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Implementing Cisco IP Switched Networks (SWITCH) Foundation Learning Guide: Network Design Fundamentals

This chapter from Implementing Cisco IP Switched Networks (SWITCH) Foundation Learning Guide: (CCNP SWITCH 300-115) begins the journey of exploring campus network design fundamentals by focusing on a few core concepts around network design and structure and a few details about the architecture of Cisco switches.
This chapter is from the book

Every time you go to an office to work or go to class at school, college, or university, you will use a campus network to access critical applications, tools, the Internet, and so on over wired or wireless connections. Often, you may even gain access by using a portable device such as an Apple iPhone connected on a corporate Wi-Fi to reach applications such as e-mail, calendaring, or instant messaging over a campus network. Therefore, the persons responsible for building this network need to deploy sound fundamentals and design principles for the campus networks to function adequately and provide the necessary stability, scalability, and resiliency necessary to sustain interconnectivity with a 100 percent uptime.

This chapter begins the journey of exploring campus network design fundamentals by focusing on a few core concepts around network design and structure and a few details about the architecture of Cisco switches. This is useful knowledge when designing and building campus networks. Specifically, this chapter focuses on the following two high-level topics:

  • Campus network structure
  • Introduction to Cisco switches and their associated architecture

Campus Network Structure

A campus network describes the portion of an enterprise infrastructure that interconnects end devices such as computers, laptops, and wireless access points to services such as intranet resources or the Internet. Intranet resources may be company web pages, call center applications, file and print services, and almost anything end users connect to from their computer.

In different terms, the campus network provides for connectivity to company applications and tools that reside in a data center for end users. Originally, prior to around 2005, the term campus network and its architectures were relevant for application server farms and computing infrastructure as well. Today, the infrastructure that interconnects server farms, application servers, and computing nodes are clearly distinguished from campus networks and referred to as data centers.

Over the past few years, data center architectures have become more complex and require sophistication not required in the campus network due to high-availability, low-latency, and high-performance requirements. Therefore, data centers may use bleeding-edge technologies that are not found in the campus network, such as FabricPath, VXLAN, and Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI). For the purpose of CCNP Switch at the time of this writing, these technologies, as well as data center architectures, are out of scope. Nevertheless, we will point out some of the differences as to avoid any confusion with campus network fundamentals.

The next subsection describes the hierarchical network design with the following subsections breaking down the components of the hierarchical design in detail.

Hierarchical Network Design

A flat enterprise campus network is where all PCs, servers, and printers are connected to each other using Layer 2 switches. A flat network does not use subnets for any design purposes. In addition, all devices on this subnet are in the same broadcast domain, and broadcasts will be flooded to all attached network devices. Because a broadcast packet received by an end device, such as tablet or PC, uses compute and I/O resources, broadcasts will waste available bandwidth and resources. In a network size of ten devices on the same flat network, this is not a significant issue; however, in a network of thousands of devices, this is a significant waste of resources and bandwidth (see Figure 2-1).

Figure 2-1

Figure 2-1 Flat Versus Hierarchical Network Design

As a result of these broadcast issues and many other limitations, flat networks do not scale to meet the needs of most enterprise networks or of many small and medium-size businesses. To address the sizing needs of most campus networks, a hierarchical model is used. Figure 2-2 illustrates, at a high level, a hierarchical view of campus network design versus a flat network.

Figure 2-2

Figure 2-2 The Hierarchical Model

Hierarchical models for network design allow you to design any networks in layers. To understand the importance of layering, consider the OSI reference model, which is a layered model for understanding and implementing computer communications. By using layers, the OSI model simplifies the task that is required for two computers to communicate. Leveraging the hierarchical model also simplifies campus network design by allowing focus at different layers that build on each other.

Referring to Figure 2-2, the layers of the hierarchical model are divided into specific functions categorized as core, distribution, and access layers. This categorization provides for modular and flexible design, with the ability to grow and scale the design without major modifications or reworks.

For example, adding a new wing to your office building may be as simple as adding a new distribution layer with an access layer while adding capacity to the core layer. The existing design will stay intact, and only the additions are needed. Aside from the simple physical additions, configuration of the switches and routes is relatively simple because most of the configuration principles around hierarchy were in place during the original design.

