Why Premium IP Service Has Not Deployed (and Probably Never Will)

Internet2 QoS Working Group Informational Document
May 3, 2002 (HTMLized with updated references January 9, 2006)
Ben_Teitelbaum (Internet2), Stanislav_Shalunov (Internet2)


Between May 1998 and October 2001, Internet2 worked to specify and deploy the QBone Premium Service (QPS) [QBone], an interdomain virtual leased-line IP service built on diff-serv [RFC2475] forwarding primitives and hereafter referred to simply as "Premium". Despite considerable effort and success with proof-of-concept demonstrations, this effort yielded no operational deployments and has been suspended indefinitely.

In this document, we attempt to explain the reasons for this failure. The focus is on non-architectural, and largely non-technical, obstacles to deployment, foremost among them: Premium's poor incremental deployment properties, intimidating new complexity for network operators, missing functionality on routers, and serious economic challenges.

The costs of Premium are too high relative to the perceived benefits. Moreover, even if successfully deployed, Premium fundamentally changes the Internet architecture, running contrary to the end-to-end design principle, and threatening the future scalability and flexibility of the Internet. The conclusions reached herein apply not just to Premium, but to any IP quality of service (QoS) architecture offering a service guarantee.

Premium Service

The Holy Grail of computer networking is to design a network that has the flexibility and low cost of the Internet, yet offers the end-to-end quality-of-service guarantees of the telephone network.

—S. Keshav [Keshav]

Premium service on a well-provisioned network would do little to change packet forwarding under normal conditions. Internet2 networks are generally well-provisioned and almost always lightly loaded. Packet loss and jitter experienced by best-effort traffic on Internet2 paths is almost always zero or is due to non-congestive causes.

Nevertheless, the ideal articulated by Keshav is attractive. Premium service is about guaranteeing service quality. In essence, it is about removing a component of unreliability from the system--the probability that a network transaction fails because of network congestion. Although typical performance may be perfect, there would be considerable value in being able to assure that important sessions receive perfect network performance. Who wants the possibility that their important conference calls are disconnected or suddenly deteriorate in quality? Who wants a surgeon operating through robotic means on a different continent to experience IP packet loss artifacts?

The "virtual leased line", or "virtual wire", service model provided by Premium may be unnecessarily strong for most applications, but it is strongly appealing in its simplicity. Everyone knows how a wire behaves. It is easy to explain. It is easy to sell. And conceptually, it is easy to engineer.

Furthermore, many application developers remain naive about writing jitter-adaptive and loss-tolerant applications. Having an end-to-end Premium service available, would allow naive or legacy applications expecting an underlying circuit switched network to function in the Internet.

QoS and DoS

The best-effort packet delivery service provided today by the Internet (and by Internet2) is susceptible to network denial of service (DoS) attacks. Although well-provisioned networks deliver very good typical performance, they will, in general, deliver unpredictable service and, in the worst case, no service.

Traffic forecasting and statistical provisioning work well for circuit-switched networks (notably, with the exception of periods of panic dialing, as on and after 2001-09-11). Data networks are, however, harder to predict. This is especially true when there is no per-bit charge for Internet traffic, as is the case within Internet2. Without pricing disincentives, individual users can very significantly and very suddenly affect network utilization. Statistical provisioning only works if the impact of individuals is small. You can't predict when Joe High-Energy Physicist will begin a new experiment with his peers at CERN, fire up his gigabit-Ethernet attached workstation, and start moving a lot of bits.

It is important to note that the line between network DoS attacks and legitimate traffic is blurred, which is one reason why fighting DoS attacks is so hard. If a user automatically tests connectivity to some site every hour, is it DoS? What if someone runs some aggressive throughput tests? What if the tests generate so many small packets that a router becomes overloaded? Is intent what defines a DoS attack? If so, then it is impossible to recognize a DoS attack by inspecting traffic. Intent is in a user's mind, not in the network.

Protection, at least of important traffic, from sudden changes in network utilization (which might be due to deliberate malice or to natural usage pattern changes) is highly desirable. It is also the acid test of whether Premium (or indeed any guaranteed service) is functioning correctly [QoS-DoS].

