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What Is a Network Switch?

A network switch connects computers to a local area network (LAN). A LAN is an internal network that’s connected to the Internet via one or more routers. Routers connect two or more LANs.

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Network switches provide connectivity between devices such as PCs, printers, servers, and other networking equipment. They’re often used in small offices, home offices, and schools.

How Do Switches Work?

Network switches use hardware called ports to connect computers and other networking equipment. Ports are similar to telephone jacks. Each port provides a connection point for data transfer.

Each port contains a unique identifier known as a media access control address (MAC address). When a computer sends data to a switch, it uses its MAC address to identify itself. The switch looks up the MAC address in a table and determines which port to send the data to.

The switch routes the data based on its destination. In most cases, this involves sending the data through a router. Routers let you share the Internet across several locations.

The process of determining where to send data is called switching. A switch does not move any data; it simply forwards packets of information to their destinations.

Switches come in three basic types

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Unmanaged, managed, and layer 3.

Unmanaged switches do not contain any intelligence. They forward data based on the source and destination addresses contained in the packet.

Managed switches include built-in intelligence to perform complex tasks such as load balancing and failover.

Layer 3 switches are designed specifically for high-speed communications. They’re typically used by large companies and organizations.

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Managed vs. Unmanaged Switches

Unmanaged switches don’t require any configuration. They work automatically without human intervention. 

Managed switches require configuration to operate correctly. They usually have a web interface for configuring settings.

Layer 2 vs. Layer 3 Switches

Layer 2 switches operate at the Data Link layer. They handle frame forwarding and error correction.

Layer 3 switches operate at the Network layer. They determine how to route data packets to their final destinations.

Which Type Should I Buy?

If you plan to install a single switch, you probably won’t need anything beyond simple to unmanaged switch. However, if you plan to add multiple switches, you may want to consider buying a managed switch. Managed switches offer better performance and reliability than unmanaged switches.

If you’re planning to build a network infrastructure for a business, you’ll likely need a layer 3 switch. These switches can be expensive, but they’re ideal for larger networks with lots of traffic.

When choosing a switch, look for features like gigabit Ethernet support and redundant power supplies. Gigabit Ethernet supports speeds of 1 Gbps per second. It’s faster than 10 Mbps Ethernet.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Switches?

Pros

  • Easy installation
  • They’re inexpensive

Cons

  • Limited functionality
  • They lack redundancy
  • You must configure them manually

You might also hear people refer to switches as hubs. While a hub is technically correct, it’s more common to call them switches.

FAQs related to Network Switches:

How Many Ports Does a Switch Have?

The number of physical ports varies depending on the type of switch. For example, a managed switch usually has four to eight ports. An unmanaged switch usually has only two to six ports.

Does a Switch Require Power?

A switch doesn’t require power because it operates using electrical signals.

Is a Switch Wired or Wireless?

A wired switch connects directly to the router via cable.

A wireless switch communicates wirelessly with nearby devices.

Do All Switches Support the Same Features?

No, not all switches have the same capabilities.

Are Switches Expensive?

Yes, they cost hundreds of dollars.

How Much Storage Space Does a Switch Need?

Most switches include a small amount of storage space.

How Much Storage Space Does a Switch Need?

Most switches include a small amount of storage space. Some models even come with an external hard drive.

How Do I Install a Switch?

Switches are easy to install. Just plug one end into the wall outlet and connect the other end to the router.

You don’t have to worry about configuring IP addresses or setting up passwords. A switch does this automatically.

How Long Will a Switch Last?

Some switches are designed to last several years. Others are built to withstand heavy use for just a few months.

How Can I Make My Network More Secure using a Switch?

A switch isn’t inherently secure. However, you can protect your network by adding security features such as firewalls and VPNs.

For example, you can block unauthorized users from accessing specific resources. You can also prevent hackers from gaining access to your computer systems.

How Can I Manage Multiple Networks Using a Single Switch?

Many switches allow you to assign individual settings to each network.

For example, if you have a home office, you may want to turn off DHCP services for that network. Or you may want to change the default gateway address for that network.

In addition, most switches provide advanced routing options. These let you direct traffic between various networks.

What Are the Benefits of Using a Switch Instead of a Router?

Routers are expensive. They’re also bulky and difficult to move around.

Switches are much smaller than routers. Many are less than half the size of a standard desktop PC tower.

They’re easier to transport. Routers often weigh more than 100 pounds.

Switches are more flexible. Routers are typically limited to providing connectivity between two or three computers.

Routers cannot be used to extend a network across a large area. Switches can do this easily.

What Is the Difference Between Wired and Wireless Switches?

Wired switches connect directly to the router via cables.

Wireless switches communicate wirelessly with nearby devices.

Both types of switches work well for small offices. But wireless switches are better suited for larger businesses because they require fewer wires.

Wireless switches are also ideal for homes. Most wireless switches operate on 2.4 GHz frequencies.

These are the same frequencies used by cordless phones. So interference can occur when multiple wireless devices share the same frequency.

If you live in a multi-dwelling unit (MDU), you may prefer wired switches. MDUs often have wiring problems. And these units frequently interfere with each other.

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