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Understanding the role of switches in networking

NetworkTigers discusses the role of switches in networking.

There are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data generated each day. Moreover, this rate has only increased in recent years, with at least 90% of existing data generated over the last five years. With billions of people online all day and night, keeping up with the latest innovations and developments online means increasing the speed and potential with which we access the internet. Having slow data connections or limited network capacity is unacceptable for most businesses and individuals today. 

What does a network switch do?

A switch is a fundamental building block of an efficient network. Switches allow information sharing more easily by processing data packets and directing traffic within the network. A switch might connect computers, printers, data servers, wireless access points, and more. 

Switches, ethernet hubs and routers

Don’t confuse a network switch with a wired ethernet hub. While both are wired hardware devices, switches are far more efficient for most networks. Hubs are, at this point, outdated hardware for most businesses with the advanced capabilities of switches. 

A network switch operates on Layer 2, the data link layer, as opposed to the physical layer of the OSI model. Switches offer many more ports than ethernet hubs and multiple options for collision domains. A hub, on the other hand, is a simple repeater that lacks signal processing.

Meanwhile, a router provides internet functionality by directing or routing signals from a modem to all other networking devices. Routers connect more extensive networks, whereas switches connect devices within the network for more ease and increased functionality. 

The three kinds of network switch models

One way to categorize network switches is by their physical hardware setup. From this perspective, there are three common kinds of network switches. 

  1. Fixed: Fixed switches are less expensive but not as useful for customization or expansion. In fixed switches, ports, interfaces, power sources and cooling fans cannot be adapted, added or altered. Fixed switches may be managed, unmanaged, or even smart devices. 
  2. Stackable: Some switches are stackable, even if they are fixed. Fixed switches are stackable when they involve a backplane cable interface that can connect two or more pieces of hardware to make one workable switch. Stackable switches may share power supplies, which creates an advantage if one of the switches malfunctions. It may still be able to draw power from the others. Stackable switches also offer increased data speeds compared to individualized devices. A stackable switch may be an excellent early investment for smaller businesses hoping to expand, as they allow for continued manageable growth without too high of an upfront cost. 
  3. Modular: Modular switches offer the most flexibility, as well as the most capacity for personalization. Modular switches are also known as chassis-based switches. Switch cards can be swapped in and out of a larger chassis or structure with the capacity for repairs and upgrades on the fly. A card that fails in a modular switch can be swapped out without downtime for the rest of the network. Power supplies and fans are also more customizable in a modular switch setup. 

Key considerations in different kinds of network switches 

Beyond the physical setup, many other elements define different kinds of network switches. You may want an endlessly customizable device to suit the needs of a larger, shifting network. On the other hand, you might want something you can install and forget about once it’s there. What kind of switch you need will decide factors like up-front cost and maintenance needs. 

Unmanaged vs. managed switches

Smaller businesses and localized networks, such as conference rooms, laboratories or home offices, may avoid investing in unmanaged switches. As the name suggests, an unmanaged switch is typically a “plug-and-play” piece of equipment. It does not involve a network administrator or oversight once activated. Unmanaged switches like a KVM extender (keyboard, video, and mouse) can ease your existing routine without causing too much change in your setup. 

Installing managed switches, on the other hand, is a much more advanced undertaking. Network professionals and IT specialists usually customize managed switches. Managed switches can provide the best security, more precise network control, and increased scalability. Managed switches are most commonly used by medium to larger-scale businesses looking to invest in the best data privacy and top-speed access. 

Smart switches

A smart switch may be a good intermediate option for those seeking to streamline how much of their network is customizable. Smart switches only provide options for specific settings like VLAN creation, port aggregation or duplex modes. Otherwise, they function more like unmanaged switches. Smart switches are most commonly configured through a web GUI.

PoE switches

A PoE or power-over ethernet switch might be the best choice if you need your switch to power your devices. PoE switches send voltage along the same cables that transmit data. Because of this, they can power devices like security cameras, smart lighting, or wireless access points. PoE switches are often more expensive than those without PoE capacity but are invaluable for networks with additional needs. 

When choosing a PoE switch, bear in mind the maximum wattage capacity. As WiFi 6 becomes more standard, the usual IEEE 802.3af standard may not suffice. Additionally, not all devices are compatible with PoE switches. 

Layer 2 vs. Layer 3 switches

Layer 3 switches are becoming more popular as they combine some features of a standard Layer 2 switch and a router. A layer 3 switch can connect multiple devices across a LAN or VLAN using MAC addresses and connect to a broader network using IP addresses. This increased capacity often comes at a higher up-front cost but may be a more practical option. 

Best practices when investing in a network switch

When investing in a switch, bear in mind the needs of your specific network. Not all switches are created equal. Many provide advanced capabilities designed to be run by professionals, customized for specific scaled scenarios, or provide power to devices. 

  1. Budget: A network switch is a critical piece of gear. When building your budget, consider other factors, such as replacement risk, professional IT management, and repairs, alongside the upfront price of the hardware. 
  2. Versatility: Do you need scalability and the option to add additional ports? If so, a stackable switch might be the best option. 
  3. Speed: Check to ensure the switch you’re considering will suit your speed configuration needs. 
  4. Customization: How much do you need to be able to customize your network? Do you have the professional capacity on hand to run a managed switch?
  5. Power: If you need a power-over for your devices, you need a PoE switch. 

Answering these questions can help you decide which switch to buy for your networking needs. 

Gabrielle West
Gabrielle West
Gabrielle West is an experienced tech and travel writer currently based in New York City. Her work has appeared on Ladders, Ultrahuman, and more.

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Understanding the role of switches in networking