NetworkTigers discusses the evolution of network switches.
A network switch, or ethernet switch, is a fundamental piece of equipment that allows multiple IT devices to communicate by accepting and forwarding information by exchanging data packets. Switches can be standalone appliances or built into other hardware, such as wireless access points or routers.
As connectivity and internet usage demands have increased in complexity over the years, so have the switches that keep our information traffic moving. The simplest network switches create small Local Area Networks (LANs), while more complex switches can connect multiple LANs and may even include some basic security features.
The evolution of the network switch is deeply connected to the history of communication and the internet itself.
Timeline: the creation and evolution of the network switch
1926: the first switches
The first switches were used to connect phone calls in 1926. Before this technology, a human operator would have to pick up the line, ask for the caller’s information, hang up on it, and then manually connect them to who they wished to reach. Switching hardware expedited this process significantly and even allowed the caller to remain on the line as they were being connected.
This revolutionary switching technology would continue to be built upon into the 1950s and early 1960s, speeding up call connection times exponentially with each advancement.
1969: ARPANET connects
Conceptualized in 1961 by computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock, ARPANET was one of the first computer networks to utilize packet switching and was designed to facilitate academic research.
The first two nodes of the network, one at UCLA and one at SRI (Stanford Research Institute), were connected in 1969. A network switch was used to send the first data transmission through ARP; thus, the internet took its first baby steps toward ubiquity.
Following advancements in internet expansion, Ginny Strazisar developed the first router in 1976 and 1988’s ALOHAnet (the precursor to wifi), an American computer and networking hardware company called Kabecameecomes, the first business to sell network switches in 1991.
The switches developed during this time were Layer 2 switches, only capable of sending data packets to a single port designated by a Media Access Control (MAC) address. During this period, internet usage was minimal, and LANs using hardwired switches were confined to single locations.
Through the 2000s, internet access and usage expanded tremendously. Increases in connectivity, as the need for business networks to communicate with systems outside of their LAN, resulted in the development of Layer 3 switches.
Layer 3 switches operate at the network level and can send data to IP addresses, meaning external communication and information transfers could now occur efficiently.
Modern network switch advancements
Contemporary network switches still perform their longstanding functions but allows for more versatility in their connections. They can support traditional wired connections between computers, printers, and other equipment and accommodate wireless communications between tablets, smartphones, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.
Modern switches can contain dozens of ports, allowing users to connect their devices using a single unit. Many switches feature Power over Ethernet (PoE), which lets them power compatible connected devices. This technology is commonly used for security camera systems and drastically reduces cable and installation costs.
Today’s switches may also include technology that prioritizes certain kinds of traffic, meaning critical processes won’t suffer slowdown even when congestion is high. This is a valuable feature in ensuring that streaming video and audio is of the highest quality while other communications are running.
Modern network switch security
While switches are not designed as security components, some can provide essential but critical safety features.
- Unmanaged switches are plug-and-play devices that connect your network components. These are best suited to small home or business networks. They’re not made for reconfigurability and do not provide any security measures.
- Managed switches, however, allow for customization. They let you monitor and control your network, allowing you to shut it down in case of a threat. Additionally, a managed switch will enable you to determine what traffic you want to prioritize and create virtual LANs. These features come at a price, as managed switches are far more expensive than unmanaged switches.
The future of network switches
Because network switches, despite their modernization, are still designed to perform relatively basic network connectivity, it’s unlikely that they will go anywhere any time soon. We can expect future switches to provide ever faster speeds to keep up with the demands of heavy network usage.
However, as more companies outsource to cloud service providers, we may see a significant decrease in widespread switch usage within the next decade. Using a third-party Network as a Service (NaaS) company frees a business the time and money to maintain and operate its network infrastructure.
Additionally, the streamlining of technology may see standalone, specialized hardware switches become redundant as switching duties are allocated across various more capable devices.
For example, the distinction between switches and routers has been blurred for years. Confusingly, most routers can perform switching processes, and Layer 3 switches can also take on routine tasks. While switching and routing are still considered separate functions, some experts feel that the term “router” is no longer appropriate for today’s devices, as they are essentially “degenerate Layer 3 switches, with additional security and management capabilities.”
Purchasing network switches
Switches are integral to network building and growth. Still, the price of new hardware can be a challenging obstacle between a fully featured, high-functioning system and an outdated, unsafe environment. Thankfully, refurbished network switches can be purchased at a significant discount compared to brand-new ones.
Savvy administrators will buy pre-owned switches and other equipment from a trusted seller. These components are often sold under warranty and have the added benefit of real-world use, meaning that bugs, quirks, and vulnerabilities will already be documented.