An Overview of Bit Index Explicit Replication (BIER)


IP Multicast (IPMC) efficiently forwards one-to-many traffic and is leveraged for services like IPTV or multicast VPN (mVPN) [1]. In this article we explain the basic concept of traditional IPMC, describe its shortcomings, and present Bit Index Explicit Replication (BIER) as a solution.

An IPMC group may correspond to one specific IPTV channel. Packets destined to an IPMC group address are forwarded to all its members. Receivers leverage IGMP/MLD (Internet Group Management Protocol, RFC 3376/Multicast Listener Discovery, RFC 3810) to join an IPMC group. Within an IPMC domain, typical IPMC protocols use in-network traffic replication to ensure that at most a single copy of a packet traverses each link to reach multiple receivers. To that end, they establish per IPMC group one IPMC tree, possibly for each source, along which the traffic of that group is forwarded. The concept is shown in Figure 1. Examples for such protocols are PIM (Protocol Independent Multicast, RFC 7761), mLDP (Multicast Label Distribution Protocol), or RSVP-TE/P2MP (Resource Reservation Protocol – Traffic Engineering, RFC 3209, Point-to-Multipoint RFC 4875). The IPMC trees requires forwarding information in intermediate hops that we denote as ‘state’ in the following.

Two multicast trees
Figure 1: Two multicast trees.

Certain IPMC solutions for special use cases with static distribution trees – especially implementations of PIM – have proven to be useful and manageable. Nevertheless, traditional IPMC solutions suffer from limited scalability [1] [2]. Technologies to address these issues have been proposed but they cause further complexity and create new disadvantages.

BIER has been proposed by the IETF and is described in RFC 8279 [3]. The basic idea is to remove the IPMC-group-dependent state and the need for explicit-tree building from devices in the middle of the network to improve the scalability of the IPMC domain. This is achieved by adding a BIER header to IPMC packets. Within such a BIER domain, the packets are forwarded only according to this header.

Shortcomings of Traditional Multicast

Traditional IPMC solutions like PIM, mLDP, or RSVP-TE/P2MP rely on per-group IPMC tree state. This tree state limits scalability in three ways.

P0. Devices have to store state per IPMC group.

P1. The IPMC protocol has to actively create, change, and tear-down the IPMC trees whenever IPMC groups start, change, or stop.

P2. In case of a topology change, the forwarding structure may need to change. Thus, the states of all IPMC groups possibly require adaptation. The time needed for that process scales with the number of IPMC groups.

Several additional technologies have been introduced to address these issues but they come with new disadvantages. Ingress replication is a tunnel-based approach that avoids additional state by utilizing unicast tunnels for building an IPMC tree at the expense of reduced forwarding efficiency. PMSI (Provider Multicast Service Interfaces, RFC 6513) leverages aggregated trees to carry the traffic of multiple IPMC applications, which causes significant signaling overhead. RSVP-TE/P2MP is a heavyweight approach to reduce convergence time issues for IPMC with pre-established backup tunnels. All those approaches have to be managed by operators making traditional IPMC more complex, expensive, less reliable, and overall challenging to deploy.

Bit Index Explicit Replication (BIER)

BIER proposes a replicating fabric technology which allows an operator to forward IPMC traffic efficiently without the need for explicit IPMC tree state in intermediate devices. In this section, we describe the concept of BIER, explain BIER’s forwarding procedure in detail, and outline how it addresses the previously mentioned shortcomings of traditional IPMC.

BIER overview
Figure 2: Packets enter the BIER domain via Bit-Forwarding Ingress Routers (BFIRs). They construct and push a BIER header onto the packet which holds information for BIER’s forwarding procedure. At the Bit-Forwarding Egress Routers (BFERs), the BIER header is removed.

BIER Concept

The concept of BIER is illustrated in Figure 2. Traffic enters a BIER domain through a Bit-Forwarding Ingress Router (BFIR) and is replicated efficiently to potentially many Bit-Forwarding Egress Routers (BFERs). The BFIR adds a BIER header to the packets. This header contains information about the set of BFERs to which a copy of the packet is to be delivered. The BFERs remove the BIER header from the packets before they leave the BIER domain.

The BIER header is leveraged by all Bit-Forwarding Routers (BFRs) within the BIER domain to efficiently forward the traffic along a tree structure or even any acyclic graph that is determined from the underlay information, normally carried by the IGP (Interior Gateway Protocol). More specifically, the BIER header contains a bit string where each bit corresponds to a specific BFER. The BFIR sets that bit if the corresponding BFER should receive the packet.