Overview of Deployment Problems

The remainder of this document reads a bit like a list of grievances. Each "problem" discussed below can be overcome. The important question is: "at what cost?". Costs should be construed to include direct financial costs, business disruptions, and opportunity costs (e.g., a less scalable and flexible future internet architecture). Many of the problems itemized below could be overcome by incurring up-front costs, the sum of which can be thought of as a kind of "activation energy" that would be required to realize an interdomain Premium service. Overcoming other problems, however, would require recurring costs. Still other problems, would require both up-front and recurring costs to overcome. At the highest level, Premium has failed to deploy because the cost is too high relative to the perceived benefits.

Poor Incremental Deployment Properties

To support Premium service, a network must provide expedited forwarding (EF) [RFC3246] treatment for Premium traffic on all of its interfaces. Since EF must be implemented by a priority queue (or something morally equivalent to one), the network must be prepared to "crisp its edge"--to police on all ingress interfaces--to avoid a catastrophic EF DoS attack. Consequently, it is impossible to deploy Premium incrementally only when and where there is congestion; it must necessarily be deployed at the granularity of an entire network.

Many currently deployed router interfaces are not able to police on the basis of the diff-serv codepoint (DSCP), or can only do so with a non-trivial degradation of performance. One might be inclined to zero the DSCP of all traffic ingressing on an interface through which no Premium reservations have been made. Although this capability is supported at line-rate by a broader range of interfaces, it would destroy DSCP transparency--an important property for incrementally deployable diff-serv services [QBSS] [ABE].

Missing Diff-Serv Functionality

Today's high-speed routers usually have some QoS functionality, but it is often insufficient for implementing Premium service. Simple DSCP-based traffic classification, leaky-bucket policing, and priority queuing are not sufficient. Below we survey some of the additional diff-serv router functionality that is required to implement Premium.

Route-Based Classification

Premium-enabled network service providers will want to classify and police ingressing EF traffic based on routing aggregates. To see this, observe that "firehose" policing (a single EF leaky bucket per ingress interface) results in hopelessly inefficient network use, since a provider must assume that the EF traffic from all interfaces could, in the worst case, converge on a single interior or egress interface. Also observe that micro-flow policing (one EF leaky bucket per micro-flow reservation traversing an ingress interface), unravels most of diff-serv's aggregation properties at interdomain boundaries and would not scale in the core. Our conclusion is that Premium-enabled network service providers would want to sell "virtual trunks" between pair of ingress and egress interfaces. Such a virtual trunk must be policed at ingress on the basis of an egress-dependent profile. For example, one would like to be able to configure an interface like this:

rate-limit DSCP 46 traffic with next-hop AS of A to X bits/second rate-limit DSCP 46 traffic with next-hop AS of B to Y bits/second

Without such hooks, maintenance and operation of Premium becomes very hard. We have inter-domain routing algorithms for very good reasons. Not having them for the purposes of policing and shaping is not much better for Premium service than having to do static routing would be for best-effort service. A forthcoming companion document will discuss in more depth why the shaping and policing functionality described above is needed.

Unfortunately, no high-speed router today provides these hooks. The reason is simple: forwarding, as done by line cards, doesn't require full routing information. To reduce the price of line cards, forwarding tables provide a highly-localized view of routing that usually only contain next-interface data. Caching the AS path (or a portion of it), in the forwarding tables would make routers significantly more expensive, while going to the route-processor for the AS path would make routers significantly slower.

Shallow Token Buckets

Premium aggregates must be smoothed to be nearly jitter-free as they traverse interdomain boundaries. Policing such an aggregate effectively requires a classical token bucket policer that is only one or two packets deep. Few routers support token bucket policers this shallow at high line rates due to the fine-grained timing required.

Shaping Multiple Aggregates Within a PQ Class

Because the downstream interface across an interdomain boundary may be policing multiple EF aggregates, an egress interface must be able to accurately shape several aggregates within a priority queue (PQ) class. That is to say, on the egress line card, shape several aggregates and then give them EF treatment across the link. Too often shapers are matched one-to-one with forwarding classes (e.g., there is only one PQ class and it can be shaped or not).