By definition, the access, distribution, and core layer adhere to the following characteristics:

  • Access layer: The access layer is used to grant the user access to network applications and functions. In a campus network, the access layer generally incorporates switched LAN devices with ports that provide connectivity to workstations, IP phones, access points, and printers. In a WAN environment, the access layer for teleworkers or remote sites may provide access to the corporate network across WAN technologies.
  • Distribution layer: The distribution layer aggregates the access layer switches wiring closets, floors, or other physical domain by leveraging module or Layer 3 switches. Similarly, a distribution layer may aggregate the WAN connections at the edge of the campus and provides policy-based connectivity.
  • Core layer (also referred to as the backbone): The core layer is a high-speed backbone, which is designed to switch packets as fast as possible. In most campus networks, the core layer has routing capabilities, which are discussed in later chapters of this book. Because the core is critical for connectivity, it must provide a high level of availability and adapt to changes quickly. It also provides for dynamic scalability to accommodate growth and fast convergence in the event of a failure.

The next subsections of this chapter describe the access layer, distribution layer, and core layer in more detail.

Access Layer

The access layer, as illustrated in Figure 2-3, describes the logical grouping of the switches that interconnect end devices such as PCs, printers, cameras, and so on. It is also the place where devices that extend the network out one more level are attached. Two such prime examples are IP phones and wireless APs, both of which extend the connectivity out one more layer from the actual campus access switch.

Figure 2-3

Figure 2-3 Access Layer

The wide variety of possible types of devices that can connect and the various services and dynamic configuration mechanisms that are necessary make the access layer one of the most capable parts of the campus network. These capabilities are as follows:

  • High availability: The access layer supports high availability via default gateway redundancy using dual connections from access switches to redundant distribution layer switches when there is no routing in the access layer. This mechanism behind default gateway redundancy is referred to as first-hop redundancy protocol (FHRP). FHRP is discussed in more detail in later chapters of this book.
  • Convergence: The access layer generally supports inline Power over Ethernet (PoE) for IP telephony, thin clients, and wireless access points (APs). PoE allows customers to easily place IP phones and wireless APs in strategic locations without the need to run power. In addition, the access layers allow support for converged features that enable optimal software configuration of IP phones and wireless APs, as well. These features are discussed in later chapters.
  • Security: The access layer also provides services for additional security against unauthorized access to the network by using tools such as port security, quality of service (QoS), Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) snooping, dynamic ARP inspection (DAI), and IP Source Guard. These security features are discussed in more detail in later chapters of this book.

The next subsection discusses the upstream layer from the access layer, the distribution layer.

Distribution Layer

The distribution layer in the campus design has a unique role in which it acts as a services and control boundary between the access layer and the core. Both the access layer and the core are essentially dedicated special-purpose layers. The access layer is dedicated to meeting the functions of end-device connectivity, and the core layer is dedicated to providing nonstop connectivity across the entire campus network. The distribution layer, in contrast, serves multiple purposes. Figure 2-4 references the distribution layer.

Figure 2-4

Figure 2-4 Distribution Layer

Availability, fast path recovery, load balancing, and QoS are all important considerations at the distribution layer. Generally, high availability is provided through Layer 3 redundant paths from the distribution layer to the core, and either Layer 2 or Layer 3 redundant paths from the access layer to the distribution layer. Keep in mind that Layer 3 equal-cost load sharing allows both uplinks from the distribution to the core layer to be used for traffic in a variety of load-balancing methods discussed later in this chapter.

With a Layer 2 design in the access layer, the distribution layer generally serves as a routing boundary between the access and core layer by terminating VLANs. The distribution layer often represents a redistribution point between routing domains or the demarcation between static and dynamic routing protocols. The distribution layer may perform tasks such as controlled routing decision making and filtering to implement policy-based connectivity, security, and QoS. These features allow for tighter control of traffic through the campus network.

To improve routing protocol performance further, the distribution layer is generally designed to summarize routes from the access layer. If Layer 3 routing is extended to the access layer, the distribution layer generally offers a default route to access layer switching while leveraging dynamic routing protocols when communicating with core routers.

In addition, the distribution layer optionally provides default gateway redundancy by using a first-hop routing protocol (FHRP) such as Host Standby Routing Protocol (HSRP), Gateway Load Balancing Protocol (GLBP), or Virtual Router Redundancy Protocol (VRRP). FHRPs provide redundancy and high availability for the first-hop default gateway of devices connected downstream on the access layer. In designs that leverage Layer 3 routing in the access layer, FHRP might not be applicable or may require a different design.

