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Black Box Explains...Layer 2, 3, and 4 switches.



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OSI Layer Physical
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7-Application Applicaton Software

LAN-Compatible Software
E-Mail, Diagnostics, Word Processing, Database


Network Applications
6-Presentation Data-
Conversion Utilities
Vendor-Specific Network Shells and Gateway™ Workstation Software
5-Session Network Operating System SPX NetBIOS DECnet™ TCP/IP AppleTalk®
4-Transport Novell® NetWare® IPX™ PC LAN LAN Mgr DECnet PC/TCP® VINES™ NFS TOPS® Apple
Share®
3-Network Control
2-Data Link Network E A TR P TR E TR E E E P E P
1-Physical E=Ethernet; TR=Token Ring; A=ARCNET®; P=PhoneNET®

With the rapid development of computer networks over the last decade, high-end switching has become one of the most important functions on a network for moving data efficiently and quickly from one place to another.


Here’s how a switch works: As data passes through the switch, it examines addressing information attached to each data packet. From this information, the switch determines the packet’s destination on the network. It then creates a virtual link to the destination and sends the packet there.


The efficiency and speed of a switch depends on its algorithms, its switching fabric, and its processor. Its complexity is determined by the layer at which the switch operates in the OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) Reference Model (see above).


OSI is a layered network design framework that establishes a standard so that devices from different vendors work together. Network addresses are based on this OSI Model and are hierarchical. The more details that are included, the more specific the address becomes and the easier it is to find.


The Layer at which the switch operates is determined by how much addressing detail the switch reads as data passes through.


Switches can also be considered low end or high end. A low-end switch operates in Layer 2 of the OSI Model and can also operate in a combination of Layers 2 and 3. High-end switches operate in Layer 3, Layer 4, or a combination of the two.


Layer 2 Switches (The Data-Link Layer)

Layer 2 switches operate using physical network addresses. Physical addresses, also known as link-layer, hardware, or MAC-layer addresses, identify individual devices. Most hardware devices are permanently assigned this number during the manufacturing process.


Switches operating at Layer 2 are very fast because they’re just sorting physical addresses, but they usually aren’t very smart—that is, they don’t look at the data packet very closely to learn anything more about where it’s headed.


Layer 3 Switches (The Network Layer)

Layer 3 switches use network or IP addresses that identify locations on the network. They read network addresses more closely than Layer 2 switches—they identify network locations as well as the physical device. A location can be a LAN workstation, a location in a computer’s memory, or even a different packet of data traveling through a network.


Switches operating at Layer 3 are smarter than Layer 2 devices and incorporate routing functions to actively calculate the best way to send a packet to its destination. But although they’re smarter, they may not be as fast if their algorithms, fabric, and processor don’t support high speeds.


Layer 4 Switches (The Transport Layer)

Layer 4 of the OSI Model coordinates communications between systems. Layer 4 switches are capable of identifying which application protocols (HTTP, SNTP, FTP, and so forth) are included with each packet, and they use this information to hand off the packet to the appropriate higher-layer software. Layer 4 switches make packet-forwarding decisions based not only on the MAC address and IP address, but also on the application to which a packet belongs.


Because Layer 4 devices enable you to establish priorities for network traffic based on application, you can assign a high priority to packets belonging to vital in-house applications such as Peoplesoft, with different forwarding rules for low-priority packets such as generic HTTP-based Internet traffic.


Layer 4 switches also provide an effective wire-speed security shield for your network because any company- or industry-specific protocols can be confined to only authorized switched ports or users. This security feature is often reinforced with traffic filtering and forwarding features.

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Black Box Explains...Media converters that are really switches.

A media converter is a device that converts from one media type to another, for instance, from twisted pair to fiber to take advantage of fiber’s greater range. A traditional... more/see it nowmedia converter is a two-port Layer 1 device that performs a simple conversion of only the physical interface. It’s transparent to data and doesn't “see” or manipulate data in any way.

An Ethernet switch can also convert one media type to another, but it also creates a separate collision domain for each switch port, so that each packet is routed only to the destination device, rather than around to multiple devices on a network segment. Because switches are “smarter” than traditional media converters, they enable additional features such as multiple ports and copper ports that autosense for speed and duplex.

Switches are beginning to replace traditional 2-port media converters, leading to some fuzziness in terminology. Small 4- or 6-port Ethernet switches are very commonly called media converters. In fact, anytime you see a “Layer 2” media converter or a media converter with more than two ports, it’s really a small Ethernet switch. collapse


Black Box Explains…Fiber Ethernet adapters vs. media converters.

When running fiber to the desktop, you have two choices for making the connection from the fiber to a PC: a fiber Ethernet adapter or a media converter like our... more/see it nowMicro Mini Media Converter.

Fiber Ethernet adapters:

  • Less expensive.
  • Create no desktop clutter, but the PC must be opened.
  • Powered from the PC—require no separate power provision.
  • Require an open PCI or PCI-E slot in the PC.
  • Can create driver issues that must be resolved.
  • May be required in high-security installations that require a 100% fiber link to the desktop.

  • Media converters:
  • More expensive.
  • No need to open the PC but can create a cluttered look.
  • Powered from an AC outlet or a PC’s USB port.
  • Don’t require an open slot in the PC.
  • Plug-and-play installation—totally transparent to data, so there are no driver problems; install in seconds.
  • The short copper link from media converter to PC may be a security vulnerability.
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    Black Box Explains...NEBS Level 3.

    Network Equipment Building System (NEBS) standards set requirements for telco equipment. The standards are maintained by Telcordia Technologies, Inc., formerly Bellcore. Bellcore Special Report, SR-3580 defines three distinct functional levels... more/see it nowof NEBS compliance. The third of these levels, NEBS Level 3, is the most stringent, certifying carrier-class equipment intended for long-term use in variable environments.

    NEBS Level 3 certifies that a piece of equipment can be safely used in an extreme environment. To become certified at NEBS Level 3, a device must meet strict physical, electrical, and environmental requirements to prove it will operate safely and reliably in extreme conditions. It must pass a series of tests that include extreme heat, humidity, fire, earthquakes (Zone 4), light, and noise. collapse


    Black Box Explains…SFP compatibility.

    Standards for SFP fiber optic media are published in the SFP Multi-Source Agreement, which specifies size, connectors, and signaling for SFPs, with the idea that all SFPs are compatible with... more/see it nowdevices that have appropriate SFP slots. These standards, which also extend to SFP+ and XFP transceivers, enable users to mix and match components from different vendors to meet their own particular requirements.

    However, some major manufacturers, notably Cisco®, HP®, and 3Com®, sell network devices with SFP slots that lock out transceivers from other vendors. Because the price of SFPs—especially Gigabit SFPs and 10GBASE SFP+ and XFP transceivers—can add significantly to the price of a switch, this lock-out scheme raises hardware costs and limits transceiver choices.

    Many vendors don’t advertise that SFP slots on their devices don’t accept standard SFPs from other vendors. This can lead to unpleasant surprises when a device simply refuses to communicate with an SFP.

    Another game that some vendors play is to build devices that accept open-standard SFPs, but refuse to support those devices when SFPs from another vendor are used with them.

    The only way around this “lock-in” practice is to only buy network devices that accept standard SFPs from all vendors and to buy from vendors that support their devices no matter whose SFPs are used with them. Questions? Call our FREE Tech Support at 724-746-5500. collapse

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