In this post I will try to clarify the difference between route distinguisher and route target within the Cisco world of MPLS VPN’s. The main confusion comes from the fact that in most Cisco Press books they always show the route distinguisher value and route target value as the same.
They are not the same and are used for completely different things.
In simple terms the route distinguisher is used to create a unique 96 bit address called the VPNv4 address.
This ensures that even if two customers are running the 10.0.0.0/8 address space their addresses remain unique within the MPLS network.
The Route Target is a 64 bit BGP community used to tag prefixes. It tells the Remote PE routers which prefix it can import.
The route distinguisher has only one purpose, to make IPv4 prefixes globally unique. It is used by the PE routers to identify which VPN a packet belongs to, e.g to enable a router to distinguish between 10.0.0.1/8 for Customer A and 10.0.0.1/8 for Customer B. The route distinguisher is made up of an 8 byte field prefixed to the customer 4 Byte IPv4 address, the resulting 12 byte field makes a unique VPNv4 address.
R1(config)#ip vrf Customer_A
If we type “rd ?” you can see 2 options for configuring the RD..
ASN:nn or IP-address:nn VPN Route Distinguisher
For the purpose of this description I will configure the RD value as 65355:10 which AS number 65535 and Unique value 10 combinatin
To verify this value enter the command sh ip vrf
R1#sh ip vrf
Name Default RD Interfaces
The route target on the other hand is an 8 byte field which is a BGP extended Communities Attribute and it defines which prefixes are exported and imported on the PE routers.
So for example consider Router R3 has 2 VRF’s configured on it “Customer_A” and “Customer_B” so you would define under each vrf a unique route target value, these take the same format as the route distinguisher, but for the purpose of this explanation we are going to use 1:1 for Customer_A and 2:2 for Customer_B. On R3 we want to export and import the prefixes for Customer A and B, however on router R1 we only want to import and export the prefixes for Customer_A and on router R2 we only want to import and export the prefixes for Customer_B
To conclude, the route distinguisher and route target values perform two completely separate functions, and although in a lot of cisco books the values are the same (which they can be) it is confusing to someone learning MPLS for the first time as they assume they do the same thing.
The route distinguisher makes a unique VPNv4 address across the MPLS network and the route target defines which prefixes get imported and exported on the PE routers.