Computer networking, the practice of linking two or more computing devices together to share data, is vital to how today’s digital technology works. When all the devices in a home connect to the same WiFi router, that’s networking. When a business wants to provide internet access to all its computers or exchange files between different branch offices, that’s also networking. 

Network switches are among the most important computer networking devices. A switch is a telecommunication device that joins multiple devices within one Local Area Network (LAN). Switches are Layer 2 devices in the TCP/IP and OSI models and break up collision domains, which negatively impact network efficiency. This article outlines how network switches work, the differences between managed vs unmanaged switches, and how to know which option is best for your needs.

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How does an unmanaged switch work?

At a high level, an unmanaged network switch works like this:

Devices (aka nodes) such as servers, laptops, and printers connect to a switch. The switch learns the MAC (media access control) address of the devices so that when data needs to send to a specific device, the switch sends it only to the port the device is connected to. When a wider broadcast message must be sent, a switch can send it to all devices across the LAN. 

This operation is fundamentally different than a network hub, which was once the go-to choice for networking. Hubs send all traffic to all ports, which significantly increases network congestion and slows network performance. Because of their ability to break up collision domains and reduce network congestion, switches are usually preferred over hubs. In some cases, network switches can power other network devices using PoE (Power over Ethernet).

How does a managed switch work?

Now that we understand how unmanaged switches work, we can dive into managed switches. One important note: managed switches work like unmanaged switches “out of the box”. That is, both types of switches are plug and play and will connect network devices with no additional configuration. However, an unmanaged network switch offers only this functionality and cannot be configured further. 

But what if you want to monitor your switch or adjust its configuration? That’s where managed switches come in. Think of managed switches as “smart switches” when compared to unmanaged switches. The benefits of managed switches include:

There are many different types of managed switches available from a variety of vendors. Cisco is one of the most popular switch providers, and many of the features in their managed switches have become industry standards. Some network switches offer Layer 3 functionality, meaning they deliver functionality comparable to a router. 

Many fully managed switches for enterprise networks can be configured via SSH, HTTP(S), or console port and offer advanced features and access controls. Other managed Ethernet switches may offer less functionality and only support connections using a web browser. Because of the variance in features and functionality, shopping for the right managed network switch is more nuanced than with unmanaged switches. 

Mastering Modbus TCP/IP Network Communication

Last Updated August 2020

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Learn how to design, build and troubleshoot Modbus TCP/IP client-server networks | By Emile Ackbarali

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Managed vs unmanaged switches: The pros and cons

The managed versus unmanaged switch comparison comes down to a simple tradeoff: Cost and simplicity versus features.

Unmanaged switches are cheaper and will give you basic functionality. Managed switches cost a bit more, but offer features that enhance network security, design, and performance. To break down some of the specific differences, take a look at this comparison:

When is an unmanaged switch enough?

With all the upsides of managed switches, why would anyone ever use an unmanaged switch? In short: cost and simplicity. 

If you are a home user or small office user, an unmanaged switch is often good enough to get the job done. If you won’t use the advanced features of a managed switch, an unmanaged switch can bring the same functionality at a lower cost.

When should you use a managed switch?

For businesses and other large networks, a managed switch is usually the way to go. The ability to monitor network performance and design a network to meet your requirements far outweighs the cost difference between managed and unmanaged switches. 

Pro tip: Most growing businesses will benefit from retrofitting their network with managed switches. Trying to scale unmanaged switches may not be worth the time and effort. If you expect your business to expand significantly in the next few years, consider going with managed switches from the start.

Want to learn more about network switches?

Now that you understand the differences between managed and unmanaged switches, learn more about how switches and networks work. Check out the Mastering Modbus TCP/IP Network Communication course. There, instructor Emile Ackbarali takes a deep dive into TCP/IP in a way beginners can understand.

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