31 August 2012

ASA oversubscription / interface errors Troubleshooting

1 Introduction

There are many times where indications of oversubscription or excessive load on a firewall or a network device are not enough to prove if oversubscription is really happening. Also, it is often confusing how to identify and solve such issues. This document will present the basic troubleshooting steps that someone needs to take in order to pinpoint an oversubscription problem on a Cisco ASA firewall and will propose potential solutions to overcome it. The corresponding document for the FWSM is located here.

2 Identification

The most important aspect of solving an oversubscription issue is its identification. Network engineers will often incorrectly attribute network problems to excessive traffic which leads devices like the firewalls to be wrongly considered as the bottleneck. Other times they will focus on other parts of the network in cases were the firewall processing power is not enough to handle the traffic. There can be multiple indications of load problems on firewall devices and putting them together will help us understand if traffic is indeed the reason of the problem or if we should focus elsewhere. That is what this section will try to describe.

2.1 Problem nature

Oversubscription almost never occurs by itself. It will most of the times be presented as another network problem that results from it. Such often include packet loss, slow response or drops. In general, an oversubscribed device that can't handle the load will inevitably drop some packets. Packet drops will affect sensitive applications or will cause TCP re-transmissions and affect the user experience by making transactions look as if they are taking more time to complete. If we wanted to summarize the problems that occur due to excessive load we would describe them as network degradation. Of course, someone must be careful and NOT attribute all problems that fall under the "degradation umbrella" as load issues. The indications we will present below will help more on identifying if such issues should be attributed to excessive load.

2.2 CPU

A "busy" firewall device will almost always show it on its CPU. We can check the CPU use with the command "show cpu".

ASA# show cpu
CPU utilization for 5 seconds = 14%; 1 minute: 10%; 5 minutes: 10%

A CPU ranging above 80%-90% could indicate high traffic load. As a side note, the "show cpu profile".can also be provided to TAC so that they will be able to identify the processes that the CPU is spent.

Also, CPU hogs can show when the CPU is too busy to pull packets off the line:
ASA# show process cpu-hog

Process:      telnet/ci, NUMHOG: 1, MAXHOG: 12, LASTHOG: 12
LASTHOG At:   20:18:08 EST Nov 8 2010
PC:           888c7e5 (suspend)
Call stack:   888c7e5  92f6581  92d65de  92d6d71  80cbaf7  80cbfcb   80c2575
              80c2d1f  80c3e66  80c4910  80626e3

CPU hog threshold (msec):  3.47
Last cleared: None

In the above example, the telnet process is hogging the CPU. During this time, the CPU is not available to pull packets of the NIC and route them through the firewall.

2.3 Interfaces

Another important indicator of oversubscription will be interface errors. A couple of commands to check the interfaces are "show interface" and "show interface | i errors"

ASA# show interface | i errors
        0 input errors, 0 CRC, 0 frame, 1567 overrun, 0 ignored, 0 abort
        0 output errors, 0 collisions, 0 interface resets
        0 input errors, 0 CRC, 0 frame, 124 overrun, 0 ignored, 0 abort
        0 output errors, 0 collisions, 0 interface resets
        0 input errors, 0 CRC, 0 frame, 987564 overrun, 0 ignored, 0 abort
        0 output errors, 0 collisions, 0 interface resets
ASA# show interface
Interface Ethernet0/1 "", is up, line protocol is up
  Hardware is 88E6095, BW 100 Mbps, DLY 100 usec

        Auto-Duplex(Full-duplex), Auto-Speed(100 Mbps)
        MAC address ffff.ffff.ffff, MTU 1500
        IP address, subnet mask
        2050839 packets input, 133555759 bytes, 0 no buffer
        Received 2044728 broadcasts, 0 runts, 0 giants
        0 input errors, 0 CRC, 0 frame, 3276 overruns, 0 ignored, 0 abort
        0 L2 decode drops
        6364 packets output, 2970714 bytes, 332 underruns
        0 output errors, 0 collisions, 0 interface resets
        0 babbles, 0 late collisions, 0 deferred
        0 lost carrier, 0 no carrier
        input queue (curr/max packets): hardware (4/13) software (0/0)
        output queue (curr/max packets): hardware (0/2) software (0/0)

Interface overruns, no buffer and underruns often show that the firewall cannot process all the traffic it is receiving on its NIC. Overruns and no buffers indicate that input traffic is too much on a given interface. The interface maintains a receive ring where packets are stored before they are processed by the ASA. If the NIC is receiving traffic faster than the ASA can pull them off the receive ring, the packet will be dropped and either the no buffer or overrun counter will increment. Underruns behaviour similarly but deal with the transmit ring instead.

