Calico Architecture

This document discusses the various pieces of the Calico’s architecture, with a focus on what specific role each component plays in the Calico network.


Calico is made up of the following interdependent components:

  • Felix, the primary Calico agent that runs on each machine that hosts endpoints.
  • The Orchestrator plugin, orchestrator-specific code that tightly integrates Calico into that orchestrator.
  • etcd, the data store.
  • BIRD, a BGP client that distributes routing information.
  • BGP Route Reflector (BIRD), an optional BGP route reflector for higher scale.

The following sections break down each component in more detail.


Felix is a daemon that runs on every machine that provides endpoints: in most cases that means on nodes that host containers or VMs. It is responsible for programming routes and ACLs, and anything else required on the host, in order to provide the desired connectivity for the endpoints on that host.

Depending on the specific orchestrator environment, Felix is responsible for the following tasks:

Interface Management

Felix programs some information about interfaces into the kernel in order to get the kernel to correctly handle the traffic emitted by that endpoint. In particular, it will ensure that the host responds to ARP requests from each workload with the MAC of the host, and will enable IP forwarding for interfaces that it manages.

It also monitors for interfaces to appear and disappear so that it can ensure that the programming for those interfaces is applied at the appropriate time.

Route Programming

Felix is responsible for programming routes to the endpoints on its host into the Linux kernel FIB (Forwarding Information Base) . This ensures that packets destined for those endpoints that arrive on at the host are forwarded accordingly.

ACL Programming

Felix is also responsible for programming ACLs into the Linux kernel. These ACLs are used to ensure that only valid traffic can be sent between endpoints, and ensure that endpoints are not capable of circumventing Calico’s security measures.

State Reporting

Felix is responsible for providing data about the health of the network. In particular, it reports errors and problems with configuring its host. This data is written into etcd, to make it visible to other components and operators of the network.

Orchestrator Plugin

Unlike Felix there is no single ‘orchestrator plugin’: instead, there are separate plugins for each major cloud orchestration platform (e.g. OpenStack, Kubernetes). The purpose of these plugins is to bind Calico more tightly into the orchestrator, allowing users to manage the Calico network just as they’d manage network tools that were built into the orchestrator.

A good example of an orchestrator plugin is the Calico Neutron ML2 mechanism driver. This component integrates with Neutron’s ML2 plugin, and allows users to configure the Calico network by making Neutron API calls. This provides seamless integration with Neutron.

The orchestrator plugin is responsible for the following tasks:

API Translation

The orchestrator will inevitably have its own set of APIs for managing networks. The orchestrator plugin’s primary job is to translate those APIs into Calico’s data-model and then store it in Calico’s datastore.

Some of this translation will be very simple, other bits may be more complex in order to render a single complex operation (e.g. live migration) into the series of simpler operations the rest of the Calico network expects.


If necessary, the orchestrator plugin will provide feedback from the Calico network into the orchestrator. Examples include: providing information about Felix liveness; marking certain endpoints as failed if network setup failed.


etcd is a distributed key-value store that has a focus on consistency. Calico uses etcd to provide the communication between components and as a consistent data store, which ensures Calico can always build an accurate network.

Depending on the orchestrator plugin, etcd may either be the master data store or a lightweight mirror of a separate data store. For example, in an OpenStack deployment, the OpenStack database is considered the “source of truth” and etcd is used to mirror information about the network to the other Calico components.

The etcd component is distributed across the entire deployment. It is divided into two groups of machines: the core cluster, and the proxies.

For small deployments, the core cluster can be an etcd cluster of one node (which would typically be co-located with the orchestrator plugin component). This deployment model is simple but provides no redundancy for etcd – in the case of etcd failure the orchstrator plugin would have to rebuild the database which, as noted for OpenStack, will simply require that the plugin resynchronizes state to etcd from the OpenStack database.

In larger deployments, the core cluster can be scaled up, as per the etcd admin guide.

Additionally, on each machine that hosts either a Felix or a plugin, we run an etcd proxy. This reduces the load on the core cluster and shields nodes from the specifics of the etcd cluster. In the case where the etcd cluster has a member on the same machine as a plugin, we can forgo the proxy on that machine.

etcd is responsible for performing the following tasks:

Data Storage

etcd stores the data for the Calico network in a distributed, consistent, fault-tolerant manner (for cluster sizes of at least three etcd nodes). This set of properties ensures that the Calico network is always in a known-good state, while allowing for some number of the machines hosting etcd to fail or become unreachable.

This distributed storage of Calico data also improves the ability of the Calico components to read from the database (which is their most common operation), as they can distribute their reads around the cluster.


etcd is also used as a communication bus between components. We do this by having the non-etcd components watch certain points in the keyspace to ensure that they see any changes that have been made, allowing them to respond to those changes in a timely manner. This allows the act of committing the state to the database to cause that state to be programmed into the network.

BGP Client (BIRD)

Calico deploys a BGP client on every node that also hosts a Felix. The role of the BGP client is to read routing state that Felix programs into the kernel and distribute it around the data center.

In Calico, this BGP component is most commonly BIRD, though any BGP client, such as GoBGP that can draw routes from the kernel and distribute them is suitable in this role.

The BGP client is responsible for performing the following task:

Route Distribution

When Felix inserts routes into the Linux kernel FIB, the BGP client will pick them up and distribute them to the other nodes in the deployment. This ensures that traffic is efficiently routed around the deployment.

BGP Route Reflector (BIRD)

For larger deployments, simple BGP can become a limiting factor because it requires every BGP client to be connected to every other BGP client in a mesh topology. This requires an increasing number of connections that rapidly become tricky to maintain, due to the N^2 nature of the increase.

For that reason, in larger deployments, Calico will deploy a BGP route reflector. This component, commonly used in the Internet, acts as a central point to which the BGP clients connect, preventing them from needing to talk to every single BGP client in the cluster.

For redundancy, multiple BGP route reflectors can be deployed seamlessly. The route reflectors are purely involved in the control of the network: no endpoint data passes through them.

In Calico, this BGP component is also most commonly BIRD, configured as a route reflector rather than as a standard BGP client.

The BGP route reflector is responsible for the following task:

Centralized Route Distribution

When the Calico BGP client advertises routes from its FIB to the route reflector, the route reflector advertises those routes out to the other nodes in the deployment.