In summary, the distribution layer performs the following functions when Layer 3 routing is not configured in the access layer:

  • Provides high availability and equal-cost load sharing by interconnecting the core and access layer via at least dual paths
  • Generally terminates a Layer 2 domain of a VLAN
  • Routes traffic from terminated VLANs to other VLANs and to the core
  • Summarizes access layer routes
  • Implements policy-based connectivity such as traffic filtering, QoS, and security
  • Provides for an FHRP

Core Layer (Backbone)

The core layer, as illustrated in Figure 2-5, is the backbone for campus connectivity, and is the aggregation point for the other layers and modules of an enterprise network. The core must provide a high level of redundancy and adapt to changes quickly.

Figure 2-5

Figure 2-5 Core Layer

From a design point-of-view, the campus core is in some ways the simplest yet most critical part of the campus. It provides a limited set of services and is designed to be highly available and requires 100 percent uptime. In large enterprises, the core of the network must operate as a nonstop, always-available service. The key design objectives for the campus core are based on providing the appropriate level of redundancy to allow for near-immediate data-flow recovery in the event of the failure of any component (switch, supervisor, line card, or fiber interconnect, power, and so on). The network design must also permit the occasional, but necessary, hardware and software upgrade or change to be made without disrupting any network applications. The core of the network should not implement any complex policy services, nor should it have any directly attached user or server connections. The core should also have the minimal control plane configuration that is combined with highly available devices that are configured with the correct amount of physical redundancy to provide for this nonstop service capability. Figure 2-6 illustrates a large campus network interconnected by the core layer (campus backbone) to the data center.

Figure 2-6

Figure 2-6 Large Campus Network

From an enterprise architecture point-of-view, the campus core is the backbone that binds together all the elements of the campus architecture to include the WAN, the data center, and so on. In other words, the core layer is the part of the network that provides for connectivity between end devices, computing, and data storage services that are located within the data center, in addition to other areas and services within the network.

Figure 2-7 illustrates an example of the core layer interconnected with other parts of the enterprise network. In this example, the core layer interconnects with a data center and edge distribution module to interconnect WAN, remote access, and the Internet. The network module operates out of band from the network but is still a critical component.

Figure 2-7

Figure 2-7 Core Layer Interconnecting with the Enterprise Network

In summary, the core layer is described as follows:

  • Aggregates the campus networks and provides interconnectivity to the data center, the WAN, and other remote networks
  • Requires high availability, resiliency, and the ability to make software and hardware upgrades without interruption
  • Designed without direct connectivity to servers, PCs, access points, and so on
  • Requires core routing capability
  • Architected for future growth and scalability
  • Leverages Cisco platforms that support hardware redundancy such as the Catalyst 4500 and the Catalyst 6800

Layer 3 in the Access Layer

As switch products become more commoditized, the cost of Layer 3 switches has diminished significantly. Because of the reduced cost and a few inherit benefits, Layer 3 switching in the access layer has become more common over typical Layer 2 switching in the access layer. Using Layer 3 switching or traditional Layer 2 switching in the access layer has benefits and drawbacks. Figure 2-8 illustrates the comparison of Layer 2 from the access layer to the distribution layer with Layer 3 from the access layer to the distribution layer.

Figure 2-8

Figure 2-8 Layer 3 in the Access Layer

As discussed in later chapters, deploying a Layer 2 switching design in the access layer may result in suboptimal usage of links between the access and distribution layer. In addition, this method does not scale as well in very large numbers because of the size of the Layer 2 domain.

Using a design that leverages Layer 3 switching to the access layer VLANs scales better than Layer 2 switching designs because VLANs get terminated on the access layer devices. Specifically, the links between the distribution and access layer switches are routed links; all access and distribution devices would participate in the routing scheme.

The Layer 2-only access design is a traditional, slightly cheaper solution, but it suffers from optimal use of links between access and distribution due to spanning tree. Layer 3 designs introduce the challenge of how to separate traffic. (For example, guest traffic should stay separated from intranet traffic.) Layer 3 designs also require careful planning with respect to IP addressing. A VLAN on one Layer 3 access device cannot be on another access layer switch in a different part of your network because each VLAN is globally significant. Traditionally, mobility of devices is limited in the campus network of the enterprise in Layer 3 access layer networks. without using an advanced mobility networking features.

In summary, campus networks with Layer 3 in the access layer are becoming more popular. Moreover, next-generation architectures will alleviate the biggest problem with Layer 3 routing in the access layer: mobility.

