Multilayer switches are typically deployed in the core and distribution layers of an organization's switched network. Multilayer switches are characterized by their ability to build a routing table, support a few routing protocols, and forward IP packets at a rate close to that of Layer 2 forwarding. Multilayer switches often support specialized hardware, such as application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). ASICs along with dedicated software data structures can streamline the forwarding of IP packets independent of the CPU.

There is a trend in networking toward a pure Layer 3 switched environment. When switches were first used in networks, none of them supported routing; now, almost all switches support routing. It is likely that soon all switches will incorporate a route processor because the cost of doing so is decreasing relative to other constraints. Eventually the term multilayer switch will be redundant.

As shown in the figure, the Catalyst 2960 switches illustrate the migration to a pure Layer 3 environment. With IOS versions prior to 15.x, these switches supported only one active switched virtual interface (SVI). With IOS 15.x, these switches now support multiple active SVIs. This means that the switch can be remotely accessed via multiple IP addresses on distinct networks.