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© Rakhesh Sasidharan

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A very brief intro to Port Groups, Standard and Distributed switches

A year ago I went for VMware training but never got around to using it at work. Now I am finally into it, but I’ve forgotten most of the concepts. And that sucks!

So I am slowly re-learning things as I go along. I am in this weird state where I sort of remember bits and pieces from last year but at the same time I don’t really remember them.

What I have been reading about these past few days (or rather, trying to read these past few days) is networking. The end goal is distributed switches but for now I am starting with the basics. And since I like to blog these things as I go along, here we go.

You have a host. The server that runs ESXi (hypervisor).

This host has physical NICs. Hopefully oodles of them, all connected to your network.

This server runs virtual machines (a.k.a guests). These guests see virtual NICs that don’t really exist except in software, exposed by ESXi.

What you need is for all these virtual NICs to be able to talk to each other (if needed) as well as talk to the outside world (via the physical NICs and they switches they connect to).

You could create one big virtual switch and connect all the physical and virtual NICs to it. (This virtual switch is again something which does not physically exist). All the guests can thus talk to each other (as they are on the same switch) and also talk to the outside world (because the virtual switch is connected to the outside world via whatever it is connected to).

But maybe you don’t want all the virtual NICs to be able to talk to each other. You want little networks in there – a la VLANs – to isolate certain traffic from other. There’s two options here:

  1. Create separate virtual switches for each network, and assign some virtual NICs to some switches. The physical NICs that connect to these virtual switches will connect to separate physical switches so you are really limited in the number of virtual switches you have by the number of physical NICs you have. Got 2 physical NICs, you can create 2 virtual switches; got 5 physical NICs, you can create 5 virtual switches.
  2. Create one big virtual switch as before, but use port groups. Port groups are the VMware equivalent of VLANs (well, sort of; they do more than just VLANs). They are a way of grouping the virtual ports on the virtual switch such that only the NICs connected to a particular port group can talk to each other. You can create as many port groups as you want (within limits) and assign all your physical NICs to this virtual switch and use VLANs so the traffic flowing out of this virtual switch to the physical switch is on separate networks. Pretty nice stuff!

(In practice, even if you create separate virtual switches you’d still create a port group on that – essentially grouping all the ports on that switch into one. That’s because port groups are used to also apply policies to the ports in the group. Policies such as security, traffic shaping, and load balancing/ NIC teaming of the underlying physical NICs. Below is a screenshot of the options you have with portgroups).

Example of a Portgroup

Now onto standard and distributed switches. In a way both are similar – in that they are both virtual switches – but the difference is that a standard switch exists on & is managed by a host whereas a distributed switch exists on & is managed by vCenter. You create a distributed switch using vCenter and then you go to each host and add its physical NICs to the distributed switch. As with standard switches you create can portgroups in distributed switches and assign VM virtual NICs to these portgroups.

An interesting thing when it comes to migration (obvious but I wasn’t sure about this initially) is that if you have a host with two NICs – one of which is a member of a standard switch and the other of a distributed switch – but both NICs connect to the same physical network (or VLAN), and you have VMs in this host some of which are on the standard switch and others are on the distributed switch, all these VMs can talk to each other through the underlying physical network. Useful when you want to migrate stuff.

I got side tracked at this point with other topics so I’ll conclude this post here for now.

A very brief intro to Port Groups, Standard and Distributed switches by rakhesh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.