In addition to determining the various switch form factors, it may also be necessary to choose between a Layer 2 LAN switch and a Layer 3 switch.

Recall that a Layer 2 LAN switch performs switching and filtering based only on the OSI data link layer (Layer 2) MAC address and depends upon routers to pass data between independent IP subnetworks (see Figure 1).

As shown in Figure 2, a Layer 3 switch, such as the Catalyst 3560, functions similarly to a Layer 2 switch, such as the Catalyst 2960, but instead of using only the Layer 2 MAC address information for forwarding decisions, a Layer 3 switch can also use IP address information. Instead of only learning which MAC addresses are associated with each of its ports, a Layer 3 switch can also learn which IP addresses are associated with its interfaces. This allows the Layer 3 switch to direct traffic throughout the network based on IP address information as well.

Layer 3 switches are also capable of performing Layer 3 routing functions, reducing the need for dedicated routers on a LAN. Because Layer 3 switches have specialized switching hardware, they can typically route data as quickly as they can switch.