Translation to Switched Ethernet QoS

Wider support for IEEE 802.1p is needed, especially on LAN edge devices that must translate between DSCP markings and 802.1p markings.

The Cost of Complex Forwarding

Some router vendors have elected to include complex QoS functionality in microcode running on their interface cards, rather than in custom ASICs that add to the power consumption and cost of a card. This is a non-starter. Our experience has been that this approach can result in a drop of maximum packet-per-second forwarding rates by 50% or more. Such a CPU cycle shortage hurts all traffic, including Premium, making deployment very hard to justify.

The trend among newer, higher-speed routers seems to be towards less QoS functionality, not more. As circuit costs are responsible for an ever decreasing portion of network capital expenditures, and interface costs are responsible for an ever increasing share of network capital expenditures, the market pressure for dumb, fast, and cheap router interfaces is ever greater.

Are we prepared to pay the price difference for extra QoS features? If so, is there enough of a customer base for feature-rich routers to make their development worthwhile for router vendors?

Dramatic Operational and Economic Paradigm Shifts for Operators

Because deployment of Premium is an all-or-nothing proposition, it requires fairly sudden and significant changes to network operations and peering agreements. On the operations side, operators must configure a lot of router features they usually ignore, must respond to admissions requests, and must provision carefully to honor the service assurances of admitted requests. Migrations to new routers or circuits must be performed with the utmost care. Finally, very rapid IGP convergence becomes essential and admissions decisions must be made with careful attention to routing (or be made so conservatively as to allow routing to be ignored).

Peering arrangements also would experience a dramatic paradigm shift. Today, an ISP's technical interface to the outside world is unicast IPv4, BGP, and possibly a simple service-level assurance (SLA), while its economic interface is some combination of per-line and per-bit charges. Premium service would complicate this with a series of additional external interfaces including: shaping, policing, reservation signaling, and per-reservation billing and settlement. Not only does Premium change the interface between an ISP and its neighbors, but it also adds whole new complexities for customer support personnel, creates the need for accurate third-party service auditing, and greatly increases the risk of litigation.

The Threat to Best-Effort

Why would a network provide high-quality best-effort service to the transit traffic of non-customers in a Premium-enabled world? To answer this question, consider why transit traffic is treated well today: (1) It is technically hard for a provider to differentiate between traffic from direct customers and traffic from its peers; (2) providing poor quality best-effort service for transit traffic today can help conserve resources, but would not translate into immediate monetary revenues--nor would it improve the long-term reputation of a provider.

If QoS mechanisms become available in the routers to allow classification on the basis of AS path, reason (1) goes away. Further, in a Premium service world, making a customer that otherwise doesn't pay you directly switch from "free" (for transit customers) best-effort service to paid Premium service and have some money dribble through the payment system into your coffers seems too obvious a trick not to play; therefore, reason (2) would become increasingly irrelevant. We expect that if Premium were deployed, providers would begin to treat the best-effort traffic of non-customers worse than the best-effort traffic of their customers.

The erosion of best-effort service would lead to a completely different world where all serious work gets done over Premium service and users are generally expected to make virtual circuit reservations for most of what they do. By deploying Premium service, do we want to supplement the Internet best-effort service or to replace it?

Lack of Flexible Business Model

Although Premium is specified with some flexibility about what "low loss" and "bounded delay" really mean, there has been inadequate thinking about how statistics can be brought to bear on either the engineered service assurance or the provisioning techniques [QoS-risk]. In practice, the service that is advertised and sold to the customer ("Premium service with zero loss and jitter!") can not be identical to the service that is actually engineered by the provider. Businesses built around service assurances (e.g., FedEx, business class air travel, frame relay) do not strive for 100% service reliability. By separating the advertised service from the engineered service, these businesses have the flexibility to trade off statistical over-booking and operational corner-cutting against the probability that customer assurances will not be met and that money will have to be refunded.

To maximize profit, Premium must ultimately be explained to the customer in simple terms, but engineered carefully by the provider with a strong understanding of the statistical nature of traffic and of the network's performance. Of course, the statistical nature of traffic is always be changing as new applications emerge and older ones fade away; so, this effort would have to be ongoing. There is insufficient theoretical understanding of how to do this kind of traffic modeling well for IP networks.

