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Difference Between VLAN and Subnet

VLAN vs Subnet

Subnetting and implementation of VLANs provide administrators flexibility when trying to come up with networks on medium to very large scales. In essence, VLANs and subnets are similar in the purpose of their development. But when you peel off their general similarities, obvious differences emerge whether by functionality, operation, or deeper objectives.

VLAN (Virtual Local Area Network) exists when two or more ports are connected physically or grouped together by some piece of network hardware/software that supports VLAN functionalities. On the whole, a VLAN is very similar to that of a physical LAN. Their main difference is VLANs capability to group end stations together without the requirement of being located on the same network switch. In VLAN, configuration of the network can be done via software extensively. Basically, VLANs are used at layer 2 to break up broadcast domains.

Each VLAN is considered as a separate entity and it can only reach another VLAN through a router. You can use a single network with VLANs but when one network goes down for some reason, the entire logical network is concerned. VLANs are very useful when an IT professional (system or network admin) wants to group organization departments for better work performance, less traffic, and more efficiency.

A subnet is essentially a group of IP addresses. Any particular address can reach any address without using any routing device if they belong to the same subnet. Now, if the address you want to reach is outside of your subnet, then just like in VLANs, you will have to go through a router. Subnet is at layer 3 (IP), wherein IP addresses belong.

When you are subnetting, you are actually dividing an IP address into smaller subnets. This accomplishes an addition of multiple networks to the system, a thing that any organization or agency would constantly need. The great thing about subnetting is that subnets are unaffected with other subnets going down or having technical breakdowns.

It can be said that VLAN is software-based and subnetting is primarily hardware-based. Though VLANS are somewhat perceived to be lacking in security as they can be hacked, it is still the more popular network segregation of choice by many administrators.


1. VLAN is found to be more popular than subnetting but, more often than not, both are used to complement each other.

2. VLAN is works at the layer 2 while subnet is at layer 3.

3. Subnets are more concerned about IP addresses.

4. Many would consider that subnetting is more secure but VLAN brings more network efficiency.

5. VLAN is largely software-based while subnet is hardware-based.

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  1. Great explanation. However, I believe the following two quotes should be reversed:

    “It can be said that VLAN is software-based and subnetting is primarily hardware-based.”

    “5. VLAN is largely software-based while subnet is hardware-based.”

    VLANs are implemented by switches (hardware). Subnetting is implemented through logical addressing (software). That being said, aren’t both really software implementations?

  2. Good article.

    A note worth mentioning.

    Take a basic layer 2 switch say with 24 ports and configure 4 groups of six ports with 6 clients in 6 subnets. You will end up with collisions in the broadcast domain as the switch has no idea which ports belong to which subnet. It will broadcast out all ports on the switch and the clients will discard the traffic if they aren’t a member of the subnet.

    • I found the article lacking, as it did not help me *understand* the difference. ‘Popular’, vs ‘secure’ are differences presented simply as statements – they might be helpful to memorize for an answer, but do not aid understanding.

      Software vs hardware, or layer 2 vs layer3/IPaddress based – this is helpful, but not enough. The differences explained need to be in terms of routing, packets etc

      I already know networks can be partitioned by vlans, or subnets. But unless the boundaries coincide, explaining what the behavior will be when devices are on the same vlan but partitioned by a subnet (how is the communication diff between devices that share the subnet vs those that don’t?); or on different VLANs but in the same subnet (how is the communication diff between devices that share the VLAN vs those that don’t?);
      that’s what was/is needed here.

      “Basically, VLANs are used at layer 2 to break up broadcast domains.”

      I thought VLANs might be used to make LANs larger. Aren’t LANs the basic unit of ‘broadcast domain’, making VLANs something that bridges broadcast domains, not something that breaks them up?

      “It can be said that VLAN is software-based and subnetting is primarily hardware-based.”

      In general, I’d expect layer2 to be more hardware based, compared to layer 3 – but I thought maybe this was true, and that’s one of the reasons that this is so confusing.

  3. Just to clear up above question regarding breaking up broadcast domains.

    What is meant is that the greater the amount of devices and ports etc in a broadcast domain the more resources go to simply updating the routing table, as such when you break them in to smaller groups networks will have faster convergence and more resources for actual routing/switching.

    100 Computers in 1 Vlan = 100 devices in broadcast domain and 100 computers in LAN

    100 Computers in 2 VLANS = 50 devices per broadcast domain and if VLANS are configured to allow communication, then 100 devices are in the LAN.

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