Virtual networking labs – virtual Ethernet networks with VLAN tags

In the previous posts, we have mainly been looking at virtual networking within one single physical hosts. This is nice, but to build cloud environments, we need to establish virtual networks across several physical hosts. In this post, we will start to look into technologies that make this possible and learn how VLAN tagging supports virtual Ethernet networks.

An introduction to virtual Ethernet networks

Today, essentially every Ethernet network you will come across is a switched network, where every server is more or less directly connected to a switch, and the switches are connected to each other to propagate traffic through your data center. A naive approach would be to use layer 2 switches to combine all Ethernet networks into one large broadcast domain, where every node is connected to every other node by a sequence of switches. This approach, however, creates a very large broadcast domain and is difficult to maintain as changes to the topology need to be done by a physical rearrangement. It might therefore be beneficial to have some way of dividing your physical Ethernet network into two or more logical (“virtual”) networks.

For servers that are connected to the same switch, this can be implemented by an approach known as port-based VLAN. To illustrate the idea, let us look at the following configuration, where four servers are connected to four different ports of one switch.


With this setup, a broadcast issued by one server will reach every other server, and all servers are part of one Ethernet network. To introduce virtualization, we could simply add some logic to the switch to divide the ports into two sets, where forwarding of Ethernet frames is only done within those two sets. If, for instance, we define one set to consist of the two ports connected to server 1 and server 2 (green), and the other consisting of the remaining two ports (red), and configure the switch such that it will only forward frames between ports with the same color, we will effectively have established two virtual networks.


This is nice, as – if your switch supports it – no additional hardware is required and you can define and change the configuration entirely in software. But there is a problem. Typically, your data center will have more than one switch. How can you extend these virtual networks across multiple switches? Of course, you could add an additional connection for every virtual network between any two switches, but this will blow up your hardware requirements and again make changes in hardware necessary. To avoid this, a technology called VLAN trunking is needed.

With VLAN trunking, different virtual LANs (VLANs) can share the same physical connection. To enable this, Ethernet frames that travel on this shared part of your infrastructure are enhanced by adding a VLAN tag which contains a numerical ID identifying the VLAN to which they belong, as indicated in the following diagram.


Here, we have two switches, which both use port-based virtual networks as just discussed. The upper two ports of each switch belong to the green network which is assigned the ID 1 (VLAN ID or VID, note that in reality, this ID is often reserved) and the other set of ports is part of VLAN 2 (the red network). When a frame leaves, for instance, the server in the upper left corner and needs to be forwarded to the server in the upper right corner, the switch will add a VLAN tag to indicate that this frame is part of VLAN 1. Then the frame travels across the connection between the two switches. Then the switch on the right hand side receives the frame, it strips off the VLAN frame again and, based on the tag, injects the frame back into its own VLAN 1, so that it can only reach the green ports on the right hand side.

Thus your network is divided into two parts. In the middle, on the connection between the two switches, frames carry the VLAN tag to flag them as being part of the red or green network. Thus the ports facing this part need to be aware of the VLAN tag – these ports are often called trunk ports. The parts of the network behind the switches, however, do never see a VLAN tag, as it is added and removed by the switches when transmitting and receiving on trunk ports. These ports are called access ports. Thus the servers do not need to known to which VLAN they belong, and the configuration can be done entirely on the switches and in software.

The standard that describes all this and also defines how a VLAN tag is added to an Ethernet frame is called IEEE 802.1Q. This standard adds a 16-bit field called TCI – tag control information to the layout of an Ethernet frame. Four bits of this field are reserved for other purposes, so that 12 bits remain for the VLAN ID, allowing a maximum of 4096 different VLANs.

Lab 8: VLAN networking with Linux

Linux has the capability to create virtual Ethernet devices that are associated with a VLAN network. To see this in action, get lab 8 from my GitHub repository and run it.

git clone
cd networking-samples/lab8
vagrant up

The Vagrantfile and the three Ansible playbooks that are located in this directory will now execute and bring up three virtual machines. Here is a diagram summarizing the network configuration that the scripts create (we will see how this is done manually further below).


We see that all three machines are connected to one virtual Ethernet cable (we use a VirtualBox internal network for that purpose). The three interfaces attached to this network are configured as part of the IP network

However, in addition, we have set up two virtual networks – one network with VLAN ID 100 (green), and a second network with VLAN ID 200 (red). In each Linux machine, the virtual networks to which the machine is attached is represented by a virtual device called a VLAN device.

Let us look at boxA to see how this works. On boxA, the Ansible playbook that got executed during the vagrant up did run the following command

vconfig add enp0s8 100

This command is creating a new network interface enp0s8.100 sitting on top of enp0s8 but being associated with the VID 100. This device is an ordinary device from the point of view of the operating system, i.e. you can assign IP addresses, add routes and so forth.

Such a VLAN device operates as follows. When an Ethernet frame arrives on the underlying device, enp0s8 in our case, the kernel checks whether the frame contains a VLAN tag. If no, the processing is as usual. If yes, then the kernel next checks whether a VLAN device is associated with this VID. If there is one, it strips off the VLAN tag, changes the frame so that it appears to be coming from the virtual VLAN device and re-injects the frame into the networking stack. The frame then travels up the stack and can be processed by the higher layers, e.g. the IP layer. Conversely, if a frame needs to be transmitted on enp0s8.100, the kernel adds a VLAN tag with the VID 100 to the frame and redirects it to the physical device enp0s8.

Let us see this in action. Open two SSH connections, one to boxA, and one to boxB – if you use the Gnome terminal, simply run

for i in "A" "B" ; do gnome-terminal -e "vagrant ssh box$i"; done

In boxA, start a tcpdump session on the VLAN device.

sudo tcpdump -e -i enp0s8.100

On boxB, ping boxA, using the IP address (the IP address of the VLAN device). You will see an ordinary frame coming in, with ethertype IPv4. There is no VLAN tag within this frame, and the VLAN device operates like a physical device with no VLAN tagging.

Now, stop the tcpdump session and start it again, but this time, use enp0s8 instead of enp0s8.100, i.e. the underlying physical device. If you now run a ping again, you will see that the ethertype of the incoming packages has changed and is now 802.1Q, indicating that the frame is tagged (tcpdump will also show you the VLAN ID 100).

When you ping boxA from boxB using the IP address, the traffic will be as expected, coming in on enp0s8 without any VLAN tag, and will not reach enp0s8.100. Thus even though you have put a VLAN device on top of the physical interface, you can still use the physical interface as usual.

It is instructive to check the ARP cache on boxB using arp -n after the pings have been exchanged. You will see that the MAC address of the enp0s8 device on boxA now appears twice, once with the IP address and once with So the MAC address is shared between the virtual VLAN device and the physical device.

Still, the traffic is separated by the Linux kernel. If, for instance, you try to ping (one of the IP addresses of boxC) from boxA, you will not be successful, because this IP address is on the red network and not reachable from the green network. If you run the ping on boxB, however, it will work, because boxB participates in both virtual networks.

This closes todays lab. In the next lab, we will start to look at a completely different approach to building virtual networks – overlay networks.

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