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What is a network switch and why do you need one?

A network switch is a common and useful multi-port device that allows the creation of a wired network to connect the equipment in your office. Unlike a traditional hub which inefficiently pushes data to all of its ports at all times, a network switch actually directs the data running through it by prioritizing traffic to the connected devices that currently require it and withholding it from those that do not.

Why do you need a network switch?

An inefficient network can have a ripple effect on your company. Slow data transfers are frustrating and expensive. The time wasted due to laggy responses, downtime in the middle of projects, and waiting for even small tasks to be completed can add up over the course of a project. The bottom line is that a slow network means slow business.

A switch is essential for office environments with a large number of devices and computers running on the same network. However, even small home offices and bare bones operations will benefit from the increased speed and bandwidth offered by incorporating a switch into their traffic flow. Using a switch also allows for hassle free network growth and futureproofing. As your network expands to encompass more devices, more employees, and more computers, you don’t need to worry about its performance suffering as a result.

Companies that prioritize efficiency and forward momentum rely on network switches to keep their infrastructure speedy and their devices consistently communicating.

Three types of network switch

Switches come in a variety of configurations with regard to the speed they support, their physical size, and the number of ports on them. However there are three main types of network switch:

1. Unmanaged network switches

Unmanaged switches are usually “plug and play,” meaning that they’re set to predetermined specifications out of the box without the need for user configuration prior to incorporating it into their network.

This type of switch is a basic building block for most small networks in need of no-frills, set it and forget it connectivity. However, this simplicity is generally too limited for enterprise use due to its lack of customizable features.

2. Managed network switches

Managed switches are a more advanced, specialized option for those who have specific needs and requirements when it comes to their data traffic and security. They require configuration before installation and come at a higher price point than the unmanaged alternatives, so while they may not be the favored choice for the smallest businesses, they are indispensable for data centers and large networks.

3. Smart network switches

Smart switches find themselves in the middle ground between managed and unmanaged models. Smart switches tend to be a more affordable alternative to managed switches, although they are not as fully configurable which may prove to be frustrating for those looking under the hood for features such as IP multi-casting. Smart switches are an excellent choice for those seeking more options when it comes to their data traffic but who don’t need every bell and whistle to properly streamline their network.

What to know before buying a network switch

Keep in mind the following questions as you research network switch options.

1. How many users will be on the network?

How many employees will be using the network? Will they use it at the same time or do they work in different shifts? Do you anticipate growth in your staff and therefore your network? How much and over how long? Ultimately, the goal is to maintain a network that performs at its best for all connected users at all times.

2. How many ports will you need?

Consider not just the users on the network, but the devices. Printers, scanners, telephones, cameras, and everything in between comprise your entire network. Keep in mind that that as businesses grow, so does the need for devices and data. The number of ports you need today could be a limiting factor down the road. Futureproof your switch by getting one with more ports than you currently need.

3. Will I need power?

Some network switches provide power to devices along with data. These switches are popular in special circumstances because they allow for less cable and fewer power sources. While these switches will not power your desktop computer or copy machine, they are an excellent option for systems that include security cameras or other low power devices spread over wide areas. Consider a network switch with power-over-ethernet (POE) if your network is going to include security cameras that allow for that arrangement.

4. What about speed?

Switches are available in a variety of configurations supporting speeds from 10/100 Mbps to 40/100 Gbps. Most small businesses will do fine with middle of the road specifications supported, but be aware of the kind of data your network will be handling. A production office focusing on 4K video and graphic design will have very different requirements compared to a small insurance office transferring mostly documents.

Network switch summary

A network switch can simplify your infrastructure and keep your business humming along well into the future. With careful thought and consideration, an appropriately selected new or used network switch will allow you to:

  • Expand your network
  • Enjoy more bandwidth
  • Ease customization
  • Monitor your data
  • Remove traffic bottlenecks
  • Future proof your network

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