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Understanding VLANs

Connect802 can help with the selection and system design for many manufacturer's VLAN-enabled equipment including VLAN Layer 2 switches and VLAN wireless LAN switches. We are also an authorized, value-added reseller for a number of major manufacturer's products.

If you have questions, please don't hesitate to call us today! We'll be happy to provide you with any technical explanation that you need to help you assure a successful wireless networking deployment.

A virtual LAN, commonly known as a VLAN, is a group of hosts with a common set of requirements that communicate as if they were attached to the same wire, regardless of their physical location. A VLAN has the same attributes as a physical LAN, but it allows for end stations to be grouped together even if they are not located on the same LAN segment. Network reconfiguration can be done through software instead of physically relocating devices.

VLANs are created to provide the segmentation services traditionally provided by routers in LAN configurations. VLANs address issues such as scalability, security, and network management. Routers in VLAN topologies provide broadcast filtering, security, address summarization, and traffic flow management. By definition, switches may not bridge IP traffic between VLANs as it would violate the integrity of the VLAN broadcast domain.

Virtual LANs are essentially Layer 2 constructs, whereas IP subnets are Layer 3 constructs. In a LAN employing VLANs, a one-to-one relationship often exists between VLANs and IP subnets, although it is possible to have multiple subnets on one VLAN or have one subnet spread across multiple VLANs. Virtual LANs and IP subnets provide independent Layer 2 and Layer 3 constructs that map to one another and this correspondence is useful during the network design process.

The protocol used in configuring virtual LANs is IEEE 802.1Q. The IEEE committee defined this method of multiplexing VLANs in an effort to provide multivendor VLAN support. Prior to the introduction of the 802.1Q standard, several proprietary protocols existed, such as Cisco's ISL (Inter-Switch Link, a variant of IEEE 802.10) and 3Com's VLT (Virtual LAN Trunk). ISL is no longer supported by Cisco.

Both ISL and IEEE 802.1Q tagging perform explicit tagging as the frame is tagged with VLAN information explicitly. ISL uses an external tagging process that does not modify the existing Ethernet frame whereas 802.1Q uses an internal tagging process that does modify the Ethernet frame. This internal tagging process is what allows IEEE 802.1Q tagging to work on both access and trunk links, because the frame appears to be a standard Ethernet frame.

The IEEE 802.1Q header contains a 4-byte tag header containing a 2-byte tag protocol identifier (TPID) and a 2-byte tag control information (TCI). The TPID has a fixed value of 0x8100 that indicates that the frame carries the 802.1Q/802.1p tag information. The TCI contains the following elements:

Three-bit user priority

  • One-bit canonical format indicator (CFI)
  • Twelve-bit VLAN identifier (VID)-Uniquely identifies the VLAN to which the frame belongs

The 802.1Q standard can create an interesting scenario on the network. Recalling that the maximum size for an Ethernet frame as specified by IEEE 802.3 is 1518 bytes, this means that if a maximum-sized Ethernet frame gets tagged, the frame size will be 1522 bytes, a number that violates the IEEE 802.3 standard. To resolve this issue, the 802.3 committee created a subgroup called 802.3ac to extend the maximum Ethernet size to 1522 bytes. Network devices that do not support a larger frame size will process the frame successfully but may report these anomalies as a "baby giant."

Inter-Switch Link (ISL) is a Cisco proprietary protocol used to interconnect multiple switches and maintain VLAN information as traffic travels between switches on trunk links. This technology provides one method for multiplexing bridge groups (VLANs) over a high-speed backbone. It is defined for Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet, as is IEEE 802.1Q. ISL has been available on Cisco routers since Cisco IOS Software Release 11.1.

With ISL, an Ethernet frame is encapsulated with a header that transports VLAN IDs between switches and routers. ISL does add overhead to the packet as a 26-byte header containing a 10-bit VLAN ID. In addition, a 4-byte CRC is appended to the end of each frame. This CRC is in addition to any frame checking that the Ethernet frame requires. The fields in an ISL header identify the frame as belonging to a particular VLAN.

A VLAN ID is added only if the frame is forwarded out a port configured as a trunk link. If the frame is to be forwarded out a port configured as an access link, the ISL encapsulation is removed.

Early network designers often configured VLANs with the aim of reducing the size of the collision domain in a large single Ethernet segment and thus improving performance. When Ethernet switches made this a non-issue (because each switch port is a collision domain), attention turned to reducing the size of the broadcast domain at the MAC layer. Virtual networks can also serve to restrict access to network resources without regard to physical topology of the network, although the strength of this method remains debatable as VLAN Hopping [1] is a common means of bypassing such security measures.

