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What Are the Different Types of Network Switches?

Understand the different types of switches available so you can make the right choices for your small business.

Choosing the right switches for your small business

Understanding the types of network switches will help you find the right solution to keep up with your changing business requirements. Think about the categories of switches as well as specific switch benefits as you explore your options.

Types of Switches

Modular switches vs. fixed-configuration switches

There are two main categories of switches: modular and fixed configuration. There are variations among these categories of network switches, but the primary definition of each remains the same. 

Modular switches

Modular switches let you add expansion modules as needed, giving you flexibility as network requirements change. Expansion modules are application-specific and include those for firewalls, wireless connectivity, or network analysis. They may also allow for additional interfaces, power supplies, or cooling fans. This type of switch provides you with the most flexibility, but at a higher cost. 

Fixed-configuration switches

Fixed-configuration switches provide a fixed number of ports and are typically not expandable, which makes them less expensive overall. Fixed-configuration switches include unmanaged switches, smart switches, and managed switches.

Unmanaged switches

Unmanaged switches are typically used to provide basic connectivity. They're designed to be plug and play; no configuration is needed. Unmanaged switches are most effective when only basic switching and connectivity are required. You will often see them in home networks or wherever only a few ports are needed, such as at a desk, in a lab, or in a conference room. 

Some unmanaged switches do offer limited advanced capabilities, however—as the name implies—these switches generally cannot be modified or managed.  

Smart switches

Smart switches offer some management and segmentation, quality of service, and security capabilities, so they can be a cost-effective alternative to modular switches. Still, they are not as scalable as managed switches. These switches are typically deployed at the edge of a large network (while managed switches are used in the core), as the infrastructure for smaller networks, or for low complexity networks. 

Managed switches

Among fixed-configuration switches, managed switches are designed to deliver the most comprehensive set of features to provide the best application experience, the highest levels of security, the most precise control and management of the network, and the greatest scalability. As a result, managed switches are usually deployed as aggregation/access switches in very large networks or as core switches in smaller networks. 

Managed switches are the most expensive option of fixed-configuration switches and are most common in organizations with large- or growing- networks.

Feature Options

Four switch options to keep in mind

In addition to evaluating switch categories, you should also consider network switch speeds, number of ports, power-over-Ethernet features, and stacking capabilities.

  1. Switch speeds
    Switches are available in different throughputs or speeds, the rate they transmit data in megabits per second (Mbps). For example, fixed-configuration switches can provide Fast Ethernet (10/100 Mbps), Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 Mbps), Ten Gigabit (10/100/1000/10000 Mbps), and even 40/100 Gbps (gigabits per second) speeds. The switch speed you choose depends on the type of throughput you need. If, for example, you need to move large data files on a regular basis, you should consider a Gigabit Ethernet switch.
  2. Number of ports
    As is the case with switch speed, the number of ports available in a switch can vary. The bigger your small business and the more network users you have, the more ports you'll need. Fixed-configuration switches are usually available with five, eight, 10, 16, 24, 28, 48, or 52 ports.
  3. Power over Ethernet (PoE) vs. non-PoE
    PoE lets you power a device—such as an IP phone, surveillance camera, or wireless access point—over the cable that is used for data traffic. This allows you to place endpoints anywhere, even in those areas that are usually difficult to reach. Switches with PoE are more expensive, however. As you evaluate your options, think about the devices you would like to connect to determine whether PoE is required.
  4. Stackable vs. standalone switches
    As your business (and your network) grows, you will likely need to support more and more devices, which will mean investing in more switches. Just as its name implies, a standalone switch is managed and configured as an individual entity with limited capacity. If there is a problem, troubleshooting is also switch specific.

In contrast, stackable switches can be connected to increase the capacity and availability of your network. Rather than configuring, managing, and troubleshooting each switch, you can treat the "stack" as a single unit. This means that if any part of the stack fails, the stack will route around the failure, so your network keeps running.

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