When learning about networks, there are a lot of terms and concepts, and in the beginning, it can get pretty confusing. Something that can help is a simplified breakdown of some of the most essential aspects of networking.
To help with that, you’re going to find an explanation about switches and routers below. They’re in every network, but they’re often misunderstood. You can take a minute to demystify these devices and better understand your own networks.
Are Switches and Routers the Same Thing?
No. Switches and routers are very different devices, and those differences are important.
We’ll get into the specifics of both switches and routers in a moment, first, it’s important to address something.
You can get devices that are both switches and routers. In fact, it’s pretty common for home networks to use devices that serve as modems, switches, and routers, all at the same time. While these all-in-one devices are common, it doesn’t change the fact that routers and switches are very different things.
Here’s a way to look at it. Your car has an engine and tires in it. It needs both the engine and the tires to work, but clearly, the engine and the tires aren’t doing the same thing. They have similarities in that they both help the car move, but the specific things they do for the vehicle are quite different.
Your network is similar. Switches and routers are separate, integral devices in a network. They both help devices communicate with each other, but the way they accomplish that is very different. So, even though a single device can house both a router and a switch, those components will be distinct within your all-in-one device.
What Is a Switch?
A switch is a hardware device that creates physical pathways for network communication. Typically, you plug wires into a switch (such as Ethernet cables) to connect different devices to that switch. By doing this, you can put many different devices on a single network.
Within its own network, a switch can route communication paths, but everything is pretty simple. If computer A needs to talk to printer B, there’s probably only one viable route for that communication.
The thing to understand is that the switch is opening up the paths that allow all of this communication in the first place.
What Is a Router?
A router is a little more complicated. It's like a switch in that it helps devices communicate, but its function is different. While a switch is connecting a bunch of different devices, a router is designed to connect a bunch of switches together.
In another mode of thinking, a router is connecting different networks together to make a larger, shared network. You can think of each switch as being its own self-contained network. But, if you need different switches to communicate with each other, then things get pretty complicated.
The router steps in and manages all of the traffic to keep things efficient. In fact, that’s the primary role of a router. It’s optimizing communication pathways to make network communication as fast and efficient as possible.
If this still isn’t perfectly clear, we can look at how switches and routers work together to really flesh out the different, albeit related, roles.
Why Is a Switch Used With a Router?
It’s easy to understand that when you have a bunch of different switches connecting tons of devices in the same network, you need a router to manage everything and keep connections efficient. But, the roles of routers and switches might make even more sense in a simplified case.
Let’s imagine that you have a super simple home network. You have a personal computer, and that’s it. You don't connect any wireless devices. Even in this network, you’re going to use a router and a switch (although they will likely be a combined device).
Here’s why. In order for your computer to connect to the internet, it needs to access a modem. So, you have a modem, and that counts as one network. Then, you have your PC, and you want to connect it, so it needs a switch. That’s actually another network.
The router allows the PC and the modem to share one IP address and work together. It combines the networks, but you still need the switch to physically create the network path between the computer and the modem. Even in this simplest case, you’re using a switch and a router.
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