What Is a Network Switch, and Do You Need One?

What Is a Network Switch, and Do You Need One?

What Is a Network Switch, and Do You Need One?
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An integral part of a streamlined smart home, a network switch makes it possible for all components of your interactive home to work together. Learn how they work and how their performance compares to other solutions.

What Is a Network Switch?

Switches create a network. Routers connect networks. The two pieces of equipment look similar and perform some similar functions, but each has its own distinct function to perform on a network.

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A network switch is a rectangular device containing numerous Ethernet ports (from 4 to 24), each allowing you to connect a different device via an Ethernet cable and enabling those devices to communicate with each other.

You will also find network switches described as MAC (media access control) bridges, switching hubs, or bridging hubs. This variety of names describes their purpose: connecting devices from a single point of access. These devices can include:

  • Computers/smartphones/tablets
  • Wireless access points to which any device for a smart home is connected, from temperature sensors and water or smoke alarms to security cameras, smart lighting, and smart speakers
  • Servers
  • Printers
  • Hard drive/SSD storage
  • Smart TVs
  • Gaming consoles
  • Uninterrupted power supplies {UPSs)

Network switches allow you to view all devices connected to a newtwork and the users of those devices. Therefore, the simplest way to think of a network switch is to view it as a device hub: all the resources can be managed from that single network point, which has multiple ports for connecting various types of devices.

How Does a Network Switch Work?

Not all network switches are equal in their type and performance. Therefore, it is important first to understand broadly how they function to make our lives easier.

Whenever a device transmits data through a network switch, the switch groups data over the digital network in packets, directing them  to an appropriate communications port. This process is called packet switching. In other words, a network switch automatically assigns both the source and the destination address for every type of device connected to it.

These addresses are called MAC addresses. Every device that is capable of being plugged into a network has a unique code signifier, called a network interface card (NIC).

Accordingly, when a device is connected to a network switch, it sends a data package. The switch identifies it and directs the data package to where it is supposed to go, matching source and destination addresses. To smooth this flow of information so that there is no data packet collision between multiple connected devices, most network switches have a full-duplex (FDX) feature, just like a traffic light system.

FDX makes it possible to have simultaneous data exchange between source and destination addresses. For example, if you were to talk with a friend on a smartphone, it is natural that you would sometimes talk over each other. To do this on a walkie-talkie, you would have to manually switch from end-conversation mode to talking mode. In this sense, network switches with FDX perform more like smartphones.

Why Do I Need a Network Switch?

Nowadays, people mostly rely on Wi-Fi hotspots to connect all of their devices. However, the LAN represents a vastly faster way to exchange data. For example, what if you want to watch a 4K movie on your smartphone, but it is on your desktop computer’s hard drive?

You could manually transfer that 10+GB movie by plugging your smartphone into your desktop via USB cable. You could also place the movie into a cloud storage drive so you could access it wirelessly with your smartphone via Wi-Fi once it finishes uploading to the cloud. However, this would not only be slow but also use a massive amount of your internet data traffic.

In contrast, the fastest and most elegant solution would be to plug your smartphone into a network switch. All desktop computers and laptops have Ethernet ports to form a LAN, with the most common Ethernet speeds between 1,000 Mbps and 10 Gbps. With a simple USB Ethernet adapter, you can plug your phone into a network switch and access that movie from your desktop computer at lightning speed, even if it’s on the other side of the house.

You can go even further. Why not have your own home media server, functioning as the hub for multiple computers and devices to connect multiple hard drives, with a network switch directing the flow?

Solutions such as network-attached storage (NAS) offer integrated network switches as a ready-to-go approach combining storage and networking. These are just some examples in which network switches form the backbone of streamlined device interconnectivity.

Managed vs Unmanaged Switches

For most commercial purposes and home usage, unmanaged switches are fairly inexpensive plug-and-play network switches. In other words, when people want to use more Ethernet switches, they get an unmanaged network switch, also commonly known as a LAN switch. Without the need for customization, they are perfectly suited for small businesses, offices, and homes.

In contrast, managed network switches offer enterprise-grade functionality and control. Therefore, they are more expensive. Thanks to their built-in dashboard interface, usually displayed via a web browser, they provide the network administrator with tools to fine-tune the network via command-line interfaces (CLIs).

These tools range from troubleshooting and monitoring traffic to cutting off access to certain websites for certain users on the network. The latter is possible with the creation of virtual LANs (VLANs), or partitioned network layers. Such a capability also means that physically moving a workstation doesn’t require network admins to completely reconfigure it.

Furthermore, customisable, managed network switches are divided into manual and smart types. The latter provides greater intuitive control, while the former allows for full control over all aspects of the networking architecture.

Conclusion & Recommendation

As a rule of thumb, if you live in a larger household with more than three devices active at the same time, a network switch will likely come in handy. For such purposes, unmanaged network switches with four to eight ports should be more than sufficient, and you can find plenty of worthy candidates under $50. The NETGEAR 8-Port Gigabit EthernetUnmanaged Switch is a top choice.

However, if you have younger children, closely monitoring their internet usage will be easier with a managed network switch. As time goes by, it will provide you with the tools you need to protect them from dangerous and psychologically harmful internet content. The TP-Link smart managed switch comes with a very affordable price tag.

Finally, power over Ethernet (PoE) switches are an option. Either managed or unmanaged, they not only provide network connectivity but can also power compatible devices. Needless to say, this greatly reduces cable clutter. Keep in mind though that to make use of PoEs, you need to check that they can power your particular connected devices.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are the Differences between Hubs, Switches, and Routers?

While a switch allows multiple devices to be connected to the same network, routers allow different networks to interlink. They most commonly come as a part of an internet service provider’s (ISP’s) internet package.

Such a router typically has a Wi-Fi connection and Ethernet ports and connects to the external ISP network to deliver the internet. A network switch only provides greater flexibility between devices once that external network has been delivered by the ISP.

Unlike a network switch or router, a network hub has no routing tables or intelligence on where to send information and broadcasts all network data across each connection.

Why use a switch over a router?

A router allows your ISP to connect you to the internet. In turn, the device gives you a unique IP address, representing the network’s exit point from an internal to an external network. Unlike a router, a network switch only allows your internal network to be shared across multiple devices.

Is the number of ports important?

Given that eight-port network switches have become quite common in the under-CAD$40 price range, it makes no sense to go lower than eight ports for your network switch. After all, you never know if you will need to connect more devices. However, those switches with 24 Ethernet ports can rarely be found under CAD$70.


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