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Like hubs, switches are the connectivity points of an Ethernet network. Devices connect to switches via twisted-pair cabling, one cable for each device. The difference between hubs and switches is in how the devices deal with the data that they receive. Whereas a hub forwards the data it receives to all of the ports on the device, a switch forwards it only to the port that connects to the destination device. It does this by learning the MAC address of the devices attached to it, and then by matching the destination MAC address in the data it receives. Figure 3.1 shows how a switch works.

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 How a switch works.

By forwarding data only to the connection that should receive it, the switch can improve network performance in two ways. First, by creating a direct path between two devices and controlling their communication, it can greatly reduce the number of collisions on the network. As you might recall, collisions occur on Ethernet networks when two devices attempt to transmit at exactly the same time. In addition, the lack of collisions enables switches to communicate with devices in full-duplex mode. In a full-duplex configuration, devices can send and receive data from the switch at the same time. Contrast this with half-duplex communication, in which communication can occur in only one direction at a time. Full-duplex transmission speeds are double that of a standard, half-duplex, connection. So, a 10Mbps connection becomes 20Mbps, and a 100Mbps connection becomes 200Mbps.

The net result of these measures is that switches can offer significant performance improvements over hub-based networks, particularly when network use is high.

Irrespective of whether a connection is at full or half duplex, the method of switching dictates how the switch deals with the data it receives. The following is a brief explanation of each method:

  • Cut-through—In a cut-through switching environment, the packet begins to be forwarded as soon as it is received. This method is very fast, but creates the possibility of errors being propagated through the network, as there is no error checking.

  • Store-and-forward—Unlike cut-through, in a store-and-forward switching environment, the entire packet is received and error checked before being forwarded. The upside of this method is that errors are not propagated through the network. The downside is that the error checking process takes a relatively long time, and store-and-forward switching is considerably slower as a result.

  • FragmentFree—To take advantage of the error checking of store-and-forward switching, but still offer performance levels nearing that of cut-through switching, FragmentFree switching can be used. In a FragmentFree-switching environment, enough of the packet is read so that the switch can determine whether the packet has been involved in a collision. As soon as the collision status has been determined, the packet is forwarded.

Hub and Switch Cabling

In addition to acting as a connection point for network devices, hubs and switches can also be connected to create larger networks. This connection can be achieved through standard ports with a special cable or by using special ports with a standard cable.

The ports on a hub to which computer systems are attached are called Medium Dependent Interface-Crossed (MDI-X). The crossed designation is derived from the fact that two of the wires within the connection are crossed so that the send signal wire on one device becomes the receive signal of the other. Because the ports are crossed internally, a standard or straight-through cable can be used to connect devices.

Another type of port, called a Medium Dependent Interface (MDI) port, is often included on a hub or switch to facilitate the connection of two switches or hubs. Because the hubs or switches are designed to see each other as simply an extension of the network, there is no need for the signal to be crossed. If a hub or switch does not have an MDI port, hubs or switches can be connected by using a crossover cable between two MDI-X ports. The crossover cable serves to uncross the internal crossing. You can see diagrams of the cable pinouts for both a straight-through and crossover cable in Figures 3.2and 3.3, respectively.

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 The pinouts for a straight-through cable.

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 The pinouts for a crossover cable.

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