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.
Managed switches are typically more complex and require some skill to set up and maintain, but allow for more control over the network. Unmanaged switches are plug-and-play devices that provide an Ethernet connection out of the box without any setup or configuration.
What Is a 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 to 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.
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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.
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 LAN (your home network) in much greater detail, providing 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 Is the Difference 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 to an unmanaged switch.
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.
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, 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 Nighthawk S8000.
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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 allows 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.