Virtual Networking Contexts

I really want to take a moment to talk about how wonderful VRFs/firewall contexts really are. Both technologies essentially allow a network administrator to spin up a virtualized, isolated instance of a network device. I’ll be honest and say that I hadn’t had the chance to play much with this stuff until just recently – but it makes life a lot easier in a cloud provider environment.

I’ve been looking for a good chance to use VRFs in the past, but in most cases it didn’t really make much sense. About a year ago, I had a great opportunity when we needed to build a new data center. The data center was aimed at being lower capacity than most of our other locations, so we had to cut some costs here and there. In all of our other locations we use two physically separate sets of firewalls, one for external traffic and one for internal traffic. In this new location, we opted to save some money by picking up only a single pair of Juniper SRX 345 firewalls.

I made the decision here to make use of Juniper’s virtual routing instances to keep logical separation of internal vs external firewalling, even though it was only a single physical cluster. For one, this would allow existing staff to maintain their current understanding of network architecture. Every data center has the same overall logical traffic flow, even if the physical devices are different. Second, this allowed us to split load across the two devices. Normally we have two physical clusters to handle the traffic load, but in this case we were essentially going to pump the same traffic through one pair of firewalls. Assigning each virtual routing instance into its own redundancy group allowed us to run each firewall instance on a separate device – yet still allow for both instances to run on one in the event of a failure.

Once we got that firewall cluster into production, there seemed to be a lot less fear regarding virtualized network contexts. I was able to prove that it worked, and worked well for what we needed at the time. Soon enough I was able to find a few additional places where we could make use of the same concepts. We recently procured quite a few Cisco Nexus 9372PX switches for both new deployments and hardware refreshes. By default these switches already come pre-configured with a out-of-band management VRF, which is already super useful to me. We run all of our device management traffic on a segregated network, so a management VRF allowed me to configure the IP/route information to make all that work – while not interfering with the normal layer 3 operations of the device.

Being a cloud provider, most of our customers are completely abstracted from the hardware/software that runs their hosted applications. However, in a few cases there are instances where a customer negotiates for a contract change to say otherwise. For example, a customer might have a special software integration they want to run and have the ability to control – or some customers want a dedicated point-to-point Ethernet connection into one of our data centers for increased reliability. A lot of the background networking work for this in the past was a bit of a pain – but it opened up another opportunity to make use of VRFs. I now have a dedicated customer VRF, which has separate routing configurations than our normal production environment. Customer wants to stand up BGP peers across their direct connection to our data center? Sure, I can isolate that BGP instance in the customer VRF, so there is no conflict with our production routing tables.

I’m sure that my current use cases are probably not the ideal implementations of virtual networking contexts – but they work for what we need and they make life a lot easier. I can see these becoming more and more common in our environment to logically segregate traffic. I am interested to hear how other companies have integrated this type of technology into their networks – so leave a comment below!