This document discusses possible causes and implications of unicast
packet flooding in switched networks.
There are no specific requirements for this document.
This document is not restricted to specific software and hardware
For more information on document conventions, refer to
Technical Tips Conventions.
LAN switches use forwarding tables (Layer 2 (L2) tables, Content
Addressable Memory (CAM) tables) to direct traffic to specific ports based on
the VLAN number and the destination MAC address of the frame. When there is no
entry corresponding to the frame's destination MAC address in the incoming
VLAN, the (unicast) frame will be sent to all forwarding ports within the
respective VLAN, which causes flooding.
Limited flooding is part of the normal switching process. There are
situations, however, when continuous flooding can cause adverse performance
effects on the network. This document explains what issues can arise due to
flooding, and the most common reasons why certain traffic might constantly be
Note that most modern switches including the Catalyst 2900 XL, 3500 XL,
2940, 2950, 2970, 3550, 3750, 4500/4000, 5000, and 6500/6000 series switches
maintain L2 forwarding tables per VLAN.
The very cause of flooding is that destination MAC address of the
packet is not in the L2 forwarding table of the switch. In this case the packet
will be flooded out of all forwarding ports in its VLAN (except the port it was
received on). Below case studies display most common reasons for destination
MAC address not being known to the switch.
Large amounts of flooded traffic might saturate low-bandwidth links
causing network performance issues or complete connectivity outage to devices
connected across such low-bandwidth links. Consider the following diagram:
In the diagram above, server S1 in VLAN 1 is running backup (bulk data
transfer) to server S2 in VLAN 2. Server S1 has its default gateway pointing to
router A's VLAN 1 interface. Server S2 has its default gateway pointing to
router B's VLAN 2 interface. Packets from S1 to S2 will follow this path:
Packets from S2 to S1 go along the following path:
Note that with such an arrangement, switch A will not "see" traffic
from the S2 MAC address in VLAN 2 (since the source MAC address will be
rewritten by router B and the packet will only arrive in VLAN 1). This means
that every time switch A needs to send the packet to the S2 MAC address, the
packet will be flooded to VLAN 2. The same situation will occur with the S1 MAC
address on switch B.
This behavior is called asymmetric routing. Packets follow different
paths depending on the direction. Asymmetric routing is one of the two most
common causes of flooding.
Impact of Unicast Flooding
Returning to the above example, the result is that packets of the data
transfer between S1 and S2 will mostly be flooded to VLAN 2 on switch A and to
VLAN 1 on switch B. This means every connected port (workstation W in this
example) in VLAN 1 on switch B will receive all packets of conversation between
S1 and S2. Suppose the server backup takes 50 Mbps of bandwidth. This amount of
traffic will saturate 10 Mbps links. This will cause a complete connectivity
outage to the PCs or slow them down considerably.
This flooding is due to asymmetric routing, and may stop when server S1
sends a broadcast packet (for example Address Resolution Protocol (ARP)).
Switch A will flood this packet to VLAN 1 and switch B will receive and learn
the MAC address of S1. Since the switch is not receiving traffic constantly,
this forwarding entry will eventually age out and flooding will resume. The
same process applies to S2.
There are different approaches to limit the flooding caused by
asymmetric routing. Refer to these documents for more information:
The approach is normally to bring the router's ARP timeout and the
switches' forwarding table-aging time close to each other. This will cause the
ARP packets to be broadcast. Relearning must occur before the L2 forwarding
table entry ages out.
A typical scenario where this kind of issue might be observed is when
there are redundant Layer 3 (L3) switches (such as a Catalyst 6000 with
Mutilayer Switch Feature Card (MSFC)) configured to load-balance with Hot
Standby Router Protocol (HSRP). In this case, one switch will be active for
even VLANs and the other one will be active for odd VLANs.
Another common issue caused by flooding is Spanning-Tree Protocol (STP)
Topology Change Notification (TCN). TCN is designed to correct forwarding
tables after the forwarding topology has changed. This is necessary to avoid a
connectivity outage, as after a topology change some destinations previously
accessible via particular ports might become accessible via different ports.
TCN operates by shortening the forwarding table aging time, such that if the
address is not relearned, it will age out and flooding will occur.
TCNs are triggered by a port that is transitioning to or from the
forwarding state. After the TCN, even if the particular destination MAC address
has aged out, flooding should not happen for long in most cases since the
address will be relearned. The issue might arise when TCNs are occurring
repeatedly with short intervals. The switches will constantly be fast-aging
their forwarding tables so flooding will be nearly constant.
Normally, a TCN is rare in a well-configured network. When the port on
a switch goes up or down, there is eventually a TCN once the STP state of the
port is changing to or from forwarding. When the port is flapping, repetitive
TCNs and flooding occurs.
