semi-plausible hyothesis: device "wan" port is plugged into my build machine, "lan" port into the switch on my desk (which the build machine is also plugged into). Before the device boots, no vlan tags on the switch => bridging loop. During bootup, perhaps it's sending (or receiving?) some broadcast traffic before the vlan tags are configured causing broadcast storm
I am unclear why this doesn't cause broadcast storms when the device is just sitting at the u-boot prompt though. Why only during boot?
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