Do you want to set up a high-speed, cost-efficient business network? If yes, you need to learn about network switches. Every company needs a business network to link multiple devices together. A Local Area Network (LAN) gives you privacy and security to share company data. It achieves this by controlling outsider access through a single-point connection to the public internet. That’s where a network switch comes in. Choosing the right switch impacts your LAN’s speed, router costs, and network efficiency.
In this article, I’ll discuss how network switches work, the different types of switches, and the important features you should consider when buying one. But to understand network switches, let’s first go over a few basic networking concepts.
Computer Networking Basics
In computing, a computer network consists of two interconnected devices that share resources and exchange data. Every network consists of nodes and links. Further, data passes from one node to another through a link.
A basic network link is the Ethernet cable—a standard cable that you plug into a modem or phone line to access the internet. But, technological advances have produced optic fiber cables that send data using light waves. Nowadays, we also have non-physical links like microwaves to send data wirelessly.
Nodes are the devices in any network and consist of two types: Data terminal and data communication nodes. For example, data terminal nodes include laptops, desktops, smart sensors, and mobile devices. These allow users to create and consume data. On the other hand, data communication nodes include routers and switches. These help pass data from one node to another.
Networks require data communication nodes because links have their limits. For instance, if you want to send data from one laptop to another on a separate floor, a cable won’t reach that far. So, you can send data from your laptop to a communication node. From there, the data will pass onto another communication node, and so on, until it reaches the other laptop.
Open Systems Interconnection
The Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model is a framework that defines the functions, rules, and requirements of networks. Essentially, it divides network operations into seven layers.
The first layer is physical and defines the hardware requirements and configurations. Then, the other layers define machine communication rules you can abstract in software. Each layer is responsible for different networking functions, which include displaying data for users, creating sessions and their security, dividing data into packets, and sending packets over the links.
OSI gives consistency to network communication because all device manufacturers and network software companies follow OSI layer rules and requirements. Thus, all devices can seamlessly connect to any network.
Now that you understand the common networking terms, we can look at switches in more detail.
What Is a Network Switch?
A network switch is hardware equipment that facilitates data transfer between devices in a LAN. Additionally, it’s a data communication node that operates in OSI layers 2 and 3. It transmits data to routers, other switches, and other data terminal nodes, scans the data it receives, and sends for any errors. Network switches work with all link types, including Ethernet cables, optical fiber channels, and wireless.
How Does a Network Switch Work?
Most network switches operate in OSI layer 2, which includes the physical hardware connections. Additionally, a layer 2 network switch has several ports where you can plug in multiple devices. Once plugged in, the switch assigns a unique alphanumeric identifier, or MAC address, to each machine.
When a device sends data, the switch scans its library of MAC addresses to identify the receiving device or devices. It then forwards the data packets to those devices through the appropriate port. So, layer 2 switches use hardware equipment to transmit data within a LAN.
However, some network switches operate in OSI Layer 3. Layer 3 is highly abstract. In this layer, network switches identify IP addresses to forward data packets. Moreover, these switches function like a router and a switch. Layer 3 network switches perform better than routers because they control layer 2 functions that routers cannot.
Below, I’ve summarized the differences between layer 2 and layer 3 switch operations.
Next, I’ll explain the 4 main switches available in the market.
4 Types of Network Switches
Switches vary by size as well as by the speed they offer. But they also differ by capability. Here are the 4 main types of switches based on their capability.
1. Unmanaged Network Switch
The most basic kind of switch is the unmanaged switch. These offer users preset configurations and limited optionality. They function as plug-and-play systems to increase connections inside a LAN. So, you can use them to connect extra local devices to the network. Unmanaged switches are inexpensive but have poor quality.
2. Managed Network Switch
Managed network switches have monitoring and control software for administrative ease. Consequently, they’re easier to configure and troubleshoot. In addition, you can control their access, power, and data usage remotely. Moreover, you can choose between fully-managed and semi-managed switches or smart switches. Fully-managed switches are expensive because they offer a broad range of configuration options. While smart switches offer limited controls, they’re cheaper compared to fully-managed switches. Thus, you can efficiently manage LAN using a fully-managed switch.