Ports with the STP portfast feature enabled will not cause TCNs when
going to or from the forwarding state. Configuration of portfast on all
end-device ports (such as printers, PCs, servers, and so on) should limit TCNs
to a low amount. Refer to this document for more information on TCNs:
Note: In MSFC IOS, there is an optimization that will trigger VLAN
interfaces to repopulate their ARP tables when there is a TCN in the respective
VLAN. This limits flooding in case of TCNs, as there will be an ARP broadcast
and the host MAC address will be relearned as the hosts reply to ARP.
Another possible cause of flooding can be overflow of the switch
forwarding table. In this case, new addresses cannot be learned and packets
destined to such addresses are flooded until some space becomes available in
the forwarding table. New addresses will then be learned. This is possible but
rare, since most modern switches have large enough forwarding tables to
accommodate MAC addresses for most designs.
Forwarding table exhaustion can also be caused by an attack on the
network where one host starts generating frames each sourced with different MAC
address. This will tie up all the forwarding table resources. Once the
forwarding tables become saturated, other traffic will be flooded because new
learning cannot occur. This kind of attack can be detected by examining the
switch forwarding table. Most of the MAC addresses will point to the same port
or group of ports. Such attacks can be prevented by limiting the number of MAC
addresses learned on untrusted ports by using the port security feature.
Configuration Guides for Catalyst switches running Cisco IOS® or CatOS
software have a section called Configuring Port Security or Configuring
Port-Based Traffic Control. Refer to the Technical Documentation for your
switch on the Cisco
Switches product pages for more information.
Note: If unicast flooding occurs in a switch port which is configured for
Port Security with the condition of "Restrict" to arrest the flooding, a
security violation is trigerred.
Router(config-if)#switchport port-security violation restrict
Note: When such a security violation occurs, the affected ports configured
for "restrict" mode should drop packets with unknown source addresses until you
remove a sufficient number of secure MAC addresses to drop below the maximum
value. This causes the SecurityViolation counter to increment.
Note: Instead of this behavior, if the switch port moves to "Shutdown"
state then you need to configure Router(config-if)#switchport
block unicast so that the particular switch port is disabled
for unicast flooding.
Most switches implement no special command to detect flooding. Catalyst
6500/6000 Supervisor Engine 2 and higher series switches running Cisco IOS
System software (Native) version 12.1(14)E and higher or Cisco CatOS system
software version 7.5 or higher implements 'unicast flood
protection' feature. In short, this feature allows the switch to
monitor the amount of unicast flooding per VLAN and take specified action if
flooding exceeds specified amount. Actions can be to syslog, limit or shutdown
VLAN - the syslog being the most useful for flood detection. When flooding
exceeds the configured rate and the action configured is syslog, a message
similar to the following will be printed:
%UNICAST_FLOOD-4-DETECTED: Host 0000.0000.2100 on vlan 1 is flooding
to an unknown unicast destination at a rate greater than/equal to 1 Kfps
The MAC address indicated is the source MAC from which the packets are
flooded on this switch. It is often needed to know the destination MAC
addresses to which switch is flooding (because switch is forwarding by looking
at the destination MAC address). Cisco IOS (Native) versions 12.1(20)E for
Catalyst 6500/6000 supervisor engine 2 and on will implement capability to
display the MAC addresses to which flooding is occurring:
cat6000#sh mac-address-table unicast-flood
Unicast Flood Protection status: enabled
vlan Kfps action timeout
55 1 alert none
No. vlan souce mac addr. installed on time left (mm:ss)
Vlan souce mac addr. destination mac addr.
55 0000.2222.0000 0000.1111.0029, 0000.1111.0040, 0000.1111.0063
0000.1111.0018, 0000.1111.0090, 0000.1111.0046
Further investigation can then be carried out to see if MAC address
0000.2222.0000 is supposed to be sending traffic to the MAC addresses listed in
the destination MAC address section. If traffic is legitimate, then one would
need to establish why destination MAC addresses are not known to the switch.
For information on the unicast flood protection configuration, refer to
You may detect if flooding is occurring by capturing a trace of packets
seen on a workstation during the time of slowdown or outage. Normally, unicast
packets not involving the workstation should not be seen repeatedly on the
port. If this is happening, chances are that there is flooding occurring.
Packet traces may look different when there are various causes of flooding.
With asymmetric routing, there are likely to be packets to specific MAC
address that will not stop flooding even after the destination replies. With
TCNs, the flooding will include many different addresses, but should eventually
stop and then restart.
With L2 forwarding table overflow, you are likely to see same kind of
flooding as with asymmetric routing. The difference is that there will likely
be a high amount of strange packets, or normal packets in abnormal quantities
with a different source MAC address.