A BFR relays and replicates BIER traffic based on that header information and its so-called Bit Index Forwarding Table (BIFT). The BIFT holds the next-hop information for every possible destination (BFER). Therefore, the size of the BIFT is independent of the number of IPMC groups. Real deployments may group the forwarding information for destinations that are reached via the same next-hop. This reduces the number of forwarding entries even further so that it scales with the number of a BFR’s next-hops. The forwarding procedure ensures that a next-hop receives only a single copy of a packet even though the packet’s BIER header indicates multiple destinations with that next-hop. To forward BIER traffic consistently, the BIFTs are commonly configured with shortest path entries towards the BFERs. BIER acquires this information from the IGP topology database of the underlying routing protocol, e.g. ISIS (Intermediate System to Intermediate System) or OSPF (Open Shortest Path First).

BIER Forwarding

In the following, we explain how traffic is forwarded with BIER along a shortest-path tree and illustrate it with an example. Figure 3 shows a network topology together with the shortest-path tree from Node 1 towards all destinations.

Example topology
Figure 3: Example topology with the shortest-path forwarding tree for Node 1.

The BFERs are numbered and assigned to the bit positions in the bitstring of a BIER header. Thereby, counting starts with the least-significant bit of the bitstring. That means, the bitstring ‘000001’ corresponds to Node 1 and ‘100000’ corresponds to Node 6.

The BFR needs to ensure that all destinations receive a copy of the packet. To that end, the BFR forwards a copy to each next-hop that is on the path to at least one destination indicated in the BIER header. In our example, we assume that Node 1 receives a packet with a bitstring ‘100100’ in the BIER header, i.e., the bits for Node 3 and Node 6 are activated. Therefore, Node 1 sends a copy of the packet to Node 3 and Node 2.

To prevent duplicates, a BFR clears all bits in the bitstring of a packet’s BIER header that are not reached via the next-hop the packet is forwarded to. This ensures that there is only a single packet on the way towards each desired destination in spite of packet replication. In our example, Node 1 unsets the bit for Node 6 when forwarding the packet to Node 3 (‘000100’) and it unsets the bit for Node3 when forwarding the packet to Node 2 (‘100000’).

We explain how a BFR achieves the explained forwarding behavior in an efficient way using the bitstring of a packet’s BIER header and its BIFT. The BIFT contains for every destination a so-called Forwarding Bit Mask (F-BM) and a next-hop. The F-BM is a bitmask whose bit positions correspond to the same BFERs as the bit positions in the bitstring of a BIER header. Activated bits in the F-BM indicate the BFERs that are reached via the specific next-hop. Therefore, all destinations reached via the same next-hop share the same F-BM. As an example, the BIFT of Node 1 is given in Table 1. For destination Node 3, the next-hop is Node 3 and the corresponding F-BM indicates that only Node 3 is reached via Node 3. For the destinations Node 2, Node 4, Node 5, and Node 6, the next-hop is Node 2 and the F-BM indicates that all these nodes share the next-hop Node 2.

Table 1: BIFT of Node 1
Table 1: BIFT of Node 1

To efficiently process a packet, the BFR creates an internal copy of the bitstring and performs the following algorithm until all bits of the internal copy of the bitstring are zero. The BFR finds a destination indicated in the bitstring of the internal copy of the bitstring. It looks up the F-BM for that destination in the BIFT and constructs a new BIER header using the bitstring of the packet ANDed with the F-BM. Then it sends a copy of the packet with the modified bitstring to the next-hop also indicated in the BIFT. Afterwards, the internal copy of the bitstring is modified by bitwise ANDing it with the complement of the F-BM. This action removes all destinations from the packet header that have been served by the last transmission of the packet.

BIER – A Scalable Multicast Approach

BIER overcomes the previously outlined problems of IPMC. It solves the problem of IPMC-group-dependent state within forwarding devices (P0) by moving this state to the BIER header. In case of changing IPMC-groups (P1), only BFIRs require an update as they construct the BIER header that indicates the destinations of the packet. At last, the BIFT of every BFR holds forwarding entries for all BFERs in the network in a compact form. In case of a topology change (P2), only that information has to be updated instead of the tree state of potentially many IPMC groups, which takes a long time. As a result, the reconvergence time of BIER can be compared to IP unicast rather than to one of the traditional IPMC protocols.

