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Many switches will look exactly the same as one another, so there is an assumption that they perform exactly the same functions as well. This isn’t actually the case as all switches fall into one of two categories: managed or unmanaged. Let’s take a look at both and explain some of the differences to help you decide which is best for you.
Managed switches are typically more complex and require some skill to set up and maintain, but allow for greater control over the network. Unmanaged switches are plug-and-play devices that come with a fixed configuration that cannot be changed but still provides an ethernet connection.
Let’s look at the key differences between these two types of network switches and help you decide which may be best for you.
What Is a Network Switch?
If you aren’t too familiar with what a network switch is, let me explain.
A switch is a piece of networking hardware that allows you to connect multiple devices together over a Local Area Network (LAN). Your home network is your LAN.
They use what is known as packet switching to filter out data and forward it to a particular device that you plug into it.
It may be easier to understand this concept if you think of a typical office environment.
As an example, a business has six PCs that they need to be able to communicate with each other to allow the sharing of files.
They would have a switch in place to which all six PCs are connected via a physical ethernet cable. The switch acts as a hub for the PCs allowing them to communicate with each other and be able to share the files.
Depending on the size of the business and how many devices they need to connect will determine the size of the switch they will need. Some switches will have as little as three ports available but they can go all the way up to having forty-eight ports.
Remember, it’s not just PCs the business may wish to connect to each other. They may also want to plug in some wireless access points to improve Wi-Fi coverage throughout the office or connect a printer that is accessible to all PCs on the network.
What Is an Unmanaged Switch?
Before discussing managed switches, let’s talk about unmanaged switches first as they are much less complex and easier to setup.
Unmanaged switches perform the simple function of allowing devices to communicate with each other without the need for any prior setup or configuration.
They are known as plug and play devices.
Simply plug it in and you having a working switch.
Unmanaged switches come with a fixed configuration set by the manufacturer, which cannot be changed.
This type of switch is typically used in smaller networks where the users are quite happy with the fixed configuration and wouldn’t need to make any changes.
The majority of switches found in home networks are likely to be unmanaged as people simply want a way of being able to connect their devices to their network over a physical Ethernet cable rather than having to rely on Wi-Fi.
What Is a Managed Switch?
Managed switches provide all the functions that unmanaged switches provide, but with some additional features thrown in.
They allow you to manage, monitor, and configure your home network in much greater depth, providing you with overall better control of the network traffic.
Managed switches give you so much control that you can configure each and every port on the switch to any setting you wish. This comes with the ability to better monitor and configure your home network in different ways.
This type of switch usually has a console that is accessible remotely, either by a command line or a web interface. This allows you to monitor the network or make changes without needing to be in the same physical location as the switch.
What are the Differences Between a Managed and Unmanaged Switch?
We now know that unmanaged switches are simple plug and play devices whereas managed switches require setup but come with a host of additional features for better overall management of the network.
Let’s take a look at some of the key features that a managed switch has that makes it different from an unmanaged switch, and some of the other differences.
|Managed Switch||Unmanaged Switch|
|Configuration||Can be changed||Fixed; cannot be changed|
|Setup||More complex||Easy; plug and play|
|Simple Network Management Protocol||Yes||No|
|Quality of Service||Yes||No|
|Spanning Tree Protocol||Yes||No|
|Cost||More expensive||Less expensive|
Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP)
Simple Network Management Protocol is a commonly used protocol that is considered the standard for managing and monitoring a network.
This allows for the status and performance of a network to be monitored without having to physically touch the switch at all.
Any issues can be identified and even fixed remotely thanks to the SNMP being in place.
Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs)
VLANs can be used to group devices together without having to run additional cabling.
Virtual Local Area Networks allow you to apply additional security to a group of devices or help to reduce unnecessary traffic.
As an example, in a home network, you may set up a gaming PC on a separate VLAN to your TV which is streaming Netflix. The VLAN will allow for the streaming traffic to not interfere with your connection to the Internet on the PC.
Quality of Service (QoS)
Quality of Service is a powerful and useful feature of a managed switch as it allows you to prioritize different types of network traffic and manage the available bandwidth you have.
Managed switches allow you to create rules so that some devices get priority of the packets of data before the remainder is given to the other devices.
Implementing QoS on a pair of devices that frequently transfer data between themselves by giving them the most bandwidth is a typical use case.
Port mirroring essentially helps you to diagnose any network problems that may arise.
It allows you to send copies of traffic that may be causing an issue to a single port on the managed switch for analysis.
A network analyzer tool would help to both diagnose and fix the issue without the need to take the network out of action.
Redundancy is a method of ensuring continued network availability in the event of an issue such as a network device failing or a traffic routing failure.
It serves as a backup mechanism that allows you to quickly swap over to a redundant side of the switch, which simply waits in stand-by until it is needed.
