Hub vs. Switch: What’s the Difference?

hub vs switchWhat’s the difference between a hub and a switch? These two pieces of networking hardware may look the same to laypeople, but they serve very different purposes in both home and commercial networks.

In this guide, you’ll learn the difference compare hubs and switches and the value of each component for your network. You’ll also learn the basics of Ethernet hardware and discover its purpose in business and home networking environments.

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What is a hub?

In simple terms, hubs are physical connectors for devices operating on a standard 100BASE-TX or 10BASE-T network. When a device is plugged into a hub, the data it’s sending out over the network is broadcast to all other devices connected to the hub.

For example, a hub with four different computers connected to it would send out data from all four computer without any type of specific addressing of the data. A hub doesn’t filter or address any of the data traveling into and out of it; it simply divides all of the network’s bandwidth between the various users on the network.

This has advantages and disadvantages. Setting up a hub for computer networking is very simple. In order to set up an Ethernet connection, users simply need to plug the PCs or other devices that make up their network into a centralized hub.

The disadvantage, however, is that if two or more devices use a significant amount of bandwidth – for example, a series of large file transfers between two PCs – all of the other computers or other devices connected to the hub will be subject to slower network speeds, as there is no throttling or division of bandwidth.

These features make hubs excellent choices for home networks where less than 10 devices will be connected to the network, or small business networks where large-scale bandwidth consumption is unlikely to be an issue. Hubs are generally a poor choice for large networks or networks with high bandwidth requirements.

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Stackable hubs

The number of devices you can attach to a hub is limited to the amount of ports that it contains. Hubs can contain anywhere from four to 48 ports. Most small businesses and home networks use hubs with between eight and 16 ports.

Large organizations that need to connect more than 48 devices using a hub can use a stackable hub to increase the amount of network connections they can manage. Sets of stackable hubs allow organizations with large computing and networking needs to scale their networks without having to invest in costly new equipment.

There are also other reasons to use stackable hubs. If one hub stops operating due to an electrical failure or broken component, backup ports can be created on the other hub and devices can be reconnected to the network without any needless downtime.

Do you want to learn more about the devices used in computer networking? Read our blog post, Basic Networking Concepts 101, for a beginner-friendly look at how computer networking works.

What is a switch?

While hubs are physical connectors for all devices operating on a network, switches are dedicated links between specific devices. On a switch, connections between PCs and other devices are isolated and dedicated, giving each pairing full bandwidth on the network and transferring data only between connected devices.

To use a simple analogy, a hub transmits a message across a network to any device that will listen, while a switch passes a message directly between two devices that are already involved in a conversation.

For example, a switch with four computers connected to it might only have two real connections: one between PCs A and B, and one between PCs C and D. Although each device is allotted its own 10 or 100Mbps of bandwidth, connections to not share any bandwidth and data is only transferred to devices that it’s intended to travel to.

Just like hubs, switches offer advantages and disadvantages for users and network administrators. Because switches assign 10 or 100Mbps of bandwidth to each and every device connected to the switch, there is no congestion or slow data transfer, which can be an issue when using a hub.

Having trouble understanding the difference? Think of a hub as a large road with a single lane. All traffic is forced to weave and flow, since the speed is determined by the entirety of the traffic.

Now, think of a switch as a highway with each lane separated by a barrier. The only factor determining the speed of each lane is the amount of traffic in the lane; other lanes aren’t a factor in determining the conditions.

Because switches are not held back by the bandwidth limitations that can affect a hub, they’re a better choice for large home networks with more than 10 PCs or an extremely high level of data transfer. They’re also the preferred choice for office networks where hundreds of PCs and devices are connected to each other.

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What is a router?

Many home users may be unfamiliar with both hubs and switches. This is because most modern home networks instead use routers to connect devices both within a local area network (LAN) and to an external Internet connection.

Routers fill a significantly different role from both hubs and switches. They connect with two networks – a local network within your home or office, and a wider area network (WAN) such as your home’s external Internet connection.

Most routers contain built-in switches or hubs that you can use to connect devices over Ethernet. Some contain a LAN port that can be used to connect a switch or hub to the router and create a local area network, as the router itself may not contain its own PC ports.

All routers have a WAN (wide area network) port that can be attached to an external modem for Internet connectivity. Finally, some routers contain an internal model for connecting to a remote Internet connection.

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Why the difference between hubs and switches is important

As a home user, you may not need to know the difference between the role a switch and a hub plays in computer networking. However, being aware of how data travels across a network is an important part of business computing that any modern web professional should count as part of their skillset.