Network problems last Friday

On Friday, November 30th, GitHub had a rough day. We experienced 18 minutes of complete unavailability along with sporadic bursts of slow responses and intermittent errors for the entire day. I’m very sorry this happened and I want to take some time to explain what happened, how we responded, and what we’re doing to help prevent a similar problem in the future.

Note: I initially forgot to mention that we had a single fileserver pair offline for a large part of the day affecting a small percentage of repositories. This was a side effect of the network problems and their impact on the high-availability clustering between the fileserver nodes. My apologies for missing this on the initial writeup.


To understand the problem on Friday, you first need to understand how our network is constructed. GitHub has grown incredibly quickly over the past few years. A consequence of that growth is that our infrastructure has, at times, struggled to keep up with the growth.

Most recently, we’ve been seeing some significant problems with network performance throughout our network. Actions that should respond in under a millisecond were taking several times that long with occasional spikes to hundreds of times that long. Services that we’ve wanted to roll out have been blocked by scalability concerns and we’ve had a number of brief outages that have been the result of the network straining beyond the breaking point.

The most pressing problem was with the way our network switches were interconnected. Conceptually, each of our switches were connected to the switches in the neighboring racks. Any data that had to travel from a server on one end of the network to a server on the other end had to pass through all of the switches in between. This design often put a very large strain on the switches in the middle of the chain and those links became saturated, slowing down any data that had to pass through them.

To solve this problem, we purchased additional switches to build what’s called an aggregation network, which is more of a tree structure. Network switches at the top of the tree (aggregation swtiches) are directly connected to switches in each server cabinet (access switches). This topology assures that data never has to move between more than 3 tiers: The switch in the originating cabinet, the aggregation switches, and the switch in the destination cabinet. This allows the links between switches to be much more efficiently used.

What went wrong?

Last week the new aggregation switches finally arrived and were installed in our datacenter. Due to the lack of available ports in our access switches, we needed to disconnect access switches, change the configuration to support the aggregation design, and then reconnect them to the aggregation switches. Fortunately, we’ve built our network with redundant switches in each server cabinet and each server is connected to both of these switches. We generally refer to these as “A” and “B” switches.

Our plan was to perform this operation on the B switches and observe the behavior before transitioning to the A switches and completing the migration. On Thursday, November 29th we made these changes on the B devices and despite a few small hiccups the process went essentially according to plan. We were initially encouraged by the data we were collecting and planned to make similar changes to the A switches the following morning.

On Friday morning, we began making the changes to bring the A switches into the new network. We moved one device at a time and the maintenance proceeded exactly as planned until we reached the final switch. As we connected the final A switch, we lost connectivity with the B switch in the same cabinet. Investigating further, we discovered a misconfiguration on this pair of switches that caused what’s called a “bridge loop” in the network. The switches are specifically configured to detect this sort of problem and to protect the network by disabling links where they detect an issue, and that’s what happened in this case.

We were able to quickly resolve the initial problem and return the affected B switch to service, completing the migration. Unfortunately, we were not seeing the performance levels we expected. As we dug deeper we saw that all of the connections between the access switches and the aggregation switches were completely saturated. We initially diagnosed this as a “broadcast storm” which is one possible consequence of a bridge loop that goes undetected.

We spent most of the day auditing our switch configurations again, going through every port trying to locate what we believed to be a loop. As part of that process we decided to disconnect individual links between the access and aggregation switches and observe behavior to see if we could narrow the scope of the problem further. When we did this, we discovered another problem: The moment we disconnected one of the access/aggregation links in a redundant pair, the access switch would disable its redundant link as well. This was unexpected and meant that we did not have the ability to withstand a failure of one of our aggregation switches.

We escalated this problem to our switch vendor and worked with them to identify a misconfiguration. We had a setting that was intended to detect partial link failure between two links. Essentially it would monitor to try and ensure that both the transmit and receive functions were functioning correctly. Unfortunately, this feature is not supported between the aggregation and access switch models. When we shut down an individual link, this watchdog process would erroneously trigger and force all the links to be disabled. The 18 minute period of hard downtime we had was during this troubleshooting process when we lost connectivity to multiple switches simultaneously.

Once we removed the misconfigured setting on our access switches we were able to continue testing links and our failover functioned as expected. We were able to remove any single switch at either the aggregation or access layer without impacting the underlying servers. This allowed us to continue moving through individual links in the hunt for what we still believed was a loop induced broadcast storm.

After a couple more hours of troubleshooting we were unable to track down any problems with the configuration and again escalated to our network vendor. They immediately began troubleshooting the problem with us and escalated it to their highest severity level. We spent five hours Friday night troubleshooting the problem and eventually discovered a bug in the aggregation switches was to blame.

When a network switch receives an ethernet frame, it inspects the contents of that frame to determine the destination MAC address. It then looks up the MAC address in an internal MAC address table to determine which port the destination device is connected to. If it finds a match for the MAC address in its table, it forwards the frame to that port. If, however, it does not have the destination MAC address in its table it is forced to “flood” that frame to all of its ports with the exception of the port that it was received from.

In the course of our troubleshooting we discovered that our aggregation switches were missing a number of MAC addresses from their tables, and thus were flooding any traffic that was sent to those devices across all of their ports. Because of these missing addresses, a large percentage of our traffic was being sent to every access switch and not just the switch that the destination devices was connected to. During normal operation, the switch should “learn” which port each MAC address is connected through as it processes traffic. For some reason, our switches were unable to learn a significant percentage of our MAC addresses and this aggregate traffic was enough to saturate all of the links between the access and aggregation switches, causing the poor performance we saw throughout the day.

We worked with the vendor until late on Friday night to formulate a mitigation plan and to collect data for their engineering team to review. Once we had a mitigation plan, we scheduled a network maintenance window on Saturday morning at 0600 Pacific to attempt to work around the problem. The workaround involved restarting some core processes on the aggregation switches in order to attempt to allow them to learn MAC addresses again. This workaround was successful and traffic and performance returned to normal levels.

Where do we go from here?

  1. We have worked with our network vendor to provide diagnostic information which led them to discover the root cause for the MAC learning issues. We expect a final fix for this issue within the next week or so and will be deploying a software update to our switches at that time. In the mean time we are closely monitoring our aggregation to access layer capacity and have a workaround process if the problem comes up again.
  2. We designed this maintenance so that it would have no impact on customers, but we clearly failed. With this in mind, we are planning to invest in a duplicate of our network stack from our routers all the way through our access layer switches to be used in a staging environment. This will allow us to more fully test these kinds of changes in the future, and hopefully detect bugs like the one that caused the problems on Friday.
  3. We are working on adding additional automated monitoring to our network to alert us sooner if we have similar issues.
  4. We need to be more mindful of tunnel-vision during incident response. We fixated for a very long time on the idea of a bridge loop and it blinded us to other possible causes. We hope to begin doing more scheduled incident response exercises in the coming months and will build scenarios that reinforce this.
  5. The very positive experience we had with our network vendor’s support staff has caused us to change the way we think about engaging support. In the future, we will contact their support team at the first sign of trouble in the network.


We know you depend on GitHub and we’re going to continue to work hard to live up to the trust you place in us. Incidents like the one we experienced on Friday aren’t fun for anyone, but we always strive to use them as a learning opportunity and a way to improve our craft. We have many infrastructure improvements planned for the coming year and the lessons we learned from this outage will only help us as we plan them.

Finally, I’d like to personally thank the entire GitHub community for your patience and kind words while we were working through these problems on Friday.

Have feedback on this post? Let @github know on Twitter.
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