Spanning tree protocols enable physical redundancy in a switched network. However, a host at the access layer of a hierarchical network also benefits from alternate default gateways. If a router or router interface (that serves as a default gateway) fails, the hosts configured with that default gateway are isolated from outside networks. A mechanism is needed to provide alternate default gateways in switched networks where two or more routers are connected to the same VLANs.

Note: For the purposes of the discussion on router redundancy, there is no functional difference between a multilayer switch and a router at the distribution layer. In practice, it is common for a multilayer switch to act as the default gateway for each VLAN in a switched network. This discussion focuses on the functionality of routing, regardless of the physical device used.

In a switched network, each client receives only one default gateway. There is no way to configure a secondary gateway, even if a second path exists to carry packets off the local segment.

In the figure, R1 is responsible for routing packets from PC1. If R1 becomes unavailable, the routing protocols can dynamically converge. R2 now routes packets from outside networks that would have gone through R1. However, traffic from the inside network associated with R1, including traffic from workstations, servers, and printers configured with R1 as their default gateway, are still sent to R1 and dropped.

End devices are typically configured with a single IP address for a default gateway. This address does not change when the network topology changes. If that default gateway IP address cannot be reached, the local device is unable to send packets off the local network segment, effectively disconnecting it from the rest of the network. Even if a redundant router exists that could serve as a default gateway for that segment, there is no dynamic method by which these devices can determine the address of a new default gateway.