Whether or not Gigabit Ethernet (and beyond) should support frame sizes (i.e. packets) larger than 1500 bytes has been a topic of great debate. With the explosive growth of Gigabit ethernet, the impact of this decision is critically important and will affect Internet performance for years to come.
Most of the debate about jumbo frames has focused on local area network performance and the impact that frame size has on host processing requirements, interface cards, memory, etc. But what is less well known, and of critical concern for high performance computing, is the impact that frame size has on wide area network performance. This document discusses why you should care, and about the largely ignored but important impact that frame size has on the wide area performance of TCP.
How jumbo is a jumbo frame anyway?
Ethernet has used 1500 byte frame sizes since it was created (around 1980). To maintain backward compatibility, 100 Mbps ethernet used the same size, and today "standard" gigabit ethernet is also using 1500 byte frames. This is so a packet to/from any combination of 10/100/1000 Mbps ethernet devices can be handled without any layer two fragmentation or reassembly.
"Jumbo frames" extends ethernet to 9000 bytes. Why 9000? First because ethernet uses a 32 bit CRC that loses its effectiveness above about 12000 bytes. And secondly, 9000 was large enough to carry an 8 KB application datagram (e.g. NFS) plus packet header overhead. Is 9000 bytes enough? It's a lot better than 1500, but for pure performance reasons there is little reason to stop there. At 64 KB we reach the limit of an IPv4 datagram, while IPv6 allows for packets up to 4 GB in size. For ethernet however, the 32 bit CRC limit is hard to change, so don't expect to see ethernet frame sizes above 9000 bytes anytime soon.
How can jumbo frames and 1500 byte frames coexist?
Two basic approaches exist:
* On a port by port basis, where everything "downstream" from a given port is known to support jumbo frames.
* Using 802.1q Virtual LANs, where jumbo frame and non-jumbo frame devices are segregated to different VLANs.
Jumbo frames bad for multimedia?
For applications that are sensitive to burst drops, delay jitter, etc., it can be argued that large frames are a bad idea. No application has to use large frames however, so the question is really whether other application's large frames will negatively impact your application's small ones. This is primarily an issue of slot time, i.e. how much will a large packet delay (or quantize) the time(s) available to transmit the small packets.
A 9000 byte GigE packet takes the same amount of time to transmit as a 900 byte fast ethernet packet or a 90 byte 10 Mbps ethernet packet. So jumbo frames on gigabit ethernet at worse add less delay variation than 1500 byte frames do on slower ethernets. And no one is suggesting that slower ethernets use 9000 byte frames. As for queueing delay concerns, that could happen whether packets are large or small. If delivery QoS is required, then the routers need to implement some kind of priority or expedited forwarding, regardless of the packet sizes. Tiny frames (including 53 byte ATM cells) may be helpful when multiplexing lower bit rate streams, but they become increasingly ridiculous on gigabit and beyond links.