Our Network team had been making some changes at work and suddenly vCenter in our London office lost connectivity with all the ESX hosts in one of our remote office. Moreover, when trying to connect from the vSphere Client to any of the remote hosts directly we were getting the following error –
Connectivity from vSphere Client in the remote office to the ESX host in the same office was fine; it was only connectivity from other offices to this remote office. So it definitely indicated a network issue.
This KB article is a handy one to know what ports are required by various VMware products. Port 443 is what needs to be open to ESX hosts for vCenter Server to be able to talk to them. I did a
telnet from the vCenter server to each of the remote office hosts on port 443 and it went through fine – so wasn’t a firewall issue. (Another post with port numbers, just FYI, is this one).
After a fair bit of troubleshooting we tracked the issue down to MTU.
Digressing into MTUs
Communication between two IP addresses (i.e. layer 3) happens through packets. Thus when my London vCenter Server communicates with my remote office ESX host, the two send TCP/IP packets to each other. When these packets from the vCenter Server reach the switch/ router on the same LAN as the ESX host, it becomes a layer 2 communication (because they are on the same network and it’s a matter of data reaching the ESX host from the switch/ router). In the case of Ethernet, this layer 2 communication happens via Ethernet frames. The frames encapsulate the IP packets – so the switch/ router breaks the packets and fits them into multiple frames, while the ESX host receives these frames and re-assembles the packets (and vice versa). (The picture on this Wikipedia page is worth a look to see the encapsulation).
How much data can be held by a layer 2 frame is defined by the Maximum Transmission Unit (MTU). Larger MTUs are good because you can carry more data; but they have a downside in that each frame takes longer to be transmitted, and in case of any errors more data has to be re-transmitted when the frame is resent. So a balance is important. In the case of Ethernet, RFC 894 (see errata also) defines the MTU as a maximum of 1500 bytes. In the case of other layer 2 protocols, the MTU varies: for example 4464 bytes for Token Ring; 4352 bytes for FDDI; 9180 bytes for ATM; etc. In the case of Ethernet there are now also jumbo frames, which are frames with an MTU size of 9000 bytes (see this page for a table comparing regular frames and jumbo frames) and are commonly used in iSCSI networks.
Taking the case of Ethernet, assume the MTU of all Ethernet networks is 1500 bytes. So when two devices are conversing with each other over layer 3, and this conversation spans multiple Ethernet networks, it is helpful if the devices know that the MTU of the underlying layer 2 network is 1500 bytes. That way the two devices can keep the size of their layer 3 packets to be less than 1500 bytes. Why? Because if the size of the layer 3 packets are greater than 1500 bytes, then the devices and all the routers/ switches in between will have to fragment (break) the layer 3 packets into smaller packets of less than 1500 bytes to fit it in the Ethernet frame. This is a waste of resources for all, so it’s best if the two devices know of the underlying layer 2 MTU and act accordingly.
Now, note that Ethernet MTUs are defined as a maximum of 1500 bytes. So the MTU for a particular LAN segment can be set to a lower number for whatever reason (maybe there are additional fields in the Ethernet frame and to accommodate these the data portion must be reduced). Similarly, a layer 3 conversation between when two devices can go over a mix of layer 2 networks – Ethernet, Token Ring, etc – each with a different MTU. So what is required for the two devices really is a way of knowing what’s the lowest MTU across all these layer 2 devices, so the two devices can use it as the MTU of the layer 3 packets for their conversation. This is known as the Path MTU or IP MTU – and is basically the smallest MTU of all the underlying layer 2 MTUs over which that conversation traverses. It is discovered through a process known as “Path MTU Discovery” (PMTUD) (check this Wikipedia article, or Google this term to learn more). Very briefly, in the case of IPv4 what happens is that each device sends across packets of increasing size to the other end, with a flag set that says “do not fragment this packet”. Packets of size smaller than the lowest layer 2 MTU will get through, but once the size exceeds the lowest MTU the packet will fail & return because it cannot be fragmented (due to the flag) and so is returned via ICMP to the sender. Thus the Path MTU is discovered. This check happens in both directions.
So we have layer 2 MTUs and layer 3 MTUs. Layer 2 MTUs have a maximum value that is dependent on the layer 2 network technology. But what about the minimum value? RFC 791, which defines the Internet Protocol (the IP in TCP/IP), requires that all devices supporting IP must be able to forward packets of 68 bytes without fragmenting (68 bytes because IP headers take 60 bytes size and layer 2 headers take 8 bytes size minimum) and be able to accept packets of minimum size 576 bytes either as one packet or multiple packets that require assembling. Because of this the minimum layer 2 MTU can be thought of as 68 bytes. In a practical sense, however, most IP devices accept 576 bytes without fragmenting, and since this number is higher than the values for all layer 2 networks the minimum layer 2 & layer 3 MTU can be thought of as 576 bytes.
Just for completeness I will also mention Maximum Segment Size (MSS) which is a layer 4 MTU (of sorts) that defines what’s the maximum TCP segment (which is what a TCP packet is called) that can be accepted by devices. It has a default value of 536 bytes. This is based on the 576 bytes that IP requires hosts to accept at minimum, minus 20 bytes for IP headers and 20 bytes for TCP headers. Idea behind using 576 bytes as the base is that this way the TCP segment can be expected to arrive without fragmenting. In a practical sense again, for TCP/IP traffic over Ethernet (which is the common case), since Ethernet frames have an MTU of 1500, the MSS is usually set to 1500 minus 20 minus 20 = 1460 bytes.
This is a good article I came upon. Just linking it as a reference to myself.
Back to our issue
In our case the router in the remote site had the following set in its configuration:
no ip policy route-map clear-df-bit
I am not entirely clear where it was set or why it was set, as that comes under the Network team. What this does though is tell the router not to clear the “Do Not Fragment” (DF) bit in Ethernet frames. If a DF bit is present in a frame then the router will not fragment it if the frame size is larger than the MTU (this is how PMTUD also works). I am not sure why this was set – part of some testing I suppose – but because of this larger frames were not getting through to the other side and hence failing. Our Network team removed this statement and then communication with the ESX hosts started working fine.
I wanted to write more about this statement but I am running out of time. This and this are two good links worth reading for more info. Especially the Scenario 4 section in the second link – that’s pretty much what was happening in our case, I think.