Types Of Switches In Networking

A network switch is an important component of a network deployment, but there’s no one-size-fits-all switch. There are different types of switches and the type you need depends on several factors. Choose the wrong switch and you won’t get the high-performance level you need.

Here are the types of switches in networking:

  • Modular Switches
  • Fixed Configuration Switches
    • Unmanaged Switches
    • Smart Switches
    • Fully Managed Switches

Ethernet network switches typically fall into two main categories:

  • Modular switches
  • Fixed configuration switches

I’ll explain what modular and fixed switches are, then explain the different types of switches that fall into these categories.

Switch Categories: Modular And Fixed

So Ethernet switches fall into two categories: modular and fixed. With so many types of switch available, it can be difficult to choose the right one if you’ve been tasked with selecting the appropriate one.

Before we look at the differences between unmanaged, partially managed, and fully managed switches, I’ll explain the difference between a modular and fixed switch.

What Is A Modular Network Switch?

A modular network switch is a computer network switch that you can modify over time as your needs change.

Modular network switches give you more flexibility than a fixed switch because you can add and change components as your requirements change. For instance, you could add additional network interfaces using line cards. You can also add expansion modules such as firewalls.

Modular network switches aren’t as widely available as fixed switches. Modular network switches aren’t as popular as fixed network switches, which explains why you don’t see them as much.

What Is A Fixed Network Switch?

A fixed network switch is a network switch with a fixed number of ports. Typically, these switches cannot be modified or added to in the same way that module network switches can.

Fixed network switches have a fixed number of ports. For instance, the switch pictured below has 8 ports. This is a fixed network switch, meaning that you cannot expand upon it and add more ports.

The UniFi Switch 8. This is a managed fixed network switch. This means you cannot expand upon the 8 ports available. Image: ui.com

So that’s a brief look at what modular and fixed switches actually are. But we need to break it down further to the types of switches that fall into these categories.

Fixed Configuration Switch Types

There are 3 main types of fixed configuration switch:

  • Unmanaged switch
  • Smart/Partially-Managed Switch
  • Fully Managed Switch

These switches all work differently and are appropriate for differing purposes. You need to make sure you choose the right type of switch for your business or the one you purchase may not actually meet your requirements.

First and foremost, I’ll explain what an unmanaged switch is and how it works.

Unmanaged Switch: What Is It And How Does It Work?

An unmanaged switch is a plug and play solution. You simply plug it in and it works, with no configuration required.

Unmanaged switches allow the devices plugged in to communicate with one another. You plug these devices in and they communicate without any configuration needed. This is could be a benefit or a drawback depending on the way you look at it. It’s a benefit because it allows your devices to communicate and sit in the same network. On the other hand, an unmanaged switch enables devices to communicate and that’s it – you have no control over it.

If you need anything other than this core function of an Ethernet switch, an unmanaged switch simply won’t work for your business. There is no way for you to make changes to how the switch works and configure it to meet your needs. As a consequence, it’s going to hold your business back if you want a switch that you can adapt to meet your requirements.

Netgear 24-port Gigabit unmanaged switch. Purchase here on Amazon.

One advantage of an unmanaged switch is they’re an easy to use solution. You connect your router and the switch, then plug devices into your switch. That’s all you need to do to connect all your devices to the same network. Another notable advantage is how inexpensive unmanaged switches are. Unmanaged switches are much cheaper than partially-managed and managed switches.

Unmanaged switches are dumb (which isn’t an insult!). Technically, an unmanaged switch would be called an unintelligent device. They just forward the data packets from the router to all the ports. You can’t assign certain ports for certain devices, which is ineffective in commercial environments. Furthermore, if you plug a PC into an unmanaged switch, that PC has access to all the data being sent through the switch. That’s a potential concern in terms of security.

So that covers what unmanaged switches are and how they work. Let’s take a look at smart switches next, which are also known as partially-managed switches.

Smart Switches (Partially-Managed): What Is It And How Does It Work?

Smart switches are a good option for businesses that want some of the capabilities of a fully managed switch but don’t want total control.

Smart switches offer some basic management features, such as:

  • QoS (Quality of Service) features
  • Security features
  • VLAN creation

Smart switches are ideal for businesses needing an inexpensive piece of hardware with some of the key features of more expensive, complex switches.

Cisco SG200-26FP 26-port PoE smart switch. Image: Cisco.com

Smart switches can also be used as part of a larger network, however; they aren’t just for businesses with lower requirements. For instance, smart switches are often deployed at the edge of a large network. In this scenario, more expensive and capable fully managed switches would be used at the core of the network. At the edges of a large network, you can use partially-managed switches where requirements are lower and money can be saved.

The features that you can manage differ from smart switch to smart switch. The management interface will be more basic than a fully managed switch, but the elements you can manage will depend on the network switch you purchase.

Fully Managed Switch: What Is It And How Does It Work?

Fully managed switches are the most advanced switches available. They offer the most comprehensive set of features and entire control over the switch.

Here are some of the management features you’ll usually have with a fully managed switch:

  • Management over ports (turning ports on/turning them off)
  • Quality of Service configuration
  • VLAN creation and configuration
  • Network access control
  • Link aggregation configuration

Managed switches are most widely used as aggregation switches in large networks, but are also used as core switches in smaller networks. Managed switches are a necessity in large networks, because only fully managed switches offer all the configuration features that are needed.

Managed switches are advantageous in numerous ways. First and foremost, they enable the user to customise the switch to completely fulfil their needs. You can tweak your switches as required, typically through a web interface, to ensure your network is as efficient as possible. Secondly, managed switches are exceptionally versatile because of the modification options available to you. As your requirements change, you can modify managed switches so they continue to fully meet your needs.

Tips For Picking The Appropriate Switch

Now I’ve explained the different types of switch that are available to you, you could be wondering how on Earth you’re going to choose the right networking switch.

The type of switch that you need is highly dependent on your circumstances. For example, the size of your business and the requirements you have in terms of how much control you’ll need over your switch’s settings. However, here are some general tips and considerations to keep in mind when choosing which type of switch is the best for your needs.

  • Consider the number of ports you need: Before purchasing a switch, you need to seriously consider how many ports you’re going to need. How many devices will you need to connect to your switch? If you’re going to purchase a fixed switch, this is an essential consideration before you make a purchase.
  • PoE or Non-PoE?: When choosing a switch, you must consider whether it needs to be PoE or non-PoE. PoE is an acronym of Power over Ethernet. Power over Ethernet is a feature that enables you to power devices using Ethernet cables from your switch. For instance, an IP phone or a wireless AP. If you’ll be wanting to power devices using your switch, ensure you choose a switch with PoE listed as a feature.
  • Modular or fixed?: You also need to choose between a modular and fixed switch. As I mentioned before, you can easily add to a modular switch as your requirements grow. However, they aren’t widely available. On the other hand, fixed switches are widely available but cannot be expanded upon with modules. You need to think about which of these switch types suits your requirements the best.

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Jack Mitchell

Jack Mitchell has been the Operations manager at telecoms and MSP Optionbox for more than 4 years. He has played a crucial role in the company, from marketing to helpdesk, and ensures that the IT requirements of over 300 clients are continuously met. With his innate passion for technology and troubleshooting and a particular interest in Apple products, Jack now delivers the most comprehensive tech guides to make your life easier. You can connect with Jack on LinkedIn.

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