Service Verification

As discussed above, Premium service is not really about the network performance that is experienced by a reservation holder, but is rather about the performance that would be experienced by the reservation holder in the event of a network DoS attack. That is, it's about the assurance. Consequently, an observation of zero loss and jitter on a Premium reservation over an extended period of time does not confirm that the Premium assurance is functioning correctly.

This is not merely a theoretic concern. It is natural for customers to want to verify their service assurance and it is natural for providers (who fear litigation) to verify that they are providing the assurance they think they are. Consider the person who lives in a high-crime neighborhood. He purchases a lock for his front door, installs it, and verifies that it works correctly. But verification does not stop there. When the person leaves his home in the morning it is natural for him to lock the door and then jiggle it to verify that it is indeed locked.

After a provider has changed the configuration of one or more ingress policers, how does he "jiggle the door" to confirm that the policers are functioning correctly? Likewise, how does a customer confirm her service assurance? In either case, "jiggling the door" is analogous to launching a short, distributed, interdomain denial of service attack against the provider. Credible service verification would seem to require an industry of third-party service auditors with access to peerings (including private peerings).

Finally, for the user it is particularly difficult to determine whether the network operator is indeed providing guarantees or merely has a well-provisioned network, high-performance network that could at any time be brought down by a denial of service attack. Savvy customers will recognize the service providers' incentives to over-book capacity and cheat on the assurance. These customers will demand accurate assurance outage reports or strong recourse for service failures (penalties to the providers that are more severe than "your money back"). This is generally not something that service providers have accepted in other businesses; physical package delivery companies and PSTN service providers usually limit the remedies available to their customers to the amount paid.

Inadequate Standardization and Architectural Gaps

A factor contributing to the reluctance of ISPs to deploy Premium has certainly been the confusion in the IETF Differentiated Services Working Group over several key areas of standardization. Chief among these is the EF per-hop behavior itself. The original EF PHB draft [RFC2598] published in June 1999 by Van Jacobson et al. was shown to be unimplementable. Over more than a year, debate raged on within the working group about how to fix it. The result was the formation of a design team to author a new EF specification [RFC3248]. This specification was ultimately rejected in favor of a competing alternative [RFC3246], which was not published as a standards track RFC until March 2002.

A second factor was the decision that DSCP values would have local significance only. We regard this as a colossal mistake, burdening all edge routers with the need to re-mark traffic and creating a frivolous (but nevertheless confusing) choice for engineers. Although the choice not to have DSCPs with global significance hurts Premium deployment, it hurts services with nice incremental deployment properties even more [QBSS, ABE]_.

Finally, although some architectural gaps and ambiguities remain in the Premium design, we believe that these gaps do not constitute a leading reason for Premium's failure to deploy. A forthcoming companion document will discuss holes in the design of Premium and the tradeoffs of various technical alternatives for closing them. These "holes" include: the provisioning and matching of policers and shapers across interdomain boundaries to support micro-flow aggregation, the calculation of worst-case jitter bounds, and the need for scalable, automated signaling.


In the U.S. today, the price of network capacity is low and falling (with the notable exception of residential and rural access) and the apparent one-time and recurring costs of Premium are high and rising (with interface speeds). In most bandwidth markets important to network-based research, it is cheaper to buy more capacity and to provide everybody with excellent service than it is to mess with QoS.

In those few places where network upgrades are not practical, QoS deployment is usually even harder (due to the high cost of QoS-capable routers and clueful network engineers). In the very few cases where the demand, the money, and the clue are present, but the bandwidth is lacking, ad hoc approaches that prioritize one or two important applications over a single congested link often work well. In this climate, the case for a global, interdomain Premium service is dubious.

A comparison of the costs of QoS versus capacity is only one way to evaluate the business case for deployment. Another important factor is the lack of demand from end-users. Mass use of the Internet for real-time communications remains elusive. There are many reasons for this, including: slow residential broadband deployment, low user expectations, and the insufficient sophistication of commercial VoIP and video conferencing products (e.g., poor jitter-adaptation and loss tolerance). This lack of demand from end-users contributes to the lack of incentive for providers to deploy Premium; and the lack of Premium deployment conditions users not to demand it. Ad infinitum.

