Skip to main content
Engineering LibreTexts

2.5: Ethernet Switches

  • Page ID
  • Switches join separate physical Ethernets (or sometimes Ethernets and other kinds of networks). A switch has two or more Ethernet interfaces; when a packet is received on one interface it is retransmitted on one or more other interfaces. Only valid packets are forwarded; collisions are not propagated. The term collision domain is sometimes used to describe the region of an Ethernet in between switches; a given collision propagates only within its collision domain.

    Switches have revolutionized Ethernet layout: all the collision-detection rules, including the rules for maximum network diameter, apply only to collision domains, and not to the larger “virtual Ethernets” created by stringing collision domains together with switches. As we shall see below, a switched Ethernet also offers much more resistance to eavesdropping than a non-switched (eg hub-based) Ethernet.

    Like simpler unswitched Ethernets, the topology for a switched Ethernet is in principle required to be loop-free. In practice, however, most switches support the spanning-tree loop-detection protocol and algorithm, 2.5 Spanning Tree Algorithm and Redundancy, which automatically “prunes” the network topology to make it loop-free while allowing the pruned links to be placed back in service if a primary link fails.

    While a switch does not propagate collisions, it must maintain a queue for each outbound interface in case it needs to forward a packet at a moment when the interface is busy; on (rare) occasion packets are lost when this queue overflows.

  • 2.4.1 Ethernet Learning Algorithm

    Traditional Ethernet switches use datagram forwarding as described in 1.4 Datagram Forwarding; the trick is to build their forwarding tables without any cooperation from ordinary, non-switch hosts. Indeed, to the extent that a switch is to act as a drop-in replacement for a hub, it cannot count on cooperation from other switches.

    The solution is for the switch to start out with an empty forwarding table, and then incrementally build the table through a learning process. If a switch does not have an entry for a particular destination, it will fall back to flooding: it will forward the packet out every interface other than the one on which the packet arrived. This is sometimes also called “unknown unicast flooding”; it is equivalent to treating the destination as a broadcast address. The availability of fallback-to-flooding for unknown destinations is what makes it possible for Ethernet switches to learn their forwarding tables without any switch-to-switch or switch-to-host communication or coordination. This learning process is now part of the IEEE 802.1D standard, and is occasionally referred to as transparent bridging.

    A switch learns address locations as follows: for each interface, the switch maintains a table of physical (MAC) addresses that have appeared as source addresses in packets arriving via that interface. The switch thus knows that to reach these addresses, if one of them later shows up as a destination address, the packet needs to be sent only via that interface. Specifically, when a packet arrives on interface I with source address S and destination unicast address D, the switch enters ⟨S,I⟩ into its forwarding table.

    To actually deliver the packet, the switch also looks up the destination D in the forwarding table. If there is an entry ⟨D,J⟩ with J≠I – that is, D is known to be reached via interface J – then the switch forwards the packet out interface J. If J=I, that is, the packet has arrived on the same interfaces by which the destination is reached, then the packet does not get forwarded at all; it presumably arrived at interface I only because that interface was connected to a shared Ethernet segment that also either contained D or contained another switch that would bring the packet closer to D. If there is no entry for D, the switch must flood the packet out all interfaces J with J≠I; this represents the unknown-destination fallback to flooding. After a short while, the fallback-to-flooding alternative is needed less and less often, as switches learn where the active hosts are located. (However, in some switch implementations, forwarding tables also include timestamps, and entries are removed if they have not been used for, say, five minutes.)

    If the destination address D is the broadcast address, or, for many switches, a multicast address, broadcast (flooding) is required. Some switches try to keep track of multicast groups, so as to forward multicast traffic only out interfaces with known subscribers; see 2.1.2 Ethernet Multicast.


    In the diagram above, each switch’s tables are indicated by listing near each interface the destinations (identified by MAC addresses) known to be reachable by that interface. The entries shown are the result of the following packets:

    • A sends to B; all switches learn where A is
    • B sends to A; this packet goes directly to A; only S3, S2 and S1 learn where B is
    • C sends to B; S4 does not know where B is so this packet goes to S5; S2 does know where B is so the packet does not go to S1.

    It is worth observing that, at the application layer, hosts do not commonly identify one another by their MAC addresses. In an IPv4-based network, the use of ARP (7.9 Address Resolution Protocol: ARP) to translate from IPv4 to MAC addresses would introduce additional broadcasts, which would cause the above scenario to play out differently. See exercise 11.0.

    Switches do not automatically discover directly connected neighbors; S1 does not learn about A until A transmits a packet.

    Once all the switches have learned where all (or most of) the hosts are, each packet is forwarded rather than flooded. At this point packets are never sent on links unnecessarily; a packet from A to B only travels those links that lie along the (unique) path from A to B. (Paths must be unique because switched Ethernet networks cannot have loops, at least not active ones. If a loop existed, then a packet sent to an unknown destination would be forwarded around the loop endlessly.)

    Switches have an additional privacy advantage in that traffic that does not flow where it does not need to flow is much harder to eavesdrop on. On an unswitched Ethernet, one host configured to receive all packets can eavesdrop on all traffic. Early Ethernets were notorious for allowing one unscrupulous station to capture, for instance, all passwords in use on the network. On a fully switched Ethernet, a host physically sees only the traffic actually addressed to it; other traffic remains inaccessible. This switch-based eavesdropping protection is, however, potentially vulnerable to attackers flooding the network with fake source addresses, forcing switches into fallback-to-flooding mode.