By transferring the state from the forwarding devices to the header, the size of the header becomes a scalability issue as one bit is required for every BFER. With current router technology, 256 bits will be the most commonly used bitstring length because this is equivalent to the two IPv6 addresses in every IPv6 header. Longer bitstrings may be supported by future hardware. If there are more than 256 BFERs within the network, BIER supports the possibility of separating BFERs into subsets. The BIER header contains a field that identifies the subset that is addressed by a BIER packet. Thus, if an IPMC packet targets BFERs from different subsets, for each of these subsets, one copy of a packet has to be forwarded.

Use Cases

At the beginning of the BIER standardization journey, ten use cases were envisioned as technology drivers [1]. In this section we briefly describe the most prominent use cases, namely various multicast Layer 2/3 VPNs (L2/3VPNs), IPTV media streaming, data center virtualization services, and financial services. We outline problems that occur when these use cases are supported with traditional IPMC approaches and point out how BIER may be used to solve these problems.

Multicast VPN Services

Multicast within VPNs is used for news ticker, broadcast-TV applications or in general, content delivery networks (CDNs). For signaling in traditional multicast VPN (mVPN) services, PIM, mLDP, RSVP-TE/P2MP, or ingress replication is used. Each implementation offers a trade-off between state and flooding. The Multidirectional Inclusive PMSI (MI-PMSI) relies on flooding frames to all provider edge (PE) routers of the VPN, regardless of whether an IPMC receiver joined behind the PE routers. This results in a rather steady IPMC tree at the expense of flooding. In Selective PMSI (S-PMSI) only PE routers with joined receivers are part of the IPMC tree. S-PMSI reduces flooding with a more dynamic tree, requiring more state on the provider’s core routers (P routers). Ingress replication causes the ingress PE router to send multiple copies of the same frame and forward it via unicast tunnels to the destinations. This poses a high replication burden on ingress routers and high bandwidth burden on paths.

Requiring IPMC-group-dependent state is a typical problem network operators are faced with (P0). With the introduction of BIER, this problem no longer exists.

IPTV Media Streaming

IPMC is leveraged for IPTV, or Internet video distribution in CDNs. Typical implementations like PIM, mLDP, or RSVP-TE/P2MP generate IPMC-group-dependent state as described in the previous use case. Additionally, such media streaming services may experience extensive subscription changes as every time a user switches a channel, the IPMC groups may have to be adapted. This may cause a high update frequency of IPMC state.

BIER solves the problem of requiring IPMC-group-dependent state (P0). In particular changes of subscriptions can be managed by reconfiguring BFIRs instead of potentially many devices (P1) so that core routers are not affected.

Data Center Virtualization Services

Virtual eXtensible LAN (VXLAN, RFC 7348) interconnects L2 networks over an L3 infrastructure. It encapsulates L2 frames in UDP and adds a 24-bit ID so that 16 million virtual network instances (VNIs) can be differentiated. Each VNI is an isolated virtual network similar to a VLAN. That technology is used to isolate VLANs of multiple tenants in modern multi-tenant datacenters.

Typically, a tenant interconnects its virtual machines (VMs) over an L3 infrastructure using one or multiple VNIs to logically separate its own traffic and to isolate it from other tenants’ traffic. If a VM is moved from one physical machine to another or even to another datacenter, there is no need to change its IP address as long as the VM remains in the same VNI.

IPMC can be leveraged to distribute broadcast, unknown, and multicast (BUM) traffic over the L3 infrastructure within a single VNI. One or even multiple IPMC groups are needed per tenant and, therefore, the number of IPMC groups may be very large. Thus, this use case faces again the IPMC state problem (P0), causing significant challenges for datacenter switches, data and forwarding planes, as well as for network operation and management. That problem may be solved by leveraging BIER instead of traditional IPMC protocols in the L3 underlay network.

Financial Services

IPMC is used to deliver real-time stock market data to subscribers. Such highly time-dependent data requires fast recalculation of paths in case of a topology change to satisfy latency requirements.

For traditional IPMC, a topology change requires a significant amount of time since potentially many IPMC trees have to be recomputed to restore connectivity and establish new shortest paths.

As BIER relies only on one IPMC-group-independent forwarding structure, its recomputation is significantly faster (P2).

Recent Working Group Achievements

The BIER working group developed BIER and provided several extensions, increasing its applicability and facilitating its deployment. We recap the results of the BIER working group below.

RFC 8279 [3] specifies the BIER architecture. Among others, it contains information about the BIER domain and its components, how the forwarding procedure works, and briefly explains the advantages of BIER compared to traditional IPMC solutions. RFC 8296 [4] defines the implementation of BIER encapsulation in MPLS and non-MPLS networks.

