What is a network switch?
A network switch is a device used to connect multiple Managed switch computers and devices together over a local area network, or LAN. It provides an efficient way for businesses to share data and resources, such as printers and storage drives, without the need for cumbersome cables or wires. In order to successfully use a network switch, businesses must understand the different types of switches available and what each type can offer in terms of functionality and performance.
What are the main types of switches?
One common type of switch is an unmanaged switch, which generally requires little to no setup or configuration by the user. These switches are ideal for basic networks that do not require complex management features, such as traffic prioritisation or bandwidth control. Unlike switches, which are usually more complex and include advanced features, unmanaged switches typically have a very simple design and are primarily used for basic connectivity needs. They are an ideal choice for small businesses or home office users that do not need the advanced features offered by more sophisticated switches.
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By contrast, a managed offers more advanced features for managing and optimising network traffic. Managed switches are typically more expensive than unmanaged switches, but offer greater control over the flow of data on your network. Some of these more advanced features include the ability to set up security policies, monitor network activity, prioritise traffic, and troubleshoot issues as they arise. Some popular managed switch options include Cisco’s Catalyst series of switches and Aruba switches.
A third type of switches, called smart managed switches, offers a compromise between cost and features. These switches are suited for small businesses that have limited budgets but need better security protection and want to improve their networks’ performance.
What are the key differences between managed and unmanaged switches?
There are four main differences between managed and unmanaged switches:
Performance – Unmanaged switches are designed to be ‘plug and play’. There are no settings to configure and no real control over the traffic flowing in your network. With a managed switch however, you can configure, monitor and optimise traffic flow using a range of advanced features and monitoring tools.
Features – Unmanaged switch features are mostly limited to data transfer speed control and simple traffic routing whereas managed switches come with a wide feature set which can vary across makes and models but typically includes Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), Quality of Service (QoS), VLAN support and port mirroring. These advanced features give you superior control over network traffic and allow you to ensure efficient data transfers and optimised network usage.
Security – With a managed switch you can configure various security settings that detect and protect the network from threats to your data. These include port security settings, private VLANs and 802.1X authentication. Unmanaged switches don’t provide security features.
Cost – As you might expect, unmanaged switches are substantially cheaper than managed switches given their reduced feature set and capabilities.
What features does a managed switch come with?
Features sets can vary across different manufacturers and models but many managed switches include the following features:
Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) – This is a protocol mostly used for network management and monitoring. SNMP allows remote management of a network’s status and performance allowing any potential issues to be addressed without having to be at the physical switch.
Quality of Service (QoS) – With Quality of Service (QoS), you can manage your network traffic and available bandwidth to ensure that the most important data is transferred first. You can create rules that prioritise packets of data for different devices. This can be very helpful if you need to give certain devices more bandwidth when transferring data between them.
Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs) – VLANs let network admins keep devices together without the need for additional cabling or other infrastructure changes. They help admins cut down on redundant traffic and give them the ability to secure communications over the network
Port Mirroring – With port mirroring, you can copy traffic from one port on a switch to another port for analysis. This is useful for diagnosing network problems without having to take the network offline. This reduces downtime and makes it easier to fix problems quickly.
Redundancy – Having a redundant system in place is vital for any business. Redundancy helps prevent or recover from data loss due to component failure. By duplicating data, redundancy provides a safety net in case of primary system failure.
Which should I choose? Managed or unmanaged switch?
When choosing a switch for your business, it is important to consider factors such as your budget, the size and complexity of your network, and the specific needs and requirements of your organisation. Factor features like port density, scalability, reliability, and ease of use; keep in mind that a managed switch requires professional IT knowledge for implementation and ongoing management.
As a rough guide, if you’re running a small network with about a dozen devices and don’t need mission critical availability or security features, you can probably run the network using an unmanaged switch. If your network is larger or more complex or you need dependable network connectivity for hundreds of devices, opt for a managed switch instead.
Ideally, you should work with an experienced IT professional who can help you select the right switch for your unique needs. With the right planning and research, you can ensure that your business has a reliable and efficient network infrastructure for years to come.