When you’re choosing networking equipment, one concept you will come up against is managed and unmanaged switches.
Which is better?
In most cases, managed switches are the way to go, but to truly understand why, you should take a minute to learn more about what managed switches are, how they work, and how they benefit a network.
Essentials of a Managed Switch
Any switch that allows you to control and adjust settings technically qualifies as a managed switch. The degree of management available will depend on the switch. The features, controls, and capabilities all vary, but the unifying concept is that you have direct control over those settings.
Compare that to an unmanaged switch, and this becomes clear. The unmanaged switch can only plug in and do its job. You can’t adjust how it functions. That makes unmanaged switches very simple and often cheaper, but if you need any level of control, then you need a managed switch.
Types of Managed Switches
When it comes to managing switches, you can break them into two categories: Layer 2 and Layer 3 switches. These refer to the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model of networking where different layers are responsible for different tasks within a network. Switching and routing primarily take place in these two layers, and depending on what you want out of your managed switch, you might want to focus on one layer over the other.
Layer 2 switches operate by using MAC addresses. This is a simpler way of managing traffic, as there are no IP addresses or IP-related rules to follow in Layer 2. Despite the simpler networking, Layer 2 switches still have plenty of opportunities for management that can impact security, speeds, and networking efficiency.
Primarily, Layer 2 a managed network switch is used to bridge network segments. If you have different pieces of your overall network that you want to connect via LAN, then a managed Layer 2 switch is great for that task.
Switches in this layer are typically very fast, as the simplified approach to networking causes very few delays in the network signal. But, Layer 2 switches usually pair with Layer 3 switches so you can implement more finite control over the network as a whole.
Speaking of Layer 3 switches, these are routing switches, and they can do all kinds of things. The bulk of your switch management will focus on these switches. You can design your security, optimize your network, build virtual LANs, and do just about everything else you need by managing these switches.
If the Layer 2 switches are part of the skeletal structure of your network, the Layer 3 switches are the nervous system.
Managed vs Unmanaged Switch
Knowing the kinds of managed switches available, it’s easier to compare exactly when and where you might want managed or unmanaged switches.
Typically, you would only deploy unmanaged switches for simple network nodes that are ultimately controlled by managed switches at another point in the network. As an example, you could connect a group of security cameras to an unmanaged switch. That switch would then tie into the greater network by connecting to managed switches that can adequately control the traffic and security necessary for the camera network.
The reasoning behind this is that managed switches provide better security, allow you to optimize traffic and get better speeds and performance, and allow you to customize features for ease of use and quality of life. There’s nothing an unmanaged switch can do that a managed switch can’t match. As a result, unmanaged switches shine as cheap additional nodes in an otherwise managed network.
The next time you shop for a Cisco managed switch, you'll have a better idea of exactly what you want and why.
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