Redundancy can also be used to make copies of the configuration of a switch allowing for quicker setup of an additional switch or a replacement switch in the event of a failure.
This is a particularly useful feature for businesses that cannot afford the downtime as the setup and configuration of a managed switch from scratch will inevitably take some time.
Spanning Tree Protocol (STP)
Spanning Tree Protocol is similar to redundancy in that it allows the network to be designed in such a way that redundant links are available without the danger of bridging loops.
If the main link goes down, spanning tree will activate the link on standby and use that instead.
Bridging loops occur when there are multiple paths on a network that can cause packets to loop continuously around the network, often bringing some devices to a grinding halt.
This is much more likely to occur in a large enterprise environment than in a home network, hence why businesses will often invest in managed switches with this feature.
Port aggregation is a way of grouping together multiple ethernet links together, allowing them to act like a single logical link.
If you have a managed switch with several ethernet ports left empty, you can make use of them and connect them all to another device that also has more than one port available.
This can be used to balance the network traffic among the links and has the potential to improve overall performance.
Another benefit of having port aggregation setup is that it proves redundancy; there will still be a working connection between the switch and the device even if one of the individual links were to fail.
Put simply, managed switches can cost considerably more than unmanaged switches, but this is understandable given they come with additional features, controls, and functionality that you simply don’t get with an unmanaged switch.
When comparing different switches of the same time, you can typically expect to pay more for those that come with more ports.
Unmanaged switches with 8 ethernet ports can cost as little as $20, but as you add more ports, the price does inevitably increase.
Another model of unmanaged switch from the same manufacturer but with 48 ports will set you back around $250.
What Are the Different Types of Managed Switches?
Managed switches come in two available types: smart and fully-managed.
Smart managed switches come with fewer features and a limited number of options in regards to configuration than a fully-managed switch, but are much more affordable.
Fully managed switches come with all the bells and whistles we described above, offering everything you need to manage the network better.
Given how fully managed switches are considerably more expensive and come with features you likely won’t make use of, a smart-managed switch is probably better suited for a home network if you don’t want to go down the route of using a basic plug and play unmanaged switch.
A smart-managed switch is a nice compromise between an unmanaged switch that gives you zero control and a fully managed switch that is better suited to large enterprise environments in regards to features you will actually make use of and cost.
One of my favorites is the NETGEAR GS308E.
Do You Need a Managed or Unmanaged Network Switch?
When it comes to deciding between a managed, unmanaged, or even a smart switch for your typical home network, I would typically recommend an unmanaged or a smart switch.
I believe that a managed switch would be overkill for the vast majority of home users and you would end up paying considerably more for features that honestly wouldn’t get any use of or provide you with any real value.
When it comes to buying a switch, most people find themselves running out of ethernet ports found on the back of their router and so just want more to become available.
For this reason, I would suggest that most people save themselves a bit of cash and stick with a basic unmanaged switch.
They are very affordable, don’t take up too much space (providing you don’t go for the 48 port beasts), and tick the box of providing you with more ethernet connections.
Although an unmanaged switch will be best suited for most people, perhaps you are a bit more of an enthusiast or know that the fixed configuration that comes with an unmanaged doesn’t quite fit your needs.
In this case, I would still recommend not shelling out for an expensive managed switch, but going for a middle of the road smart switch instead.
They cost considerably less than managed switches whilst still coming with the features that you are more likely to actually make use of in a home network environment, like basic VLAN tagging and quality of service.
These two features alone can make a smart-managed switch worth it if you are looking to isolate your network traffic for better performance or are a gamer that wants to optimize your network connection for when you are gaming online.
Both managed and unmanaged switches are the same in that they provide a physical network connection to the devices connected to them, but differ greatly in regards to setup and skill needed, the cost to purchase, and features.
Unmanaged switches are simple plug and play devices that don’t require any setup but come with a fixed configuration that cannot be changed; useful if you simply want to provide a few devices around your home with a physical network connection instead of connecting wirelessly.
Managed switches, on the other hand, require setup before they can be used and require a certain level of skill and knowledge to use properly. They do come with a host of additional features though that allow for better overall control of the network.
As you can tell, there are several important differences between a managed and unmanaged switch. For you at home looking to build a home network, unless you are an enthusiast, I would typically recommend a simple unmanaged switch in most cases. If you want to go one step further, perhaps consider a smart-managed switch that comes with fewer features but is much less expensive than a fully managed switch which is really reserved for enterprise environments.
If you want to know more about network switches, check out some of my other articles:
- How Often Should a Network Switch Be Rebooted?
- Can a Network Switch Be Used as a Router?
- Does a Network Switch Have an IP Address?
- Network Switches That Don’t Require Power: Do They Exist?
- Can You Place a Network Switch in the Loft?
- Can a Network Switch Connect to Wi-Fi?
- What Is the Uplink Port on a Switch?