VLAN Support in Linux

Add flexibility and take Ethernet networking to the next level by turning your Linux box into a VLAN Smart Switch.

It's no surprise that Linux makes a great router and firewall. A lesser-known fact is that you also can use Linux as an Ethernet bridge and VLAN switch, and that these features are similarly powerful, mature and refined. Just like Linux can do anything a PIX or SonicWall can do, it also can do anything a managed VLAN “Smart Switch” can do—and more.

In this article, I give a brief overview of 802.1Q VLAN technology and configurations and then explain how you can configure Linux to interface directly with VLAN topologies. I describe how a VLAN switch can help you add virtual Ethernet interfaces to a Linux box, saving you the need to buy hardware or even reboot. I also look at solving some of those small-scale network annoyances. Do you think your Linux firewall has to be located near your Internet connection and have two network cards? Read on.

802.1Q VLAN Primer

The purpose of VLAN (Virtual LAN) is to build LANs from individual ports instead of entire switches. A VLAN config can be as simple as groupings of ports on a single switch. The switch just prevents the ports of separate groups (VLANs) from talking to each other. This is no different from having two, three or more unconnected switches, but you need only one physical switch, and it's up to you how to divide the ports among the “virtual switches” (three ports here, eight ports there and so on).

When you want to extend this concept across multiple switches, things become more complicated. The switches need a standard way to cooperate and keep track of which traffic belongs to which VLAN. The purpose is still the same—build LANs from individual ports instead of entire switches, even if the ports are spread across multiple switches and even multiple geographic locations.

You can think of VLAN switches as a natural evolution of Ethernet devices, with its ancestors being the switch and the hub. The fundamental difference between a switch and a hub is that a switch makes decisions. It won't send packets to ports where it knows the destination MAC can't be found. Switches automatically learn about valid port/MAC mappings in real time as they process packets (and store that information in their “ARP cache”).

A VLAN switch adds another condition on top of this. It won't send packets to ports (the “egress port” or sink) that aren't “members” of the VLAN to which the packet belongs. This is based on the VLAN ID (VID) of the packet, which is a number between 1 and 4096.

If a packet doesn't already have a VID, it is assigned one based on the port on which it arrived (the “ingress port” or source). This is the Primary VID (PVID) of the port. Each switch port can be a member of multiple VLANs, one of which must be configured as its PVID.

The VID is stored in an extra 4-byte header that is added to the packet called the Tag. Adding a Tag to a packet is called Tagging. Only VLAN devices know what to do with Tagged packets; normal Ethernet devices don't expect to see them. Unless the packet is being sent to another VLAN switch, the Tag needs to be removed before it is sent. This Untagging is done after the switch determines the egress port.

If a port is connected to another VLAN switch, the Tags need to be preserved, so the next switch can identify the VLANs of the packets and handle them accordingly. When a packet has to cross multiple switches in a VLAN, all subsequent switches rely on the VID that was assigned to the packet by the first switch that received it.