2.4 Load

Next it is worth checking the traffic that the device is seeing. We need to clear the traffic ("clear  traffic" command) statistics before checking them ("show traffic" command). We are doing that because we want  to see the traffic while the problem is occurring and thus be able to tell if load is related to the problem investigated. Looking the aggregate traffic output from "show traffic" carries information since the last reload or the last time the counters were cleared, so it will not help us identify how much traffic the box is seeing for the time we are troubleshooting. After the "clear  traffic" we let the box collect statistical information for 2-5minutes and we do "show traffic" to get the traffic the interfaces saw.

ASA# clear traffic
...5 minutes go by...
ASA# show traffic
Aggregated Traffic on Physical Interface

        received (in 1137.180 secs):
                8985 packets    773519 bytes
                7 pkts/sec      680 bytes/sec
        transmitted (in 1137.180 secs):
                3946 packets    276317 bytes
                3 pkts/sec      242 bytes/sec
      1 minute input rate 243555 pkts/sec,  731777777 bytes/sec
      1 minute output rate 3434534 pkts/sec,  291777777 bytes/sec
      1 minute drop rate, 0 pkts/sec
      5 minute input rate 35435353 pkts/sec,  792545454444 bytes/sec
      5 minute output rate 343423 pkts/sec,  3614444444 bytes/sec
      5 minute drop rate, 0 pkts/sec
Monitoring tools and Netflow can also help on identifying traffic and connection rates.
We can then calculate the aggregate throughput the device is passing by examining the traffic that all physical interfaces saw (output of "show  traffic") and we will be able to understand if it is being pushed to its limits. In order to do that we need to check the device specs:
For the ASA, we can read from the ASA model comparison document

Cisco ASA 5500 Series Model/License5505 Base/Security Plus5510 Base / Security Plus5520554055505580-205580-40
Maximum firewall throughput (Mbps)150 Mbps300 Mbps450 Mbps650 Mbps1 Gbps (real-world HTTP), 1.2 Gbps (jumbo frames)5 Gbps (real-world HTTP), 10 Gbps (jumbo frames)10 Gbps (real-world HTTP), 20 Gbps (jumbo frames)
Maximum firewall connections10,000 /
50,000 /
Maximum firewall connections/second4000900012,00025,00036,00090,000150,000
Packets per second (64 byte)85,000190,000320,000500,000600,0002,500,0004,000,000

There are long discussions that people could start trying to tell if a firewall or any other device is hitting its traffic processing limits or not. Experience has shown that there is controversy on what the numbers show and what engineers consider as being close to the numbers or not. It is worth clarifying a few points. Let's use the ASA5510 as an example. Its name throughput is 300Mbps, as we see on the table above. So the question is, "if my ASA5510 sees about 280Mbps should it be 100% CPU or not?". A quick answer would be "No". Though, we must not forget that there are many factors involved in this question. In the network industry name speeds of devices come out under certain tests. These tests are repeated and an average is presented as the maximum speed. Though, not always is "real-world" traffic the same traffic as the one used in the tests. We could use the aforementioned ASA5510 for example. Usually, the name speed tests involve stateless protocols with big packets. For a TCP web browsing application though, the packets are much smaller and TCP uses ACKs and is a "synchronized" protocol by nature. That would add more load to the firewall itself, which would make its maximum throughput value drop. On top of that, if the ASA has http inspection configured (which will do deep packet inspection for http) then we understand that its maximum processing throughput would be less than 280Mbps. It is obvious that even though 300Mbps is indeed the throughput the device can achieve, its real-world throughput, based on applications, traffic nature and configuration could practically be less. That is why in our performance documents we also try to provide other metrics. These include the "packets per seconds" (pps) and what is often seen as "real-world HTTP". For example in the ASA table we can see that the 5510 can do 190K pps (small 64-byte packets). These metrics could also be used against the interface statistics collected from the device in order to decide if the box is pusehd to its limits.