Virtual LANs operate at Layer 2 (the data link layer) of the OSI model. Administrators often configure a VLAN to map directly to an IP network, or subnet, which gives the appearance of involving Layer 3 (the network layer). In the context of VLANs, the term "trunk" denotes a network link carrying multiple VLANs, which are identified by labels (or "tags") inserted into their packets. Such trunks must run between "tagged ports" of VLAN-aware devices, so they are often switch-to-switch or switch-to-router links rather than links to hosts. (Note that the term 'trunk' is also used for what Cisco calls "channels" : Link Aggregation or Port Trunking). A router (Layer 3 device) serves as the backbone for network traffic going across different VLANs.

On Cisco devices, VTP (VLAN Trunking Protocol) maintains VLAN configuration consistency across the entire network. VTP uses Layer 2 trunk frames to manage the addition, deletion, and renaming of VLANs on a network-wide basis from a centralized switch in the VTP server mode. VTP is responsible for synchronizing VLAN information within a VTP domain and reduces the need to configure the same VLAN information on each switch.

VTP minimizes the possible configuration inconsistencies that arise when changes are made. These inconsistencies can result in security violations, because VLANs can crossconnect when duplicate names are used. They also could become internally disconnected when they are mapped from one LAN type to another, for example, Ethernet to ATM LANE ELANs or FDDI 802.10 VLANs. VTP provides a mapping scheme that enables seamless trunking within a network employing mixed-media technologies.

VTP provides the following benefits:

  • VLAN configuration consistency across the network
  • Mapping scheme that allows a VLAN to be trunked over mixed media
  • Accurate tracking and monitoring of VLANs
  • Dynamic reporting of added VLANs across the network
  • Plug-and-play configuration when adding new VLANs

As beneficial as VTP can be, it does have disadvantages that are normally related to the Spanning-Tree Protocol (STP) as a bridging loop propagating throughout the network can occur. Cisco switches run an instance of STP for each VLAN, and since VTP propagates VLANs across the campus LAN, VTP effectively creates more opportunities for a bridging loop to occur.

Before creating VLANs on the switch that will be propagated via VTP, a VTP domain must first be set up. A VTP domain for a network is a set of all contiguously trunked switches with the same VTP domain name. All switches in the same management domain share their VLAN information with each other, and a switch can participate in only one VTP management domain. Switches in different domains do not share VTP information.

Static VLANs Compared to Dynamic VLANs

Static VLANs are also referred to as port-based VLANs. Static VLAN assignments are created by assigning ports to a VLAN. As a device enters the network, the device automatically assumes the VLAN of the port. If the user changes ports and needs access to the same VLAN, the network administrator must manually make a port-to-VLAN assignment for the new connection.

Dynamic VLANs are created through the use of software packages such as CiscoWorks 2000. With a VLAN Management Policy Server VMPS, an administrator can assign switch ports to VLANs dynamically based on information such as the source MAC address of the device connected to the port or the username used to log onto that device. As a device enters the network, the device queries a database for VLAN membership.

Port-based VLANs
With port-based VLAN membership, the port is assigned to a specific VLAN independent of the user or system attached to the port. This means all users attached to the port should be members in the same VLAN. The network administrator typically performs the VLAN assignment. The port configuration is static and cannot be automatically changed to another VLAN without manual reconfiguration.

As with other VLAN approaches, the packets forwarded using this method do not leak into other VLAN domains on the network. After a port has been assigned to a VLAN, the port cannot send to or receive from devices in another VLAN without the intervention of a Layer 3 device.

The device that is attached to the port likely has no understanding that a VLAN exists. The device simply knows that it is a member of a subnet and that the device should be able to talk to all other members of the subnet by simply sending information to the cable segment. The switch is responsible for identifying that the information came from a specific VLAN and for ensuring that the information gets to all other members of the VLAN. The switch is further responsible for ensuring that ports in a different VLAN do not receive the information.

This approach is quite simple, fast, and easy to manage in that there are no complex lookup tables required for VLAN segmentation. If port-to-VLAN association is done with an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC), the performance is very good. An ASIC allows the port-to-VLAN mapping to be done at the hardware level.

In a protocol based VLAN enabled switch, traffic is forwarded through ports based on protocol. Essentially user tries to segregate or forward a particular protocol traffic from a port using the protocol based VLANs, traffic from any other protocol is not forwarded on the port. For example, if you have connected a host, pumping ARP traffic on the switch at port 10, connected a Lan pumping IPX traffic to the port 20 of the switch and connected a router pumping IP traffic on port 30. then if you define a protocol based VLAN supporting IP and including all the three ports 10, 20 and 30 then IP packets can be forwarded to the ports 10 and 20 also , but ARP traffic will not get forwarded to the ports 20 and 30, similarly IPX traffic will not get forwarded to ports 10 and 30.