycast address as the destination and hence will be statelessly load balanced to one of the servers. While the ICMPv6 PTB message contains as much of the packet that could not be forwarded as possible, the payload headers are not considered in the forwarding decision and are ignored. Because the PTB message is not identifiable as part of the original flow by the IP or upper-layer packet headers, the results of the ICMPv6 ECMP hash calculation are unlikely to be hashed to the same next hop as packets matching the TCP or UDP ECMP hash of the flow.

An example packet flow and topology follow. The packet for which the PTB message was generated was intended for the client.

ptb -> router ecmp -> next hop L4/L7 load balancer -> destination

     router --> load balancer 1 --->
          \\--> load balancer 2 ---> load-balanced service
           \--> load balancer N --->

Figure 1

The router ECMP decision is used because it is part of the forwarding architecture, can be performed at line rate, and does not depend on shared state or coordination across a distributed forwarding system that may include multiple linecards or routers. The ECMP routing decision is deterministic with respect to packets having the same computed hash.

A typical case in which ICMPv6 PTB messages are received at the load balancer is where the path MTU from the client to the load balancer is limited by a tunnel of which the client itself is not aware.

Direct experience says that the frequency of PTB messages is small compared to total flows. One possible conclusion is that tunneled IPv6 deployments that cannot carry 1500 MTU packets are relatively rare. Techniques employed by clients (e.g., Happy Eyeballs [RFC6555]) may actually contribute some amelioration to the IPv6 client experience by preferring IPv4 in cases that might be identified as failures. Still, the expectation of operators is that PMTUD should work and that unnecessary breakage of client traffic should be avoided.

A final observation regarding server tuning is that it is not always possible, even if it is potentially desirable to be able to independently set the TCP MSS (Maximum Segment Size) for different address families on some end systems. On Linux platforms, advmss (advertised mss) may be set on a per-route basis for selected destinations in cases where discrimination by route is possible.

The problem as described does also impact IPv4; however, implementation of RFC 4821 [RFC4821] TCP MTU probing, the ability to fragment on the wire at tunnel ingress points, and the relative rarity of sub-1500-byte MTUs that are not coupled to changes in client behavior (for example, endpoint VPN clients set the tunnel interface MTU accordingly to avoid fragmentation for performance reasons) makes the problem sufficiently rare that some existing deployments have chosen to ignore it.

3. Mitigation

Mitigation of the potential for PTB messages to be misdelivered involves ensuring that an ICMPv6 error message is distributed to the same anycast server responsible for the flow for which the error is generated. With appropriate hardware support, flows could be identified using the same technique as hosts by inspecting the payload of the ICMPv6 message. The ECMP hash calculation can then be performed using values identified from the inner TCP flow parameters of the ICMPv6 message. Because the encapsulated IP header occurs at a fixed offset in the ICMP message, it is not outside the realm of possibility that routers with sufficient header processing capability could parse that far into the payload. Employing a mediation device that handles the parsing and distribution of PTB messages after policy routing or on each load balancer / server is a possibility.

Another mitigation approach is predicated upon distributing the PTB message to all anycast servers under the assumption that the one for which the message was intended will be able to match it to the flow and update the route cache with the new MTU and that devices not able to match the flow will discard these packets. Such distribution has potentially significant implications for resource consumption and for self-inflicted denial of service (DOS) if not carefully employed. Fortunately, we have observed that the number of flows for which this problem occurs is relatively small in real-world deployments (for example, 10 or fewer pps on 1 Gbit/s or more worth of HTTPS); sensible ingress rate limiters that will discard excessive message volume can be applied to protect even very large anycast server tiers with the potential for fallout limited to circumstances of deliberate duress.

3.1. Alternative Mitigations

As an alternative, it may be appropriate to lower the TCP MSS to 1220 in order to accommodate 1280-byte MTU. We consider this undesirable, as hosts may not be able to independently set TCP MSS by address family thereby impacting IPv4, or alternatively that middle-boxes need to be employed to clamp the MSS independently from the end systems. Potentially, extension headers might further alter the lower bound that the MSS would have to be set to, making clamping even more undesirable.

3.2. Implementation

  1. Filter-based forwarding matches next-header ICMPv6 type 2 and matches a next hop on a particular subnet directly attached to one or more routers. The filter is policed to reasonable limits (we chose 1000 pps; more conservative rates might be required in other implementations).
  1. The filter is applied on the input side of all external (Internet- or customer-facing) interfaces.
  1. A proxy located at the next hop forwards ICMPv6 type 2 packets it receives to an Ethernet broadcast address (example ff:ff:ff:ff:ff:ff) on all specified subnets. This was necessitated by router inability (in IPv6) to forward the same packet to multiple unicast next hops.
  1. Anycasted servers receive the PTB error and process the packet as needed.