Signaling via PIM through the BIER domain, e.g. for subscriptions of receivers at a sender, is described in [9].

For operation in a real network, BIER devices need to share BIER-related information with each other. For example BFRs have to advertise their IDs, or bitstring lengths. BIER leverages link state routing protocols to perform this distribution. [5], [6] and [7] contain OSPF, ISIS and BGP extensions for this purpose. The latter is supported by a document for a BGP link state extension for BIER [8].


With the standardization of BIER, a new charter for the BIER working group [10] has been proposed. The main goal is to generate new experimental RFCs and to move existing experimental RFCs to the Standards Track.

The BIER working group has to define a transition mechanism for BIER. It should describe how BIER could be introduced in existing IPMC networks. This will facilitate the deployment of BIER.

The charter proposes documenting the applicability of BIER and its use cases. A draft for the application of BIER to multicast L3VPN and EVPN is required. Mechanisms for the signaling between ingress and egress routers and improving scalability are also mentioned. Furthermore, a document that clearly discusses the benefits of BIER for specific use cases is desired.

Operation, administration, and management of the BIER domain have to be described. The simplification of IPMC traffic management with BIER is a particular focus and for this purpose management APIs are required.

The BIER working group will continue the work on BIER-TE, an extension to BIER to support traffic engineering (TE). In software-defined networks (SDN), BIER may profit from a controller-based architecture. A controller may calculate the entries of the BIFTs and configure them in the BFRs. It may also instruct the BIFRs with appropriate BIER headers for encapsulation of traffic from specific IPMC groups.


BIER is a new, innovative mechanism for efficient forwarding and replication of IPMC traffic. It addresses scalability, operational, and performance issues of traditional IPMC solutions. While the latter require per-IPMC-group state and explicit-tree building in the forwarding devices, BIER encodes the destinations of an IPMC group within the packet’s BIER header. The header is created by Bit-Forwarding Ingress Routers (BFIRs) when an IPMC packet enters the BIER domain. BIER scales very well as no IPMC-group-dependent information is required by forwarding nodes in the network core.

The collaboration in the BIER working group excels through participation of a large group of different vendors, operators, and researchers. Many companies have invested efforts in the standardization of BIER, which underlines its importance for future IPMC solutions. The spirit of the BIER working group is special even within the IETF. New ideas and use cases are always appreciated and discussed, and the community welcomes new members.

[1] Nagendra Kumar, Rajiv Asati, Mach Chen, Xiaohu Xu, Andrew Dolganow, Tony Przygienda, Arkadiy Gulko, Dom Robinson, Vishal Arya, and Caitlin Bestler. BIER Use Cases, January 2018.
[2] G. Shepherd, A. Dolganow, and A. Gulko. Bit Indexed Explicit Replication (BIER) Problem Statement. http://tools.ietf.org/html/draft-ietf-bier-problem-statement, April 2016.
[3] IJsbrand Wijnands, Eric C. Rosen, Andrew Dolganow, Tony Przygienda, and Sam Aldrin. Multicast Using Bit Index Explicit Replication (BIER). RFC 8279, November 2017.
[4] IJsbrand Wijnands, Eric C. Rosen, Andrew Dolganow, Jeff Tantsura, Sam Aldrin, and Israel Meilik. Encapsulation for Bit Index Explicit Replication (BIER) in MPLS and Non-MPLS Networks. RFC 8296, January 2018.
[5] P. Psenak, N. Kumar, I. Wijnands, A. Dolganow, T. Przygienda, J. Zhang, and S. Aldrin. OSPF Extensions For BIER. https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/draft-ietf-bier-ospf-bier-extensions/, October 2015.
[6] L. Ginsberg, A. Przygienda, S. Aldrin, and J. Zhang. BIER support via ISIS. https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/draft-ietf-bier-isis-extensions/, October 2015.
[7] Xiaohu Xu, Mach Chen, Keyur Patel, IJsbrand Wijnands, and Tony Przygienda. BGP Extensions for BIER. Technical report, January 2018.
[8] Ran Chen, Zheng Zhang, Vengada Prasad Govindan, and IJsbrand Wijnands. BGP Link-State extensions for BIER. Technical report, February 2018.
[9] Hooman Bidgoli, Andrew Dolganow, Jayant Kotalwar, Fengman Xu, IJsbrand Wijnands, and mankamana prasad mishra. PIM Signaling Through BIER Core. Technical report, February 2018.
[10] Alia Atlas, Tony Przygienda, and Greg Shepherd. Charter for the BIER WG. https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/charter-ietf-bier/, February 2018.

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