Understanding the Types of Switches in Networking
What are the different types of network switches, and how can you choose the right ones as your business grows and your networking needs expand?
Updated March 11, 2021
In This Article:
One device can control a whole lot of your business operations.
These terms feel interchangeable, but here's why you shouldn't confuse them.
What are the most common types of network switches and what can they do for you?
Dig into some of the key specs that will help you decide which switches are right for your network.
When you're setting up a business network, knowing the difference between the types of switches in networking can make all the difference in your network speed and configuration. An Ethernet switch at its most basic function creates a local area network (LAN) of interconnected devices — but introducing other types of switches can give you more control over your data, devices, routers and access points. In this guide, we’ll help you understand the basic functions and advantages of various network switches so you can determine what type of switch is the best fit for your networking needs.
What is a Network Switch?
Top-notch networking gear is a must to keep your organization running smoothly, and a network switch is one of the basic building blocks of your network — simply put, it's a device that connects multiple devices together. Switches allow devices to share and transfer data, enabling communication between devices on the network. Switches work by processing packets of data and routing them to the intended destination(s). In a small business setting, for example, a network switch could be used to connect a computer, printer and server and pass data between all three.
For a more in-depth guide on the processes involved, read our article on How Ethernet Switches Work.
Network Switch vs. Hub vs. Router
While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, don’t confuse network switches with hubs or routers. Here are the key differences between these devices:
If you guessed that "KVM" stands for "keyboard, video and mouse," you would be correct. This type of switch is used to connect a keyboard, mouse or monitor to multiple computers. These switches are often used to control groups of servers while saving desktop space by eliminating cables.
A KVM switch is an ideal interface for a single user that needs to control the functions of multiple computers from a single console. These devices can often be programmed with keyboard hotkeys that let you easily switch between PCs. With the addition of a KVM extender, the reach of the switch can be extended several hundred feet by transmitting DVI, VGA or HDMI video signals. This configuration allows for local and remote access to the machines. A complete KVM solution lets you easily centralize server maintenance and management.
A managed switch is exactly what it sounds like—a switch that requires some oversight by a network administrator. This type of switch gives you total control over the traffic accessing your network while allowing you to custom-configure each Ethernet port so you get maximum efficiency over data transfers on the network. Administrators can tweak these devices for optimal data rate as new devices and users are added to the network through commands such as bandwidth rate limiting and port mirroring. Managed switches are also typically the best network switches to support the Gigabit standard of Ethernet rather than traditional Fast Ethernet.
Many administrators use managed switches to create virtual local area networks (VLANs), which allow you to further segment your network and control the traffic burden for each type of connected device. Another benefit of a managed switch setup is that the majority of managed switches are designed with Spanning Tree Protocol (STP). This enables administrators to perform quality of service (QoS) duties and access the switch remotely to make adjustments without having to be in the same physical location as the switch. Managed switches are often higher in cost than their unmanaged counterparts, but the payoff is that you have the freedom to create a network that runs at peak efficiency customized to the specifications of the unique devices on it.
Unmanaged switches are generally made as plug-and-play devices and require little to no special installation beyond an Ethernet cable. The setup of this type of switch relies on auto-negotiation between Ethernet devices to enable communication between them. The switch will automatically determine the best data rate to use, switching between full-duplex mode (where data is received or transmitted in two directions at the same time) or half-duplex mode (where data is received or transmitted two ways but only one direction at a time).
While some unmanaged switches may be accessed remotely, most will require the admin to physically make broad changes when setting up the switch. If you want a switch that will perform the basic functions of network efficiency without the need for customization, unmanaged may be the best the type of network switch for you.
Another popular type of switch in networking is the smart switch, also referred to as an intelligent switch. These devices are a type of managed switch with only a select number of options for management. Rather than providing the full management functionality of a managed switch, a smart switch may only provide functionality to configure a handful of settings, like VLANs or duplex modes.
If your network will not require a full set of customizations, a smart switch can be a good option. These devices are often more affordable than full managed switches while still offering more customization options compared to unmanaged switches.
PoE stands for power over Ethernet. A PoE switch distributes power over the network to different devices. This means any device on the network, from PCs to IP cameras and smart lighting systems, can function without the need to be near an AC access point or router, because the PoE switch sends both data and power to the connected devices.
While a PoE switch creates a PoE network that can support both Ethernet and PoE-enabled devices, a PoE injector takes it up a level. The injector takes a device with both PoE and non-PoE switches and uses those to create access points as needed for devices on the network using a Cat 5 cable or better to transmit the necessary electricity to function over signal wires. By utilizing the power of a PoE injector when needed, you can create a work or home network that runs efficiently without the need to have additional power supplies installed for various devices. However, not all devices are compatible with every PoE switch or injector. Be sure to check if your PoE switch is compliant with the 802.3af/at standard and if the device you want to connect can support that.
Key Features to Consider
When determining which type of network switch will be best for your business, keep the following considerations in mind:
- Budget. Managed switches can be more expensive than smart or unmanaged switches.
- Customization. Do you need to perform extensive customizations and manage or prioritize network traffic? If so, a managed switch may be necessary. If you only need to perform some basic customizations, a smart switch can be a good choice. If you don’t require any customizations at all, choose the plug-and-play functionality of an unmanaged switch.
- Speed. No matter which type of switch you decide on, be sure that the speed configurations match your needs. Look for Fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet, Ten Gigabit or faster speeds depending on your needs, although most businesses will find that Gigabit Ethernet helps network performance.
- Ports. If you will only have a few devices on your network, a limited number of ports may suffice. If your network needs are greater, however, be sure to choose a device with the appropriate number of ports. Some switches have up to 52.
- Stackability. If your network is expanding fast, a stackable switch can be a great option for fast configuration. Stackable switches allow you to configure multiple switches as if they were one, eliminating the need for troubleshooting individual switches. If the power fails or there's a problem with a port, a stackable switch will re-route around the problem.
- Power. If you want to power your devices with your switch, be sure to select a PoE device. As mentioned above, these devices provide network functionality and power.
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The different types of switches in networking all offer distinct advantages. We hope this guide can help you create a network that can accommodate all of your devices and grow as your networking needs expand.