Another consideration on top of traffic load for the firewall devices is connection and connection rates. That is another field that could trigger various disagreements. The command we would use to see the connections on our firewall are "show conn count" and "show resource usage".

ASA5510# show conn count
2 in use, 86 most used
ASA5510# show resource usage
Resource              Current         Peak      Limit        Denied Context
Telnet                      1            1          5             0 System
Syslogs [rate]              1          293        N/A             0 System
Conns                       2           86      10000             0 System
Xlates                      5          116        N/A             0 System
Hosts                       6           49        N/A             0 System

ASA5510-multi-context# show resource usage
Resource              Current         Peak      Limit        Denied Context
SSH                         1            1         15             0 admin
Syslogs [rate]            118          348  unlimited             0 context1
Conns                      89          893  unlimited             0 context1
Xlates                    150         1115  unlimited             0 context1
Hosts                      15           18  unlimited             0 context1
Conns [rate]               103        4694 unlimited             0 context1

Now, let's ask one more questions for the output from our ASA5510 above: "In the peak connection rate I see about 5K connections and in the specifications I read that the maximum supported rate is 9K conns/second. 5K is much less than 9K, so is the ASA exceeding its limits?". For someone to be able to answer that question he would need to keep in mind that the rate that is mentioned in the specifications is the average rate per second. To explain it better, here are a few examples:
  • Let's say we have a stable rate of 9K per second. This connection rate conforms to the ASA5510 limits.
  • Now let's see we have 90K new conns per 10 seconds. That is also a rate of 9K per second.and conforms to the ASA5510 limits
  • Now let's say we have 81K new conns. for 1 second and the next 9 seconds we have 1K. That makes us total 90K per 10 seconds which equals to average 9K per second which conforms with 9K conns/second. But the ASA was oversubscribed for 1 second while it was seeing a rate of 81K/second.
So, it is obvious that bursts of traffic or connections could affect the performance of a firewall even if the averages over time does not seem to exceed the limits.

Additionally, having few connections through the box does not necessarily mean that traffic is not high. Theoretically speaking, someone could have 10 connections passing 1Gbps each and thus oversubscribing an ASA with very few conns.

3 Mitigation / Alleviation

Now, it is equally important to mention options for overcoming an oversubscription issue. We would suggest to the reader to keep in mind that if a device is oversubscribed it is usually best to add more processing power by using more or more powerful devices. Though, there might be cases where we could get away with it by implementing some workarounds after identifying the root cause and the traffic profiles. Determining causes of oversubscription/excessive load should rely on external tools and traffic analysis.

3.1 Processes

When the CPU is high, we can try to see where it is spent and then we might be able to alleviate it from the process that take most CPU cycles. We can collect the output of the "show process" command, wait for 1 minute and collect it once more.

