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What Is a Network Switch?
What Is a Network Switch?

Network switches sit at the heart of every network. They connect devices to each other in stable, controllable ways. Their design allows for a lot of freedom in network management, ultimately making it possible for you to build and run your network however you like.

As you learn more about switches, you’ll see exactly what they offer and how you can best take advantage of everything that they do.

Network Switch Features

Network switches come in many different forms, each with its own set of features, but some features are common across a wide range of switches.

For instance, it’s common for switches to provide port speeds of at least 100 Mbps. Full duplex networking is standard, which means there are no traffic collisions, and you get better data flow as a result. Switches also work via MAC addresses, which allows for MAC filtering and similar security options.

Primarily, switches are designed to connect multiple devices, and with management features and switch stacking, they can support very large numbers of devices.

Types of Network Switches

Many companies make switches, and as a result, you have a lot of options. Some of the most recognizable brands in the industry are Cisco, Netgear, Dell, HPE, D-Link, and TP-Link, with too many other brand names to list here.

Even with all of that variety, we can put all switches into one of three categories: managed, unmanaged, and cloud-managed.

Managed Switches

Managed switches form the backbone of major networks. The term “managed” simply means that an administrator can control how the switch operates. This is usually done from a management platform. In other words, managed switches come with software that you can control from a connected device.

Management allows you to choose security settings, network optimization settings, protocols, and a whole lot more. This control is why managed switches are essential when networks start to grow larger and more complicated.

Unmanaged Switches

Unmanaged switches are the opposite. With unmanaged switches, you cannot precisely control how they operate. You cannot access them at a command-line level and tell them exactly what you want them to do.

Instead, you plug them in, and they run.

Unmanaged switches are great in small networks that don’t need management. They are also used in larger networks in conjunction with managed switches. You can plug an unmanaged switch into a managed switch to add more ports. The managed switch controls data through the unmanaged switch, simplifying your network.

Cloud Managed Switches

Cloud-managed switches are managed switches, but specifically, the management is done through a cloud service. The advantage is that you can disseminate one bunch of settings through a large number of cloud-managed switches very easily. This is great for large networks with standardized settings.

The drawback is that your switches need internet access in order to receive their management instructions. It’s not usually an issue, but there are specific scenarios where limited internet access could present issues.

How to Set up a Network Switch

Setting up network switches can be a full-time job in large and complicated networks. Before it comes to that, there are a few simple steps that can help.

For the most part, you need to plug in your switch. Make sure it has power. Then, connect devices according to the appropriate ports. Using a simple example, you have a port (or ports) that are designated to connect to a modem or router to receive internet traffic. The other ports will connect to computers and endpoint devices.

In a more complicated network, the ports still point in directions like this. Some point higher in the network to ultimately get to internet traffic while others point lower to endpoint devices.

As for management, you will need to connect a computer to the switch. Once done, you can access the management software and pick settings or deliver commands as needed. The exact setup varies from one switch to the next, so your best bet is to follow the literature for your specific model.

Hub vs Switch

We can learn more about switches by comparing them to hubs. A network hub is similar to a switch in that it allows you to connect more devices to a network with direct cable connections, but there are important distinctions.

The chief difference is that hubs split bandwidth across the ports while switches provide the same bandwidth to each port. So, when you connect more devices to a hub, the speed for each device ultimately slows down. The same is not true for a switch.

Why Is a Switch Better Than a Hub?

This primary distinction is one of the main reasons that switches are better than hubs. They provide stable speeds to more devices.

The other advantage of switches is that they are active devices. This allows for management and network controls, all of which can improve security and communication through your network. A hub is a passive device. All it can do is pass traffic from one point to another without adding any additional value to the network.

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