A simple Python scapy [SCAPY] script that can perform the ICMPv6 proxy reflection is included.


from scapy.all import *

IFACE_OUT = ["p2p1", "p2p2"]

def icmp6_callback(pkt):

             if pkt.haslayer(IPv6) and (ICMPv6PacketTooBig in pkt) \
             and pkt[Ether].dst != 'ff:ff:ff:ff:ff:ff':
                 pkt[Ether].dst = 'ff:ff:ff:ff:ff:ff'
                 for iface in IFACE_OUT:
                     sendp(pkt, iface=iface)

def main():

sniff(prn=icmp6_callback, filter="icmp6 \ and (ip6[40+0] == 2)", store=0)

if __name__ == '__main__':


This example script listens on all interfaces for IPv6 PTB errors being forwarded using filter-based forwarding. It removes the existing Ethernet source and rewrites a new Ethernet destination of the Ethernet broadcast address. It then sends the resulting frame out the p2p1 and p2p2 interfaces that are attached to VLANs where our anycast servers reside.

3.2.1. Alternative Implementation

Alternatively, network designs in which a common layer 2 network exists on the ECMP hop could distribute the proxy onto the end systems, eliminating the need for policy routing. They could then rewrite the destination -- for example, using iptables before forwarding the packet back to the network containing all of the server or load-balancer interfaces. This implementation can be done entirely within the Linux iptables firewall. Because of the distributed nature of the filter, more conservative rate limits are required than when a global rate limit can be employed.

An example ip6tables/nftables rule to match icmp6 traffic, not match broadcast traffic, impose a rate limit of 10 pps, and pass to a target destination would resemble:

       ip6tables -I INPUT -i lo -p icmpv6 -m icmpv6 --icmpv6-type 2/0 \
       -m pkttype ! --pkt-type broadcast -m limit --limit 10/second \
       -j TEE 2001:DB8::1

As with the scapy example, once the destination has been rewritten from a hardcoded ND entry to an Ethernet broadcast address -- in this case to an IPv6 documentation address -- the traffic will be reflected to all the hosts on the subnet.

4. Improvements

There are several ways that improvements could be made to improve handling ECMP load balancing of ICMPv6 PTB messages. Little in the way of change to the Internet protocol specification is required; rather, we foresee practical implementation change, which, insofar as we are aware, does not exist in current router, switch, or layer 3/4 load balancers. Alternatively, improved behavior on the part of client/server detection of path MTU in band could render the behavior of devices in the path irrelevant.

  1. Routers with sufficient capacity within the lookup process could parse all the way through the L3 or L4 header in the ICMPv6 payload beginning at bit offset 32 of the ICMP header. By reordering the elements of the hash to match the inward direction of the flow, the PTB error could be directed to the same next hop as the incoming packets in the flow.
  1. The FIB (Forwarding Information Base) on the router could be programmed with a multicast distribution tree that includes all of the necessary next hops, and unicast ICMPv6 packets could be policy routed to these destinations.
  1. Ubiquitous implementation of RFC 4821 [RFC4821] Packetization Layer Path MTU Discovery would probably go a long way towards reducing dependence on ICMPv6 PTB by end systems.

5. Security Considerations

The employed mitigation has the potential to greatly amplify the impact of a deliberately malicious sending of ICMPv6 PTB messages. Sensible ingress rate limiting can reduce the potential for impact; legitimate PMTUD messages may be lost once the rate limit is reached. The scenario where drops of legitimate traffic occur is analogous to other cases where DOS traffic can crowd out legitimate traffic, however only a limited subset of overall traffic is impacted.

The proxy replication results in all devices on the subnet receiving ICMPv6 PTB errors, even those not associated with the flow. This could arguably result in information disclosure due to the wide replication of the ICMPv6 PTB error on the subnet and the large fragment of the offending IP packet embedded in the ICMPv6 error. Because of this, recipient machines should be in a common administrative domain.

6. Informative References

   [RFC1981]  McCann, J., Deering, S., and J. Mogul, "Path MTU Discovery
              for IP version 6", RFC 1981, DOI 10.17487/RFC1981, August
              1996, <>.
   [RFC2991]  Thaler, D. and C. Hopps, "Multipath Issues in Unicast and
              Multicast Next-Hop Selection", RFC 2991,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC2991, November 2000,
   [RFC4821]  Mathis, M. and J. Heffner, "Packetization Layer Path MTU
              Discovery", RFC 4821, DOI 10.17487/RFC4821, March 2007,
   [RFC6555]  Wing, D. and A. Yourtchenko, "Happy Eyeballs: Success with
              Dual-Stack Hosts", RFC 6555, DOI 10.17487/RFC6555, April
              2012, <>.
   [SCAPY]    Scapy, <>.


The authors thank Marak Majkowsiki for contributing text, examples, and a very thorough review. The authors would like to thank Mark Andrews, Brian Carpenter, Nick Hilliard, and Ray Hunter, for review.

Authors' Addresses

Matt Byerly
Kapolei, HI
United States


Matt Hite
Redwood City, CA
United States


Joel Jaeggli
Mountain View, CA
United States