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