Tech Primer: What is a Switch?

In today’s world, people rely heavily on technology for communication; computers and cells phones are everywhere. Behind the scenes, though, complex equipment and technologies are in place that allow for communication to occur. One such important piece of equipment is known as a switch.

A switch is a device that enables networked devices to talk to one another. It basically acts as a controller that channels incoming data from one or multiple devices that are connected to its ports, to a specific output port that takes the data towards its targeted destination.  These devices are very efficient and fast when it comes to moving data around a network. Computers, wireless access points, routers, firewalls, phones, video equipment, and other switches are just some of the devices that are typically connected to a switch. Switches are found on all networks – in private homes, in schools and colleges, at huge data centers, and at businesses, small or large. Switches can be very simple or complex, depending on the need, and are generally broken down into two types – unmanaged and managed.

Unmanaged switches work right out of the box where no configuration is needed. Simply power it up and plug the devices into its ports. Communication will be immediate. Unmanaged switches generally have less network capability than managed switches, but are much are cheaper.

A managed switch, on the other hand, is a bit more sophisticated than its little brother. It has all the features of an unmanaged switch but is also configurable, allowing for control, management, and monitoring of the network traffic. With a managed switch you have the ability to:

  • control what devices have access to the network
  • prioritize time-sensitive data, allowing a higher priority for data traffic for certain devices (QoS)
  • logically segregate groups of devices, allowing only communication between them (VLANs);
  • provide redundancy with alternate routes for network traffic if a connection or cable fails as well as preventing network loops (STP)
  • monitor the performance of the network, determining the health status of devices (SNMP)
  • analyze or record data from all devices connected to its ports from a single port (Port Mirroring).

Managed switches are usually implemented on larger corporate networks or datacenters, and can be very expensive.

How do you know which is right for your needs?

If you’re a home user (not part of a large business network):

  • Unmanaged switch; there’s no need to manage or monitor a home network
  • Most often, your needs will be met via the equipment your internet provider supplies, i.e. the cable modem; it has a router/firewall/switch combination built into it. The ports on the device represent the switch technology (this is where you’d plug in your devices)
  • If you find you need more ports, however, you can purchase a switch with five to eight ports (usually under $50) from a place like Best Buy; go with brand names such as Cisco/Linksys, Netgear, HP, 3COM or Dell
  • Get a gigabit speed (most switches only come at this speed these days, anyway)

If you’re managing a business/company network:

  • Go with a managed switch so the network traffic can be monitored and managed
  • Use 24 to 48 port switch models, and go with the most common and trusted brand names (Cisco, HP, and 3COM)
  • Business switches are only available in Gigabit speeds
  • Make sure the switch comes with at least a one-year warranty (some manufactures such as HP offer lifetime on their managed switch models)