Network switch

What is a network switch and how does it work

With the increasing number of internet-enabled devices in a modern home, the need for more LAN ports is a common problem. Although Wi-Fi hotspots support mobile devices such as phones and tablets, a wired connection is still preferred for computers, game consoles, smart TVs, and large IoT devices that are expected to run 100 % time.

Routers often have three to five LAN ports. But what if you need more? That’s where a nifty device known as a network switch comes in. Let’s talk about it!

What is a network switch?

A network switch is a multiport network bridge that forwards data packets through a hardware (MAC) address to client devices. Some specialty switches also relay data through the network layer (IP), adding even more control and functionality to the network.

Basically, a network switch is a device that you connect to a router to provide more LAN ports, so you can add more internet-enabled devices to your network.

A network switch is also often used to organize many client devices (computer, smart TV, game console, IoT device, etc.) within a larger network configuration. Having an organized cluster of smaller networks on a larger network can help you manage your entire setup faster, provide better security, and reduce single points of failure within the system.


Managed and unmanaged switches

There are two classifications of a network switch: managed and unmanaged. The first and most common type of network switch is the unmanaged switch.

An unmanaged network switch is a switch that operates at Layer 2 (data link layer) of the OSI model, using MAC addresses to forward data packets to the intended client device. An unmanaged switch is an efficient and inexpensive option for low-budget home setups. It is a plug-and-play device that requires no additional configuration. If you’re planning on creating a home network setup, chances are an unmanaged switch is all you need.

Here is an image of the common unmanaged switch you typically find around the house:

Unmanaged Switch

For businesses and large smart home setups, adding a managed switch will allow you to set up your network faster and more conveniently.

A managed switch is a network switch that operates on the third layer (network layer) of the OSI model. It can forward data packets through MAC addresses while having the ability to route data through an IP routing table, allowing better control of the entire network.

Here is an image of an enterprise-level managed switch:

ICX switches managed by Brocade
Image Credit: Indhradhanush/Wikimedia

Managed switches are much more expensive than your usual unmanaged switch. Thanks to its routing capabilities, managed switches can create virtual LANs (VLANs for short), potentially replacing all other unmanaged switches. Network administrators can simply create virtual connections between client devices and assign them to a group or VLAN.

PoE-enabled switches

PoE powered IP camera
Image Credit: Olli Niemitalo/Wikimedia

Since 2003, PoE (Power over Ethernet) has been used on various network devices. Today, some network switches offer PoE features that make installing IoT devices and other hardware faster, easier, and safer.

PoE is a mode of supplying DC voltage to low-power devices through a LAN cable or, more specifically, an Ethernet cable. With a PoE-enabled network switch, low-power devices connecting to the switch will no longer need a dedicated power supply. This eliminates the need for more outlets, reduces the number of cables and gives the installation a neat look when it is not possible to hide the cables. A PoE-enabled switch is also safer because the output power is low and intelligently controlled, allowing non-professionals to install devices themselves.

There are currently two PoE standards on the market. These are PoE and PoE Plus. The only difference between the two is based on their maximum power output. Regular PoE can output a maximum of 12.95 watts, while PoE Plus can output up to 25.5 watts. Even with standard PoE, there are devices you can power, such as an IP camera, a Raspberry Pi, a small speaker, and various home sensors.

If you’ve ever been in the market for a network switch, you might have been confused as to why switches can have drastic price differences. You may have seen network switches with the same number of ports with significant price differences, or even that an 8-port switch is more expensive than a 16-port switch.

In addition to the elements discussed above, another important factor in the price is the speed of the ports. RJ45 cables (Ethernet cables), routers, modems and the speed of your Internet subscription are available in different bandwidth capacities. So, to make sure you don’t bottleneck the network, you need to use the right cables, connectors, and ports throughout your home network.

Here is a table of common port speeds in use today:

Type of ports Speed
Fast Ethernet (IEEE 802.3u) 100 Mbps
Gigabit Ethernet (IEEE 802.3-2008) 1000 Mbps
10 Gigabit Ethernet (IEEE 802.3a) 10 Gbps

The most commonly used port speeds today are Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet ports, while 10 Gigabit Ethernet is rapidly gaining popularity. You may even start to see 2.5G multi-gig ports.

If you’re on a tight budget, having a switch with one or more uplink ports should save you some money. Not all switch ports need to be the same speed; some may be faster and some may be slower. What is important is that the port connecting to your router and your server should be the fastest.

Which network switch is right for you?

A network switch is one of the basic network devices commonly used in various network setups. If you plan to set up a LAN with the security and reliability of a wired connection, you should consider finding the right network switch.

Your first consideration is often the number of ports you need. You may only need a few at the moment, but what if you need more in the near future? Always buy a switch with more ports than you need.

After deciding on the port number, you may also need to consider how fast each port on the switch should be. A switch full of Gigabit Ethernet ports may be attractive, but it’s also expensive. Consider buying a switch with one or two gigabit uplink ports if you really need faster bandwidth. Having a switch with only a few fast Ethernet ports is generally fine for home setups.

You can then decide whether you need a managed or unmanaged switch. If you’re building a budget home network and aren’t technically inclined to network, one or two unmanaged switches should suffice. For large corporate networks, you will always need a combination of managed and unmanaged switches.

Finally, determine if your switches should be PoE compatible. If you’re building a smart home with home sensors, surveillance cameras, and a host of IoT devices, a PoE-enabled switch is a must. A regular switch will do if you’re just doing a simple network on a budget.

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