Network Switch – The Basics

The network switch plays an integral role in enterprise and home networking, yet many people confuse what the purpose of the equipment is, and how it differs from a router. I decided to write this blog post to explain the basics of the switch – from different types, to vendors for purchasing them.

A brief overview of network switches

A network switch is a type of computer networking hardware that bridges network segments. It is sometimes referred to as a packet switch or simply a switch. The switch plays an important component in most local area networks (LAN), including mid-to-large enterprise networks which utilize several linked managed switches.

A switch is far less sophisticated than a router. Although routers and switches look fairly similar in appearance, routers differ substantially in their internal components.

Types of network switches

Unmanaged Switches: This is typically the least expensive type of switch, most often found in homes or small offices. They are very simple, employing plug and play technology, lacking any specific configuration options

Managed Switches: Managed Switches provide optional configuration options and allow for a great variety of functionality. There are several ways to operate these switches, from utilizing a remote tool like Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), to accessing the switch via a command line interface like Telnet.

  • Smart Switches: Smart switches differ from fully managed switches in that they only allow a specific set of modifications and functionality. Because users can only configure basics settings, they are often cheaper than the fully managed breed. Some basic functions often found on a smart switch are turning some particular port range on or off, link speed and duplex settings and priority settings for ports
  • Enterprise Managed Switches: Enterprise switches are the more configurable and expensive version of managed switches. They are most often found in enterprise networks among several other switches. They are more efficient for large business where accessing a central administration module can save time and money. Some advanced functions for enterprise switches are VLAN settings, link aggregation and port mirroring.

Buying switches

There are several brand name switch manufacturers that provide competing and differentiated products, including Cisco, 3Com, and Alcatel. While switches can be purchased out of the box from online retailers, one way to save money is to find a used switch from an online reseller. A business purchaser can often save thousands of dollars purchasing used cisco or other brand name network hardware.

If you do decide to go the route of an online reseller, be sure to check for several qualifying factors to make sure they are a good fit. One factor is a good warranty, as it is always a risk to buy used equipment. Another is significant discounts (at least 50%) off of retail pricing. The third factor I recommend seeking in an online network hardware vendor is good customer support. The ability to speak to a human being for help with your purchase is underrated.

I hope this 'basic switch support' post helps out those that are confused or looking for a way to purchase a switch.