Is the Extra Layer Better? Layer 2 Versus Layer 3 Networking

layer networking

Catchy title, huh?

I will warn you up front that this article is going to be a tad technical, so bear with me. Since this site gets a broad audience with a wide range of technical skill levels, let me take a moment to describe what Layer 2 and Layer 3 mean, for anyone who does not know.

Layer 2 and Layer 3 refer to different parts of IT network communications. The ‘layers’ refer to how you configure an IT network, and the standard for network communications called the OSI model.

The reason we are having a discussion about layer 2 or layer 3, is that your choice of either layer has advantages and disadvantage in terms of scaling and costs. So let’s dive in and take a deeper look.

The Functions of the OSI Layered Model

The OSI, or Open System Interconnection, is a networking model comprised of seven ‘layers’. It’s a controlled hierarchy where information is passed from one layer to the next creating a blueprint for how information is passed from physical electrical impulses all the way to applications.

This standard is a guide that allows engineers to keep communications organized.

Layer 2 is the data link where data packets are encoded and decoded into bits. The MAC (Media Access Control) sub layer controls how a computer on the network gains access to the data and permission to transmit it and the LLC (Logical Link control) layer controls frame synchronization, flow control and error checking.

Layer 3 provides switching and routing technologies, creating logical paths, known as virtual circuits, for transmitting data from node to node. Routing and forwarding are functions of this layer, as well as addressing, internetworking, error handling, congestion control and packet sequencing.

To summarize:

Layer 2 Data Link: Responsible for physical addressing, error correction, and preparing the information for the media
Layer 3 Network: Responsible for logical addressing and routing IP, ICMP, ARP, RIP, IGRP, and routers

OSI LayerLayer NameFunctions and Responsibilities
Layer 2Data Link- Physical addressing for devices - Error correction - Preparation of data for media
Layer 3Network- Logical addressing - Routing of IP, ICMP, ARP, RIP, IGRP - Router operations - Creation of logical paths (virtual circuits) - Internetworking - Error handling - Congestion control - Packet sequencing

Is the Extra Layer Better? Layer 2 Versus Layer 3 Networking

Pros and Cons of Layer 2 Vs Layer 3

Some advantages of Layer 2 include lower costs, only requires switching, no routing gear is necessary and offers very low latency. Layer 2 also has some significant disadvantages such as the lack of router hardware, leaving them susceptible to broadcast storm and the additional administrative overhead of IP allocations due to flat subnet across multiple sites.

Layer 2 networks also forward all traffic, especially ARP and DHCP broadcasts. Anything transmitted by one device is forwarded to all devices. When the network gets too large, the broadcast traffic begins to create congestion and decreases network efficiency.

Layer 3 devices, on the other hand, restrict broadcast traffic such as ARP and DHCP broadcasts to the local network. This reduces overall traffic levels by allowing administrators to divide networks into smaller parts and restrict broadcasts to only that sub-network.

This means there is a limit to the size of a layer 2 network. However, a properly configured layer 3 network with the correct knowledge and hardware can have infinite growth.

A Layer 3 switch is a high-performance device for network routing. A router works with IP addresses at layer 3 of the model. Layer 3 networks are built to run on on layer 2 networks.

In an IP layer 3 network, the IP portion of the datagram has to be read. This requires stripping off the datalink layer frame information. Once the protocol frame information is stripped, the IP datagram has to be reassembled. Once the IP datagram is reassembled, the hop count has to be decremented, the header checksum has to be recalculated, a lookup for routing must be made, and only then can the IP datagram be chopped back up and inserted into frames and transmitted to the next hop. All of this takes extra time.

Is the Extra Layer Better? Layer 2 Versus Layer 3 Networking

Not Which is Better, But Which Layer is Needed for the Job

As you can see, the question is not really “is it better?”. The real question is, “what do I need?”.

What most businesses need is control. Routing controls happen at Layer 3.

But the downsides of Layer 3 are speed because of all of the additional overhead, and that can be deadly in multi-site networks where fast communications among tens or hundreds of computers, servers and routing equipment are necessary for such things as Ip-telephony, or even shared internet access.

Enter Newer Technologies Such as Metro Ethernet Work Using Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS)

Multiprotocol Label Switching is a mechanism in high-performance telecommunications networks which directs and carries data from one network node to the next. MPLS makes it easy to create “virtual links” between distant nodes. It can encapsulate packets of various network protocols.

MPLS operates at a layer that is generally considered to lie between traditional definitions of layer 2 (data link layer) and layer 3 (network layer), and thus is often referred to as a “layer 2.5” protocol.

It was designed to provide a unified data-carrying service for both circuit-based clients and packet-switching clients which provide a datagram service model. It can be used to carry many different kinds of traffic, including IP packets, as well as native ATM, SONET, and Ethernet frames.

It also allows you to maintain controls on your end points using Layer 3 switching, so with the best of both worlds Metro Ethernet services can provide the speed between locations and allow network quality of service transparency desired by small businesses all with a smaller financial footprint.

Where you might normally use Layer 3 to manage traffic in ALL locations over internet connections… with the Metro Ethernet you can use Layer 3 only as needed at end points which saves you on equipment costs and IT support costs. And you gain speed.

