Legacy inter-VLAN routing using physical interfaces has a significant limitation. Routers have a limited number of physical interfaces to connect to different VLANs. As the number of VLANs increases on a network, having one physical router interface per VLAN quickly exhausts the physical interface capacity of a router. An alternative in larger networks is to use VLAN trunking and subinterfaces. VLAN trunking allows a single physical router interface to route traffic for multiple VLANs. This technique is termed router-on-a-stick and uses virtual subinterfaces on the router to overcome the hardware limitations based on physical router interfaces.

Subinterfaces are software-based virtual interfaces that are assigned to physical interfaces. Each subinterface is configured independently with its own IP address and subnet mask. This allows a single physical interface to simultaneously be part of multiple logical networks.

When configuring inter-VLAN routing using the router-on-a-stick model, the physical interface of the router must be connected to a trunk link on the adjacent switch. On the router, subinterfaces are created for each unique VLAN on the network. Each subinterface is assigned an IP address specific to its subnet/VLAN and is also configured to tag frames for that VLAN. This way, the router can keep the traffic from each subinterface separated as it traverses the trunk link back to the switch.

Functionally, the router-on-a-stick model is the same as using the legacy inter-VLAN routing model, but instead of using the physical interfaces to perform the routing, subinterfaces of a single physical interface are used.

In the figure, PC1 wants to communicate with PC3. PC1 is on VLAN 10 and PC3 is on VLAN 30. For PC1 to communicate with PC3, PC1 must have its data routed through router R1 via subinterfaces.

Click the Play button in the figure to see how subinterfaces are used to route between VLANs. When the animation pauses, read the text to the left of the topology. Click Play again to continue the animation.

Using trunk links and subinterfaces decreases the number of router and switch ports used. Not only can this save money, it can also reduce configuration complexity. Consequently, the router subinterface approach can scale to a much larger number of VLANs than a configuration with one physical interface per VLAN design.