    Typical large switches have room for a forwarding table with 104 - 105 entries, though fully switched networks at the upper end of this size range are not common. The main size limitations specific to switching are the requirement that the topology must be loop-free (thus disallowing duplicate paths which might otherwise provide redundancy), and that all broadcast traffic must always be forwarded everywhere. As a switched Ethernet grows, broadcast traffic comprises a larger and larger percentage of the total traffic, and the organization must at some point move to a routing architecture (eg as in 7.6 IPv4 Subnets). A common recommendation is to have no more than 1000 hosts per LAN (or VLAN, 2.6 Virtual LAN (VLAN)).

  • 2.4.2 Switch Hardware

    One of the differences between an inexpensive Ethernet switch and a pricier one is the degree of internal parallelism it can support. If three packets arrive simultaneously on ports 1, 2 and 3, and are destined for respective ports 4, 5 and 6, can the switch actually transmit the packets simultaneously? A “yes” answer here is the gold performance standard for an Ethernet switch: to keep up with packets as fast as they arrive.

    The worst-case load, for a switch with 2N ports, is for packets to arrive continuously on N ports, and depart on a different N ports. This means that, in the time required to transmit one packet, the switch must internally forward N packets in parallel.

    This is sometimes much faster than necessary. If all the load is departing (or arriving) via just one of the ports – for example, the port connected to the server, or to the Internet – then the above standard is N times faster than necessary; the switch need only handle one packet at a time. Such a switch may be forced to queue outbound packets on that one port, but that does not represent a lack of performance on the part of the switch. Still, greater parallelism is generally viewed as a good thing in switches.

    The simplest switch architecture – used whenever a switch is built around a “standard” computer – is the shared-memory model. Such a system consists of a single CPU, single memory and peripheral busses, and multiple Ethernet cards. When a packet arrives, the CPU must copy the packet from the arrival interface into RAM, determine the forwarding, and then copy the packet to the output interface. To keep up with one-at-a-time 100 Mbps transmission, the internal transfer rate must therefore be at least 200 Mbps.

    The maximum speed of such a device depends largely on the speed of the peripheral-to-RAM bus (the so-called front-side bus []). The USB 3.0 [] bus operates at 5 Gbps. At an Ethernet speed of 100 Mbps, such a bus can theoretically transfer 5 Gbps/200 Mbps = 25 packets in and out in the time it takes one packet to arrive, supporting up to 50 ports total. However, with gigabit Ethernet, only two packets can be handled. For commodity five-port switches, this is enough, and such switches can generally handle this degree of parallelism.

    Bus speeds go up at least ten-fold, but 10 Gbps and even 40 Gbps Ethernet is now common in datacenters, and 24 ports is a bare minimum. As a result, the shared-memory architecture is generally not regarded as adequate for high-performance switches. When a high degree of parallelism is required, there are various architectures – known as switch fabrics – that can be implemented.

    One common solution to this internal-bottleneck problem is a so-called crossbar switch fabric, consisting of a grid of N×N normally open switch nodes that can be closed under CPU control. Packets travel, via a connected path through the crossbar, directly from one Ethernet interface to another. The crossbar allows parallel connections between any of N inputs and any of N outputs.


    The diagram above illustrates a 5×5 crossbar, with 5 inputs and 5 separate outputs. (In a real Ethernet switch, any port can be an input or an output, but this is a relatively inessential difference). There are 5 parallel connections shown, from inputs 1-5 to outputs 1,3,5, 2 and 4 respectively; the large dots represent solid-state switching elements in the closed state. Packets are transmitted serially through each switch path.

    Crossbars, and variations, are one common approach in the design of high-speed switches that support multiple parallel transfers.

    The other hardware innovation often used by high-performance switches is Content-Addressable Memory, or CAM; this allows for the search of the forwarding table in a single memory load. In a shared-memory switch, each destination address must be looked up in a hash table or other data structure; including the calculation of the hash value, this process may take as long as several tens of memory loads.

    On some brands of switches, the forwarding table is often referred to as the CAM table.

    CAM memory consists of a large number N of memory registers all attached to a common data-input bus; for Ethernet switching, the data width of the bus and registers needs to be at least as large as the 48-bit address size. When the input bus is activated, each memory register simultaneously compares the value on the bus with its own data value; if there is a match, the register triggers its output line. A binary-encoder [] circuit then converts the number k<N of that register to a binary value representing the address k of the register. It is straightforward to have the encoder resolve ties by choosing, for example, the number of the first register to match.


    In the diagram above, the data width is 6, and there are 16 vertically oriented registers numbered (in hex) 0-f. Register 6 contains the entry 100011 matching the data input, and enables its signal into the encoder. The output of the encoder is the corresponding address, 0110.

    A common variant of CAM is Ternary CAM, or TCAM, in which each memory register is paired with a corresponding “mask” register. For any given bit, a match is declared only if the bus bit matches the register bit, or the corresponding mask bit is 0. A mask bit of 0 thus represents a wildcard value, matching any input. TCAM is most useful when the addresses being looked up are IP addresses rather than Ethernet addresses, in which case the goal is to match only the address bits corresponding to the network prefix (1.10 IP - Internet Protocol). In this setting the mask contents represents the IP address mask (7.6 IPv4 Subnets). In order to implement the longest-match rule (10.1 Classless Internet Domain Routing: CIDR) it is essential that addresses with shorter prefixes – longer runs of terminal wildcard bits – appear before addresses with longer prefixes. This implies that new TCAM entries must be inserted in relatively specific positions, which may involve a significant amount of shifting the positions of existing entries.