ASA# show process

    PC       SP       STATE       Runtime    SBASE     Stack Process
Lwe 0805510c d52a0cf4 09fbeed8          0 d529edf0 7544/8192 block_diag
Mrd 081beaa4 d52d087c 09fbe438        873 d52b0a38 123848/131072 Dispatch Unit
Msi 08f6348f d5784f8c 09fbde4c         13 d5783088 7792/8192 y88acs06 OneSec Thread
Mwe 08068bc6 d578938c 09fbde4c          0 d57874e8 7576/8192 Reload Control Thread
Mwe 08070976 d5794314 09fc07f8          0 d5790760 12496/16384 aaa
Mwe 08d094ed d60111ec 09fbde4c          4 d57948e8 6872/8192 UserFromCert Thread
Mwe 08c331eb d57987f4 d57d47d0          0 d5796a70 6920/8192 Boot Message Proxy Process
Mwe 080a49f6 d579d37c 09fc0854        107 d5799488 8968/16384 CMGR Server Process
Mwe 080a4f05 d579f4a4 09fbde4c         20 d579d610 7696/8192 CMGR Timer Process
Lwe 081bdecc d57a8b9c 09fceba8          0 d57a6c98 7216/8192 dbgtrace
Mwe 08498525 d57b11c4 09fbde4c        172 d57af440 4712/8192 eswilp_svi_init
Msi 0861af45 d57c4734 09fbde4c         28 d57c2850 6952/8192 MUS Timeout Check Thread
Mwe 08d094ed d5a3845c 09fbde4c          0 d57cb0e0 7016/8192 netfs_thread_init
Mwe 09378625 d57d952c 09fbde4c          0 d57d76d8 7612/8192 Chunk Manager
Msi 0894d40e d57dbcdc 09fbde4c         22 d57d9df8 7560/8192 PIX Garbage Collector
Mwe 08932ea4 d57eadfc 09ebdb4c          0 d57e8ef8 7904/8192 IP Address Assign
Mwe 08b41146 d597d8dc 09f02838          0 d597b9d8 7904/8192 QoS Support Module
Mwe 089c501f d597faa4 09ebebd0          0 d597dba0 7904/8192 Client Update Task
Lwe 093c1dba d5984404 09fbde4c        685 d5980570 15888/16384 Checkheaps
Mwe 08b44e65 d598c86c 09fbde4c       1535 d5988bf8 5648/16384 Quack process
Mwe 08b9e1f2 d5994bf4 09fbde4c          1 d598cd80 31888/32768 Session Manager
Mwe 08cb45b5 d599aae4 d7cbd3b0          4 d5997090 14312/16384 uauth
Mwe 08c52475 d599d11c 09f0f884          0 d599b218 7376/8192 Uauth_Proxy
Msp 08c893ce d59a35b4 09fbde4c          2 d59a16b0 7792/8192 SSL
Mwe 08cb1f46 d59a5754 09f15434          0 d59a3870 7272/8192 SMTP
Mwe 08caac96 d59a98dc 09f15398         30 d59a59f8 15096/16384 Logger
Mwe 08cab4c5 d59ab9f4 09fbde4c          0 d59a9b80 7728/8192  Syslog Retry Thread
Mwe 08ca511e d59adb9c 09fbde4c          0 d59abd08 7192/8192 Thread Logger
Mwe 08e9c492 d59d83a4 09f492e8          0 d59d64c0 7040/8192 vpnlb_thread

Then he can do the diff of the "Runtime" column for all the processes (keep in mind that a process might show up twice or more). By sorting the diffs from maximum to minimum we can see the processes that take most of the CPU. Introduced in ASA 8.2, commandshow processes cpu-usage non-zero sorted can be used instead.
There are cases where, for example, we might see an inspection process or the logging process taking most of the CPU. In such cases we can disable the inspections if they are not needed or turn down the logging level and save some CPU for the device. Please note that processes like "Dispatch_Unit" and "interface polling" relate to regular packet processing and there is not much that can be done to alleviate the CPU from them.

3.2 Traffic

If the traffic hitting the firewall is excessive, we can also try to send only necessary traffic through it. Although, this solution is not practical in most setups, there might be cases where someone has alternate routes for his traffic and he might not need to "firewall" all packets. In such scenarios he can use policy based routing (PBR) to divert to the firewall only traffic that needs to be "firewalled".

3.3 Optimize throughput

For the ASA5550 and ASA5580, by leveraging the IO bridges appropriatelly someone might be able to optimize the maximum throuput of the box. Further information on how to do that in ASA 5550 and 5580 is located here.

3.4 Flow Control

For instances were traffic is extremely bursty (i.e. 5Gbps for burts of 5ms), dropped packets can occur if the burst exceeds the buffering capacity of the FIFO buffer on the NIC and the receive ring buffers. Enabling pause frames for flow control can alleviate this issue by letting the upstream device to "hold on" with the bursts. More information on how to enable flow control can be found under the corresponding model sections here.

3.5 Active/Active failover

In case of using two firewalls in failover in Active/Standby mode, if the Active Unit cannot handle the traffic you might be able to temporarily use an Active/Active setup to share it between both units. You would need to have the firewalls in multi-context mode and have one or more contexts active on the primary unit and one or more contexts active on the secondary. That way both firewalls will be passing traffic (for the context/s that they are active) and might not be oversubscribed. Though, you need to remember that in case one of a units failure, all contexts (thus all traffic) will be running on one unit and then you will be back to an oversubscribed scenario. Active/Active failover for oversubscription cases should only be used (if used at all) as a temporary solution with precaution, until a permanent solution is put in place