The history of Ethernet – DIX vs 802.3
I’m planning to do a post on BPDUs sent by Cisco switches and analyze why they are sent. To fully understand the coming post first we need to understand the different versions of Ethernet. There is more than one version? Yes, there is although mainly one is used for all communication.
Most people will know that Robert Metcalfe was one of the inventors of Ethernet. Robert was working for Xerox back then. Digital, Intel and Xerox worked together on standardizing Ethernet. This is why it is often referred to as a DIX frame. The DIX version 1 standard was published in 1980 and the version used today is version 2. This is why we refer to Ethernet II or Ethernet version 2. The DIX version is the frame type that is most often used.
IEEE was also working on standardizing Ethernet. They began working on it in February 1980 and that is why the standard is called 802 where 802.3 is the Ethernet standard. We refer to it as Ethernet even though when IEEE released their standard it was called “IEEE 802.3 Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Detection (CSMA/CD)
Access Method and Physical Layer Specifications”. So here we see the term CSMA/CD for the first time.
I’m not here to give you a history lesson but instead explain the frame types and briefly discuss the fields in them. We start with the DIX frame or Ethernet II frame. This is the frame that is most commonly used today. It looks like this.
The preamble is a pattern of alternating ones and zeroes and ending with two ones. When this pattern is received it is known that anything that comes after this pattern is the actual frame.
The source and destination MAC is used for switching based on the MAC.
The EtherType field specifies that upper level protocol. Some of the most well known ones are:
0×0800 – IP
0×8100 – 802.1Q tagged frame
0×0806 – ARP
0x86DD – IPv6
After that follow the actual payload which should be between 46 – 1500 bytes in size.
In the end there is a Frame Checking Sequence (FCS) which is used to check the validity of the frame. If the CRC check fails the frame is dropped.
In total the frame will be maximum 1514 bytes or 1518 if counting the FCS.
When it comes to 802.3 Ethernet there are actually two frame formats. One is 802.3 with 802.2 LLC SAP header. It looks like this.
This was the original version from the IEEE. Many of the fields are the same. Let’s look at those that are not.
The preamble is now divided in preamble and Start Frame Delimiter (SFD) but the function is the same.
The length field is used to indicate how many bytes of data are following this field before the FCS. It can also be used to distinguish between DIX frame and 802.3 frame as for DIX the values in this field will be higher e.g. 0×806 for ARP. If this value is greater than 1536 (0×600 Hex) then it is a DIX frame and the value is an Ethertype value.
Then we have some interesting values called DSAP, SSAP and Control. SAP stands for Service Access Point, the S and D in SSAP and DSAP stands for source and destination.
They have a similar function as the Ethertype. The SAP is used to distinguish between different data exchanges on the same station. The SSAP indicates from which service the LLC data unit was sent and the DSAP indicates the service to which the LLC data unit is being sent. IP has a SAP of 6 and 802.1D (STP) has a SAP of 42. It would be very strange to have a different SSAP and DSAP so these values should be the same. IP to IP would be SSAP of 06 and DSAP of 06. One bit (LSB) in the DSAP is used to indicate if it is a group address or an individual address. If it is set to zero it refers to an individual address going to a Local SAP (LSAP). One bit in the SSAP (LSB) indicates if it is a command or response packet. That leaves us with 64 possible different SAPs for SSAP and DSAP.
The contol field is used to select if communication should be connection-less or connection-oriented. Usually error recovery and flow control are performed by higher level services such as TCP.
The IEEE had problems to address all the layer 3 processes due to the short DSAP and SSAP fields in the header. This is why they introduced a new frame format called Subnetwork Access Protocol (SNAP). Basically this header is using the type field found in the DIX header. If the SSAP and DSAP is set to 0xAA and the Control field is set to 0×03 then SNAP encapsulation will follow. SNAP has a five byte extension to the standard 802.2 LLC header and it consists of a 3 byte OUI and a two byte Type field.
From a vendor perspective this is good because then they can have an OUI and then create their own types to use. If we look at PVST+ BPDUs from a Cisco device we will see that they are SNAP encapsulated where the organization code is Cisco (0x00000c) and the PID is PVSTP+ (0x010b). CDP is also using SNAP and it has a PID of CDP (0×0200). I will talk more about BPDUs and STP in a following post but first I wanted to provide the background on the Ethernet frame types used.
In summary there are three different Ethernet frame types used. DIX frame, also called Ethernet II, IEEE 802.3 with LLC and IEEE 802.3 with SNAP encapsulation. There are others out there as well but these are the three major ones and the DIX one is by far the most common one.