Benefits of a Hierarchical Network
There are many benefits associated with hierarchical network designs.
Hierarchical networks scale very well. The modularity of the design allows you to replicate design elements as the network grows. Because each instance of the module is consistent, expansion is easy to plan and implement. For example, if your design model consists of two distribution layer switches for every 10 access layer switches, you can continue to add access layer switches until you have 10 access layer switches cross-connected to the two distribution layer switches before you need to add additional distribution layer switches to the network topology. Also, as you add more distribution layer switches to accommodate the load from the access layer switches, you can add additional core layer switches to handle the additional load on the core.
As a network grows, availability becomes more important. You can dramatically increase availability through easy redundant implementations with hierarchical networks. Access layer switches are connected to two different distribution layer switches to ensure path redundancy. If one of the distribution layer switches fails, the access layer switch can switch to the other distribution layer switch. Additionally, distribution layer switches are connected to two or more core layer switches to ensure path availability if a core switch fails. The only layer where redundancy is limited is at the access layer. Typically, end node devices, such as PCs, printers, and IP phones, do not have the ability to connect to multiple access layer switches for redundancy. If an access layer switch fails, just the devices connected to that one switch would be affected by the outage. The rest of the network would continue to function unaffected.
Communication performance is enhanced by avoiding the transmission of data through low-performing, intermediary switches. Data is sent through aggregated switch port links from the access layer to the distribution layer at near wire speed in most cases. The distribution layer then uses its high performance switching capabilities to forward the traffic up to the core, where it is routed to its final destination. Because the core and distribution layers perform their operations at very high speeds, there is less contention for network bandwidth. As a result, properly designed hierarchical networks can achieve near wire speed between all devices.
Security is improved and easier to manage. Access layer switches can be configured with various port security options that provide control over which devices are allowed to connect to the network. You also have the flexibility to use more advanced security policies at the distribution layer. You may apply access control policies that define which communication protocols are deployed on your network and where they are permitted to go. For example, if you want to limit the use of HTTP to a specific user community connected at the access layer, you could apply a policy that blocks HTTP traffic at the distribution layer. Restricting traffic based on higher layer protocols, such as IP and HTTP, requires that your switches are able to process policies at that layer. Some access layer switches support Layer 3 functionality, but it is usually the job of the distribution layer switches to process Layer 3 data, because they can process it much more efficiently.
Manageability is relatively simple on a hierarchical network. Each layer of the hierarchical design performs specific functions that are consistent throughout that layer. Therefore, if you need to change the functionality of an access layer switch, you could repeat that change across all access layer switches in the network because they presumably perform the same functions at their layer. Deployment of new switches is also simplified because switch configurations can be copied between devices with very few modifications. Consistency between the switches at each layer allows for rapid recovery and simplified troubleshooting. In some special situations, there could be configuration inconsistencies between devices, so you should ensure that configurations are well documented so that you can compare them before deployment.
Because hierarchical networks are modular in nature and scale very easily, they are easy to maintain. With other network topology designs, manageability becomes increasingly complicated as the network grows. Also, in some network design models, there is a finite limit to how large the network can grow before it becomes too complicated and expensive to maintain. In the hierarchical design model, switch functions are defined at each layer, making the selection of the correct switch easier. Adding switches to one layer does not necessarily mean there will not be a bottleneck or other limitation at another layer. For a full mesh network topology to achieve maximum performance, all switches need to be high-performance switches, because each switch needs to be capable of performing all the functions on the network. In the hierarchical model, switch functions are different at each layer. You can save money by using less expensive access layer switches at the lowest layer, and spend more on the distribution and core layer switches to achieve high performance on the network.