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2.7: Virtual LAN (VLAN)

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  • What do you do when you have different people in different places who are “logically” tied together? For example, for a while the Loyola University CS department was split, due to construction, between two buildings.

    One approach is to continue to keep LANs local, and use IP routing between different subnets. However, it is often convenient (printers are one reason) to configure workgroups onto a single “virtual” LAN, or VLAN. A VLAN looks like a single LAN, usually a single Ethernet LAN, in that all VLAN members will see broadcast packets sent by other members and the VLAN will ultimately be considered to be a single IP subnet (7.6   IPv4 Subnets). Different VLANs are ultimately connected together, but likely only by passing through a single, central IP router. Broadcast traffic on one VLAN will generally not propagate to any other VLAN; this isolation of broadcast traffic is another important justification for VLAN use.

    VLANs can be visualized and designed by using the concept of coloring. We logically assign all nodes on the same VLAN the same color, and switches forward packets accordingly. That is, if S1 connects to red machines R1 and R2 and blue machines B1 and B2, and R1 sends a broadcast packet, then it goes to R2 but not to B1 or B2. Switches must, of course, be told the color of each of their ports.


    In the diagram above, S1 and S3 each have both red and blue ports. The switch network S1-S4 will deliver traffic only when the source and destination ports are the same color. Red packets can be forwarded to the blue VLAN only by passing through the router R, entering R’s red port and leaving its blue port. R may apply firewall rules to restrict red–blue traffic.

    When the source and destination ports are on the same switch, nothing needs to be added to the packet; the switch can keep track of the color of each of its ports. However, switch-to-switch traffic must be additionally tagged to indicate the source. Consider, for example, switch S1 above sending packets to S3 which has nodes R3 (red) and B3 (blue). Traffic between S1 and S3 must be tagged with the color, so that S3 will know to what ports it may be delivered. The IEEE 802.1Q protocol is typically used for this packet-tagging; a 32-bit “color” tag is inserted into the Ethernet header after the source address and before the type field. The first 16 bits of this field is 0x8100, which becomes the new Ethernet type field and which identifies the frame as tagged. A separate 802.3 amendment allows Ethernet packets to be slightly larger, to accommodate the tags.

    Double-tagging is possible; this would allow an ISP to have one level of tagging and its customers to have another level.

    Finally, most commercial-grade switches do provide some way of selectively allowing traffic between different VLANs; with such switches, for example, rules could be created to allow R1 to connect to B3 without the use of the router R. One difficulty with this approach is that there is often little standardization among switch manufacturers. This makes it difficult to create, for example, authorization applications that allow opening inter-VLAN connections on the fly. Another issue is that some switches allow inter-VLAN rules based only on MAC addresses, and not, for example, on TCP port numbers. The OpenFlow protocol (2.8.1   OpenFlow Switches) has the potential to create the necessary standardization here. Even without OpenFlow, however, some specialty access-and-authentication systems have been developed that do enable host access by dynamic creation of the appropriate switch rules.