The next subsection of this chapter applies the hierarchical model to an enterprise architecture.

The Cisco Enterprise Campus Architecture

The Cisco enterprise campus architecture refers to the traditional hierarchical campus network applied to the network design, as illustrated in Figure 2-9.

Figure 2-9

Figure 2-9 Cisco Enterprise Campus Network

The Cisco enterprise campus architecture divides the enterprise network into physical, logical, and functional areas while leveraging the hierarchical design. These areas allow network designers and engineers to associate specific network functionality on equipment that is based on its placement and function in the model.

Note that although the tiers do have specific roles in the design, no absolute rules apply to how a campus network is physically built. Although it is true that many campus networks are constructed by three physical tiers of switches, this is not a strict requirement. In a smaller campus, the network might have two tiers of switches in which the core and distribution elements are combined in one physical switch: a collapsed distribution and core. However, a network may have four or more physical tiers of switches because the scale, wiring plant, or physical geography of the network might require that the core be extended.

The hierarchy of the network often defines the physical topology of the switches, but they are not the same thing. The key principle of the hierarchical design is that each element in the hierarchy has a specific set of functions and services that it offers and a specific role to play in the design.

In reference to CCNP Switch, the access layer, the distribution layer, and core layer may be referred to as the building access layer, the building distribution layer, and the building core layer. The term building implies but does not limit the context of layers as physical buildings. As mentioned previously, the physical demarcation does not have to be a building; it can be a floor, group of floors, wiring closets, and so on. This book will solely use the terms access layer, distribution layer, and core layer for simplicity.

In summary, network architects build Cisco enterprise campus networks by leveraging the hierarchical model and dividing the layers by some physical or logical barrier. Although campus network designs go much further beyond the basic structure, the key takeaway of this section is that the access, distribution, and core layers are applied to either physical or logical barriers.

The Need for a Core Layer

When first studying campus network design, persons often question the need for a core layer. In a campus network contained with a few buildings or a similar physical infrastructure, collapsing the core into the distribution layer switches may save on initial cost because an entire layer of switches is not needed. Figure 2-10 shows a network design example where the core layer has been collapsed into the distribution layer by fully meshing the four distinct physical buildings.

Figure 2-10

Figure 2-10 Collapsed Core Design

Despite a possible lower cost to the initial build, this design is difficult to scale. In addition, cabling requirements increase dramatically with each new building because of the need for full-mesh connectivity to all the distribution switches. The routing complexity also increases as new buildings are added because additional routing peers are needed.

With regard to Figure 2-10, the distribution module in the second building of two interconnected switches requires four additional links for full-mesh connectivity to the first module. A third distribution module to support the third building would require 8 additional links to support the connections to all the distribution switches, or a total of 12 links. A fourth module supporting the fourth building would require 12 new links for a total of 24 links between the distribution switches.

As illustrated in Figure 2-11, having a dedicated core layer allows the campus to accommodate growth without requiring full-mesh connectivity between the distribution layers. This is particularly important as the size of the campus grows either in number of distribution blocks, geographical area, or complexity. In a larger, more complex campus, the core provides the capacity and scaling capability for the campus as a whole and may house additional services such as security features.

Figure 2-11

Figure 2-11 Scaling with a Core Layer

The question of when a separate physical core is necessary depends on multiple factors. The ability of a distinct core to allow the campus network to solve physical design challenges is important. However, remember that a key purpose of having a distinct campus core is to provide scalability and to minimize the risk from (and simplify) moves, adds, and changes in the campus network. In general, a network that requires routine configuration changes to the core devices does not yet have the appropriate degree of design modularization. As the network increases in size or complexity and changes begin to affect the core devices, it often points out design reasons for physically separating the core and distribution functions into different physical devices.

In brief, although design networks without a core layer may work at small scale, medium-sized to enterprise-sized networks, they require a core layer for design modularization and scalability.

In conclusion of the hierarchical model presented in this section, despite its age, the hierarchical model is still relevant to campus network designs. For review, the layers are described as follows:

  • The access layer connects end devices such as PCs, access points, printers, and so on to the network.
  • The distribution layer has multiple roles, but primarily aggregates the multiple access layers. The distribution may terminate VLANs in Layer 2 to the access layer designs or provide routing downstream to the access layer with Layer 3 to the access layer designs.

The next section delves into a major building block of the campus network: the Cisco switch itself.

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