Internet applications are designed to degrade gracefully. TCP is a perfect example of this; audio and video codecs with ECCs are another. The upside is that if something in the network is not working quite correctly, the user either does not notice or does not care. The downside is that users often don't notice failures until they are catastrophic.

In a world of guaranteed services, applications will either rely on the guarantees provided by the network or they will continue to include code to adapt. In the latter case, non-catastrophic failures of Premium service would remain hidden and accumulate. In the former case, adaptation would atrophy and applications would lose their ability to work over "normal" best-effort networks. But, if this were to happen, adaptive applications would once again have a competitive advantage, offering users comparable functionality without the need to purchase Premium reservations. A world where Premium and best-effort services co-exist would seem to be unstable.

Finally, one has to ask: "even if there were high demand and a compelling and stable business case for Premium, is this what we want the Internet to become?". The Internet's best-effort service model and the end-to-end principle [E2E] have allowed the Internet to become the fast, dumb, cheap, and global infrastructure that we all know and love. One has to wonder whether such a fundamental change to the Internet architecture, while enabling an undeniably useful and probably lucrative service, would conceal a huge opportunity cost: an increase in complexity that would inhibit the scalability and growth of the Internet in years to come.


[ABE]P. Hurley, Mourad Kara, J. Y. Le Boudec, P. Thiran, "ABE: Providing a Low-Delay Service within Best Effort", IEEE Network Magazine, Vol. 15 No. 3, May 2001.
[E2E]Saltzer, J., Reed, D. and Clark, D., "End-to-End Arguments In System Design", ACM Transactions in Computer Systems, November, 1984.
[Keshav]"An Engineering Approach to Computer Networking", S. Keshav, Addison-Wesley, 1997.
[QBone]Teitelbaum, B, Hares, S., Dunn, L., Narayan, V., Neilson, R., Reichmeyer, F., "Internet2 QBone: Building a Testbed for Differentiated Services", IEEE Network Magazine, Special Issue on Integrated and Differentiated Services for the Internet, September 1999.
[QBSS]Shalunov, S., Teitelbaum, B., "QBone Scavenger Service (QBSS) Definition", Internet2 Technical Report, Proposed Service Definition, Internet2 QoS Working Group Document, March, 2001.
[QoS-DoS]Shalunov, S., Teitelbaum, B., "Quality of Service and Denial of Service", ACM SIGCOMM 2003 Workshop on Revisiting IP QoS: Why do we care, what have we learned? (RIPQOS), August, 2003. (slides)
[QoS-risk]Shalunov, S., Teitelbaum, B., "What QoS Research Hasn't Understood About Risk", ACM SIGCOMM 2003 Workshop on Revisiting IP QoS: Why do we care, what have we learned? (RIPQOS), August, 2003. (slides)
[RFC2598]Jacobson, V., Nichols, K. and K. Poduri, "An Expedited Forwarding PHB", RFC 2598, June 1999.
[RFC3246](1, 2) Davie, B., Charny, A., Baker, F., Bennett, J.C.R., Benson, K., Le Boudec, J.Y., Chiu, A., Courtney, W., Davari, S., Firoiu, V., Kalmanek, C., Ramakrishnan, K. and D. Stiliadis, "An Expedited Forwarding PHB (Per-Hop Behavior)", RFC 3246, March 2002.
[RFC2474]Nichols, K., Blake, S., Baker, F. and D. Black, "Definition of the Differentiated Services Field (DS Field) in the IPv4 and IPv6 Headers", RFC 2474, December 1998.
[RFC2475]Black, D., Blake, S., Carlson, M., Davies, E., Wang, Z. and W. Weiss, "An Architecture for Differentiated Services", RFC 2475, December 1998.
[RFC3248]Armitage, G., Carpenter, B., Casati, A., Crowcroft, J., Halpern, J., Kumar, B., Schnizlein, J., "A Delay Bound alternative revision of RFC 2598", RFC 3248, March 2002.