Switching Technologies
You can see that a switch has the potential to radically change the way nodes communicate with each other. But you may be wondering what makes it different from a router. Switches usually work at Layer 2 (Data or Datalink) of the OSI Reference Model, using MAC addresses, while routers work at Layer 3 (Network) with Layer 3 addresses (IP, IPX or Appletalk, depending on which Layer 3 protocols are being used). The algorithm that switches use to decide how to forward packets is different from the algorithms used by routers to forward packets.

One of these differences in the algorithms between switches and routers is how broadcasts are handled. On any network, the concept of a broadcast packet is vital to the operability of a network. Whenever a device needs to send out information but doesn't know who it should send it to, it sends out a broadcast. For example, every time a new computer or other device comes on to the network, it sends out a broadcast packet to announce its presence. The other nodes (such as a domain server) can add the computer to their browser list (kind of like an address directory) and communicate directly with that computer from that point on. Broadcasts are used any time a device needs to make an announcement to the rest of the network or is unsure of who the recipient of the information should be.

The OSI Reference Model consists of seven layers that build from the wire (Physical) to the software (Application).

A hub or a switch will pass along any broadcast packets they receive to all the other segments in the broadcast domain, but a router will not. Think about our four-way intersection again: All of the traffic passed through the intersection no matter where it was going. Now imagine that this intersection is at an international border. To pass through the intersection, you must provide the border guard with the specific address that you are going to. If you don't have a specific destination, then the guard will not let you pass. A router works like this. Without the specific address of another device, it will not let the data packet through. This is a good thing for keeping networks separate from each other, but not so good when you want to talk between different parts of the same network. This is where switches come in.

LAN switches rely on packet-switching. The switch establishes a connection between two segments just long enough to send the current packet. Incoming packets (part of an Ethernet frame) are saved to a temporary memory area (buffer); the MAC address contained in the frame's header is read and then compared to a list of addresses maintained in the switch's lookup table. In an Ethernet-based LAN, an Ethernet frame contains a normal packet as the payload of the frame, with a special header that includes the MAC address information for the source and destination of the packet.

Packet-based switches use one of three methods for routing traffic:

  • Cut-through
  • Store-and-forward
  • Fragment-free
Cut-through switches read the MAC address as soon as a packet is detected by the switch. After storing the 6 bytes that make up the address information, they immediately begin sending the packet to the destination node, even as the rest of the packet is coming into the switch.

A switch using store-and-forward will save the entire packet to the buffer and check it for CRC errors or other problems before sending. If the packet has an error, it is discarded. Otherwise, the switch looks up the MAC address and sends the packet on to the destination node. Many switches combine the two methods, using cut-through until a certain error level is reached and then changing over to store-and-forward. Very few switches are strictly cut-through, since this provides no error correction.

A less common method is fragment-free. It works like cut-through except that it stores the first 64 bytes of the packet before sending it on. The reason for this is that most errors, and all collisions, occur during the initial 64 bytes of a packet.

LAN switches vary in their physical design. Currently, there are three popular configurations in use:

  • Shared memory - This type of switch stores all incoming packets in a common memory buffer shared by all the switch ports (input/output connections), then sends them out via the correct port for the destination node.
  • Matrix - This type of switch has an internal grid with the input ports and the output ports crossing each other. When a packet is detected on an input port, the MAC address is compared to the lookup table to find the appropriate output port. The switch then makes a connection on the grid where these two ports intersect.
  • Bus architecture - Instead of a grid, an internal transmission path (common bus) is shared by all of the ports using TDMA. A switch based on this configuration has a dedicated memory buffer for each port, as well as an ASIC to control the internal bus access.