A local-area network, or LAN, is a system consisting of
- physical links that are, ultimately, serial lines
- common interfacing hardware connecting the hosts to the links
- protocols to make everything work together
We will explicitly assume that every LAN node is able to communicate with every other LAN node. Sometimes this will require the cooperation of intermediate nodes acting as switches.
Far and away the most common type of (wired) LAN is Ethernet, originally described in a 1976 paper by Metcalfe and Boggs [MB76]. Ethernet’s popularity is due to low cost more than anything else, though the primary reason Ethernet cost is low is that high demand has led to manufacturing economies of scale.
The original Ethernet had a bandwidth of 10 Mbps (megabits per second; we will use lower-case “b” for bits and upper-case “B” for bytes), though nowadays most Ethernet operates at 100 Mbps and gigabit (1000 Mbps) Ethernet (and faster) is widely used in server rooms. (By comparison, as of this writing (2015) the data transfer rate to a typical faster hard disk is about 1000 Mbps.) Wireless (“Wi-Fi”) LANs are gaining popularity, and in many settings have supplanted wired Ethernet to end-users.
Many early Ethernet installations were unswitched; each host simply tapped in to one long primary cable that wound through the building (or floor). In principle, two stations could then transmit at the same time, rendering the data unintelligible; this was called a collision. Ethernet has several design features intended to minimize the bandwidth wasted on collisions: stations, before transmitting, check to be sure the line is idle, they monitor the line while transmitting to detect collisions during the transmission, and, if a collision is detected, they execute a random backoff strategy to avoid an immediate recollision. See 2.1.5 The Slot Time and Collisions. While Ethernet collisions definitely reduce throughput, in the larger view they should perhaps be thought of as a part of a remarkably inexpensive shared-access mediation protocol.
In unswitched Ethernets every packet is received by every host and it is up to the network card in each host to determine if the arriving packet is addressed to that host. It is almost always possible to configure the card to forward all arriving packets to the attached host; this poses a security threat and “password sniffers” that surreptitiously collected passwords via such eavesdropping used to be common.
Due to both privacy and efficiency concerns, almost all Ethernets today are fully switched; this ensures that each packet is delivered only to the host to which it is addressed. One advantage of switching is that it effectively eliminates most Ethernet collisions; while in principle it replaces them with a queuing issue, in practice Ethernet switch queues so seldom fill up that they are almost invisible even to network managers (unlike IP router queues). Switching also prevents host-based eavesdropping, though arguably a better solution to this problem is encryption. Perhaps the more significant tradeoff with switches, historically, was that Once Upon A Time they were expensive and unreliable; tapping directly into a common cable was dirt cheap.
Ethernet addresses are six bytes long. Each Ethernet card (or network interface) is assigned a (supposedly) unique address at the time of manufacture; this address is burned into the card’s ROM and is called the card’s physical address or hardware address or MAC (Media Access Control) address. The first three bytes of the physical address have been assigned to the manufacturer; the subsequent three bytes are a serial number assigned by that manufacturer.
By comparison, IP addresses are assigned administratively by the local site. The basic advantage of having addresses in hardware is that hosts automatically know their own addresses on startup; no manual configuration or server query is necessary. It is not unusual for a site to have a large number of identically configured workstations, for which all network differences derive ultimately from each workstation’s unique Ethernet address.
The network interface continually monitors all arriving packets; if it sees any packet containing a destination address that matches its own physical address, it grabs the packet and forwards it to the attached CPU (via a CPU interrupt).
Ethernet also has a designated broadcast address. A host sending to the broadcast address has its packet received by every other host on the network; if a switch receives a broadcast packet on one port, it forwards the packet out every other port. This broadcast mechanism allows host A to contact host B when A does not yet know B’s physical address; typical broadcast queries have forms such as “Will the designated server please answer” or (from the ARP protocol) “will the host with the given IP address please tell me your physical address”.
Traffic addressed to a particular host – that is, not broadcast – is said to be unicast.
Because Ethernet addresses are assigned by the hardware, knowing an address does not provide any direct indication of where that address is located on the network. In switched Ethernet, the switches must thus have a forwarding-table record for each individual Ethernet address on the network; for extremely large networks this ultimately becomes unwieldy. Consider the analogous situation with postal addresses: Ethernet is somewhat like attempting to deliver mail using social-security numbers as addresses, where each postal worker is provided with a large catalog listing each person’s SSN together with their physical location. Real postal mail is, of course, addressed “hierarchically” using ever-more-precise specifiers: state, city, zipcode, street address, and name / room#. Ethernet, in other words, does not scale well to “large” sizes.
Switched Ethernet works quite well, however, for networks with up to 10,000-100,000 nodes. Forwarding tables with size in that range are straightforward to manage.
To forward packets correctly, switches must know where all active destination addresses in the LAN are located; traditional Ethernet switches do this by a passive learning algorithm. (IP routers, by comparison, use “active” protocols, and some newer Ethernet switches take the approach of 2.8 Software-Defined Networking.) Typically a host physical address is entered into a switch’s forwarding table when a packet from that host is first received; the switch notes the packet’s arrival interface and source address and assumes that the same interface is to be used to deliver packets back to that sender. If a given destination address has not yet been seen, and thus is not in the forwarding table, Ethernet switches still have the backup delivery option of flooding: forwarding the packet to everyone by treating the destination address like the broadcast address, and allowing the host Ethernet cards to sort it out. Since this broadcast-like process is not generally used for more than one packet (after that, the switches will have learned the correct forwarding-table entries), the risks of excessive traffic and of eavesdropping are minimal.
The ⟨host,interface⟩ forwarding table is often easier to think of as ⟨host,next_hop⟩, where the next_hop node is whatever switch or host is at the immediate other end of the link connecting to the given interface. In a fully switched network where each link connects only two interfaces, the two perspectives are equivalent.