AspectLayer 2Layer 3MPLS (Layer 2.5)
Primary FocusLocal network data deliveryRouting between networks or subnetsUnified data-carrying service
Network ControlLimited control within a network segmentAdvanced control for interconnecting networksAllows control at endpoints using Layer 3
SpeedLow latency, suitable for quick data transmissionMay introduce some latency due to processing stepsOffers speed between locations with endpoint control
Network SizeSuitable for smaller, less complex setupsIdeal for complex setups and larger networksOffers scalability and network quality of service transparency
Use CasesLocal network communications, Ethernet networksInterconnecting distinct networks, IP routingCarrying various types of traffic, including IP packets
Hardware and CostsLess expensive hardware, cost-effective for simpler setupsMay require more expensive routing equipmentSavings on equipment and IT support costs
ComplexitySimple and easy to configureMore complex to configure and maintainProvides flexibility and scalability

Network Scalability: Planning for the Future

Scalability is a critical consideration in network design. As your business grows, your network should be able to adapt and expand without major disruptions. Here are key factors to keep in mind:

  • Bandwidth Planning: Anticipate future bandwidth needs. Consider increasing bandwidth gradually to accommodate more users, applications, and data traffic.
  • Modular Network Architecture: Design your network with modularity in mind. Implementing modular components and scalable hardware allows for easy expansion as your business demands it.
  • Virtualization: Explore network virtualization technologies. Virtual networks provide flexibility and scalability without the need for significant hardware upgrades.
  • Cloud Integration: Leverage cloud services for scalability. Cloud-based solutions can handle increased workloads and provide on-demand resources.
  • Load Balancing: Implement load balancing mechanisms to distribute traffic evenly across network resources. Load balancers help maintain network performance as usage grows.
  • Monitoring and Analytics: Use network monitoring tools and analytics to track performance and identify potential bottlenecks. Proactive monitoring enables timely adjustments to maintain scalability.
  • Security Measures: Ensure that scalability doesn’t compromise security. Implement scalable security solutions to protect your expanding network from threats.
  • Scalable Addressing: Plan for IP address scalability. IPv6 adoption, for example, offers a vast pool of addresses to accommodate growing device connectivity.
  • Redundancy and High Availability: Build redundancy into critical network components to prevent downtime. High availability solutions keep your network accessible during upgrades or maintenance.
  • Network Documentation: Maintain comprehensive network documentation. This documentation aids in scaling efficiently by providing insights into existing configurations.

Is the Extra Layer Better? Layer 2 Versus Layer 3 Networking

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the primary difference between Layer 2 and Layer 3 networks?

  • Layer 2: Layer 2, the Data Link layer, is primarily concerned with the local delivery of data on a network segment. It deals with MAC addresses, switching, and frame forwarding within a LAN (Local Area Network). Layer 2 is often used in Ethernet networks.
  • Layer 3: Layer 3, the Network layer, focuses on routing data between networks or subnets. It operates at a higher level than Layer 2 and is responsible for logical addressing, routing, and packet forwarding across multiple networks. Layer 3 is associated with IP (Internet Protocol) routing.

Which layer should I choose for my network, Layer 2 or Layer 3?

  • Layer 2: Choose Layer 2 when you need a simple, cost-effective solution for connecting devices within the same network segment. Layer 2 is suitable for local network communications.
  • Layer 3: Opt for Layer 3 when you have multiple network segments, need to route traffic between them, or require more advanced networking capabilities. Layer 3 is ideal for interconnecting distinct networks.

What are the advantages of Layer 2 networks?

  • Lower Costs: Layer 2 networks often require less expensive hardware than Layer 3 networks since they do not involve routing devices.
  • Low Latency: Layer 2 switches operate at a lower level than routers, resulting in minimal latency, making them suitable for applications that require quick data transmission.
  • Simplicity: Layer 2 networks are straightforward and easy to configure, making them suitable for smaller, less complex setups.

What are the drawbacks of Layer 2 networks?

  • Limited Scalability: Layer 2 networks can become congested and inefficient as they grow in size, making them unsuitable for larger networks.
  • Broadcast Traffic: Layer 2 networks forward all broadcast traffic to all devices, leading to network congestion as the number of devices increases.
  • Flat Subnetting: Layer 2 networks often use flat subnets across multiple sites, leading to administrative challenges with IP allocations.

What are the advantages of Layer 3 networks?

  • Scalability: Layer 3 networks can scale effectively, allowing for the expansion of networks without significant disruptions.
  • Segmentation: Layer 3 enables network segmentation, reducing broadcast traffic and improving overall network efficiency.
  • Advanced Routing: Layer 3 provides advanced routing capabilities, including the ability to route traffic between subnets and networks.

What are the drawbacks of Layer 3 networks?

  • Cost: Layer 3 networks typically require more expensive routing equipment and additional administrative overhead.
  • Complexity: Layer 3 networks are more complex to configure and maintain than Layer 2 networks, making them less suitable for simple network setups.
  • Latency: Layer 3 routing introduces some latency due to additional processing steps, which may not be suitable for applications requiring minimal delay.

Can I use both Layer 2 and Layer 3 in my network?

Yes, many networks use a combination of Layer 2 and Layer 3 devices to optimize performance and scalability. This is known as a hybrid network architecture.

How do I decide whether to use Layer 2 or Layer 3 switches in my network?

Your choice should be based on your specific network requirements. Consider factors such as network size, complexity, scalability needs, and the types of applications your network will support.

Are there alternatives to Layer 2 and Layer 3 networks?

Yes, there are various networking technologies and layers beyond Layer 2 and Layer 3, including Layer 4 (Transport layer), Layer 5 (Session layer), and so on. The choice depends on your network’s specific needs and objectives.

How can I ensure network security in both Layer 2 and Layer 3 networks?

Network security is crucial in both Layer 2 and Layer 3 networks. Implement security measures such as access control lists (ACLs), firewalls, intrusion detection systems (IDS), and encryption to protect your network from threats.

Craig Sutton Craig Sutton is the owner of Sutton Brand Management. Using his background in tech, including 5 years managing the servers and networking team for a major regional Internet provider and also owner of an IT and Web software development firm, he harnesses the power of digital and traditional marketing to help small to medium sized businesses excel.