We hear about them everywhere, vendors around the world are constantly trying to push them into every type of network and as a result, the Local Area Network (LAN) we once knew starts to take a different shape. And yet, for some of us, the concept of what VLANs are and how they work might still be a bit blurry.
To help start clearing things up we will define the VLAN concept not only through words, but through the use of our cool diagrams and at the same time, compare VLANs to our standard flat switched network.
We will start by taking a quick look at a normal switched network, pointing out it's main characteristics and then move on to VLANs.
The Traditional Switched Network
Almost every network today has a switch interconnecting all network nodes, providing a fast and reliable way for the nodes to communicate. Switches today are what hubs were a while back - the most common and necessary equipment in our network, and there is certainly no doubt about that.
While switches might be adequate for most type of networks, they prove inadequate for mid to large sized networks where things are not as simple as plugging a switch into the power outlet and hanging a few Pc's from it!
For those of you who have already read our "switches and bridges" section, you will be well aware that switches are layer 2 devices which create a flat network:
The above network diagram illustrates a switch with 3 workstations connected. These workstations are able to communicate with each other and are part of the same broadcast domain, meaning that if one workstation were to send a broadcast, the rest will receive it.
In a small network multiple broadcast might not be too much of a problem, but as the size of the network increases, so will the broadcasts, up to the point where they start to become a big problem, flooding the network with garbage (most of the times!) and consuming valuable bandwidth.
To visually understand the problem, but also the idea of a large flat network, observe the diagram below:
The problem here starts to become evident as we populate the network with more switches and workstations. Since most workstations tend to be loaded with the Windows operating system, this will result in unavoidable broadcasts being sent occasionaly on the network wire - something we certainly want to avoid.
Another major concern is security. In the above network, all users are able to see all devices. In a much larger network containing critical file servers, databases and other confidential information, this would mean that everyone would have network access to these servers and naturally, they would be more susceptible to an attack.
To effectively protect such systems from your network you would need to restrict access at the network level by segmenting the exisiting network or simply placing a firewall in front of each critical system, but the cost and complexity will surely make most administrators think twice about it. Thankfully there is a solution ..... simply keep reading.
Welcome to the wonderful world of VLANs!
All the above problems, and a lot more, can be forgotten with the creation of VLANs...well, to some extent at least.
As most of you are already aware, in order to create (and work with) VLANs, you need a layer 2 switch that supports them. A lot of people new to the networking field bring the misconception that it's a matter of simply installing additional software on the clients or switch, in order to "enable" VLANs throughout the network - this is totally incorrect!
Because VLANs involve millions of mathematical calculations, they require special hardware which is built into the switch and your switch must therefore support VLANs at the time of purchase, otherwise you will not be able to create VLANs on it!
Each VLAN created on a switch is a separate network. This means that a separate broadcast domain is created for each VLAN that exists. Network broadcasts, by default, are filtered from all ports on a switch that are not members of the same VLAN and this is why VLANs are very common in today's large network as they help isolate network segments between each other.