3. KVM Network Switch
KVM switches connect servers to a keyboard, monitor (video), and mouse. You use them to manage groups of servers from a single terminal. It uses a KVM extender to expand its range. The extended range allows machines to access servers locally or remotely. Consequently, you can centralize your company’s server maintenance and management using the KVM network switch. Data centers and businesses with many server machines use KVM switches.
4. PoE Switch/Injector
PoE switches provide devices with power and data. Thus, PoE switches power edge devices like IoT sensors in locations without power outlets. The upside of using the PoE switch is that your business saves expenses on electric cables. In addition, a PoE-capable switch is safer as well because it regulates its power output.
But what do you need to know before purchasing a switch?
5 Network Switch Features You Need to Consider
The features and functions of network switches vary based on the manufacturer. But, you must consider the following 5 general features before purchasing one.
You must consider the switch’s performance. For example, its speed, number of supported connections, and processor power. Latency is another essential network performance feature. Essentially, latency reduces the speed with which a user receives a result after making a request. Therefore, minimal latency ensures efficient workflow within the network.
The network switch you choose should allow as many configurations as your business needs. Managed switches offer many configuration options, which is why you can easily troubleshoot network problems using them. Moreover, switch configuration also helps you prioritize certain types of network traffic. For example, if your office relies on video more than voice traffic, you can configure your switch to prioritize video traffic.
As your company grows, you’ll need to add more and more switches to the network. However, your network’s performance can suffer if you don’t properly connect the switches. As a result, the switches you select must support group configuration and network orchestration.
The more devices you have in the network, the more ports you’ll need on the switch. So, choose a switch with as many ports as your company needs.
When buying a network switch, you’ll often need to trade off cost for features or vice versa. The more features you need, the more money you must spend. Thus, your company’s size and network needs determine which end of the stick you prioritize. However, buying an expensive switch doesn’t guarantee the expected results. This is because they don’t operate alone.
In the following section, I’ll compare the network switch to other critical network components.
Hub vs Router vs Switch
Hubs, routers, and switches are different types of data communication nodes. Primarily, they connect several devices. However, these connectors are different in the way they function.
The table below highlights their differences.
I hope the table clears any confusion you may have about network components. Next, let’s do a quick recap.
A computer network consists of nodes and links that operate in different OSI layers. Network switches are layer 2 and layer 3 data communication nodes. They forward data from one node to another. Furthermore, they use MAC addresses to transmit packets from one device to another within a network. Additionally, different switches have different properties that make them ideal for their specific use cases.
Before selecting a switch, you should know your company’s needs, like power, speed, and scalability. However, switches aren’t enough by themselves. You must also find suitable hubs and routers for complete network management.
Do you have more questions about network switches? Read our FAQ and Resources sections for more information.
What are some common problems with network switches?
Network switches can have hardware or software-related problems. The most common hardware-related problems include power, cable, and port failure. Conversely, software problems may include system errors, improper configuration, and lost passwords. Switch problems cause network downtime and affect business efficiency.
How long do network switches last?
Network switches can last up to five years but lose efficiency over time. At first, this reduced efficiency won’t affect your business operations unless they’re heavy. However, within five years, the switch and network performance lag will become more noticeable. At this point, you’ll need to replace the switches.
Can a network switch handle more than one network?
You’ll need a router to connect two or more networks. So, a layer 3 switch provides both switching and routing capabilities. The layer 3 network switch connects different LANs or VLANs using their IP addresses. While the layer 3 switch connects these networks, the router enables the connection.
How many network switches can you use in one network?
The number of switches you can use depends on your multi-switch configuration. Multiple switches expand your network and increase its bandwidth. You can connect multiple switches in various ways, including cascading, clustering, and stacking. Cascading offers an unlimited number of switches. However, the number of switches you can have in a stacked or clustered network configuration is limited.
Do network switches have a high electricity consumption?
The amount of power that a switch consumes depends on several factors. These include the switch’s size and the number of ports it has. Most common network switches use between fifteen and thirty watts of power. That’s around 0.72kWh per day, which is less than what a TV or computer system uses.
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