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  • Both managed and unmanaged switches allow for networks to be extended for additional devices
  • Unmanaged switches are cheaper, but offer little ability to customize or control features compared to managed switches
  • Managed switches offer more advanced security and access options than unmanaged switches, but need to be monitored by a professional

What is a Network Switch?

If you’re working on setting up a home or business network, you’ve probably encountered several hardware questions you don’t know how to answer. “What is a network switch, and why do I need one?” is a question we hear often. A network of computing devices works like a human body. If each device connected to the network is a limb, the network switch is the brain. The switch takes information from the “limbs”, processes it, and sends it back out to another part of the body to complete a specific action. When choosing between a managed vs unmanaged switch, though, things get a bit more complicated.

An unmanaged network switch is the simplest option. It takes in data from a single device and then sends it out to every other computer that’s connected to the switch. What if you need more advanced network capabilities or have a large number of devices to connect? In that case, you’ll need to invest in a managed switch. For more insight into the difference between managed and unmanaged switches and which type is best for you, keep reading.

Unmanaged switch

  • Simple
  • Extends existing networks
  • Allows for more devices to connect
  • Little customization options
  • Cheap

Managed Switch

  • Feature-rich
  • Built for networks with high traffic / users
  • Customizable security
  • Control access by device or location
  • Expensive, but available refurbished

An unmanaged network switch is the simplest option. It takes in data from a single device and then sends it out to every other computer that's connected to the switch.

Switch Control

To help you better understand the difference between unmanaged and managed switches, let’s extend the brain analogy a bit. Consider an unmanaged switch to be the proverbial “lizard brain”. It operates well enough to keep things running, but the survival of the network is the only thing it controls. It isn’t capable of higher-level thought. A managed switch, on the other hand, is more like a human brain—capable of complex thought and decision making. It can control how the data is processed and exactly where it travels. These switches will need to be programmed to meet your specific network’s requirements.

Some of the advanced options managed switches provide include:

  • QoS: Quality of Service technology lets you balance which devices have priority over limited data resources so the most important processes don’t get interrupted
  • VLAN: a Virtual Local Area Network helps you control which devices have access to each other to manage network traffic, even if they aren’t connected on the same physical LAN
  • IP Routing: this process lets computers send data packets to specific devices on another remote network
  • Port Mirroring: this process can be used on a LAN or VLAN to duplicate data to another port on the switch, which is useful for network monitoring and security

Having control over these features keeps even large, complicated IoT networks operating at peak efficiency. It also helps network administrators identify problems as soon as they arise.

In contrast, unmanaged switches offer almost zero control over the specifics of your network. These devices come pre-configured and don’t require any complicated setup. In many cases, all you have to do is plug your devices into the ports and you’re ready to go. If you have a tiny, uncomplicated home network, an unmanaged switch may be all you need. However, even small networks can profit from the other benefits managed switches provide, like increased security.

Security

Cybersecurity and network protection are topics that are on every business owner and network administrator’s mind. If your network handles sensitive client, business, or personal information, using a managed network switch can help keep it safe from would-be hackers. Setting up the aforementioned VLAN keeps information secure across multiple levels in your business by separating data streams. Installing management protocols with port mirroring lets network administrators watch for and address threats in real-time without putting a drain on limited resources. Some switches also provide network encryption and block unauthorized users from accessing sensitive data.

The one downside to managed switch security is that it needs to be monitored by a professional. If you leave your connections unwatched, someone can take advantage of security features that would otherwise be keeping your business safe. Even if you don’t believe your network needs the managed level of protection, it’s best to be aware of the added risks that come along with using an unmanaged switch. They don’t have any software-level protection—in many cases, the best you can do is use a lockable port cover to keep people from physically rerouting your data. You’ll need to prioritize other forms of hacking protection to keep your network safe.

If your network handles sensitive client, business, or personal information, using a managed network switch can help keep it safe from would-be hackers.

Cost

Because they’re a more complex piece of equipment with higher-level capabilities and controls, managed switches tend to be more expensive than their unmanaged counterparts. The cost goes up along with added ports and specialty features, but the variety of models and manufacturers to choose from means that you don’t have to worry about overpaying for functionality and capabilities that you don’t need. A quick online search will show you that the average managed network switch can cost anywhere from $500 to $3,500. Simpler models with more limited capabilities, often referred to as smart switches, tend to fall in the $150-$500 price range. If the price ranges of factory new managed switches fall outside of your available budget, it may help to look into buying a refurbished model. Refurbished managed switches are often sold with multi-year warranties and before they’re sold, go through a rigorous testing and inspection process to ensure that they offer the same performance and reliability of a new model. Purchasing refurbished helps to reduce electronic waste and can potentially save thousands of dollars and deliver the same performance.

An entry-level unmanaged switch will set you back a lot less, but keep in mind that you’re getting what you pay for. These range in price from tiny $20 home hubs to larger $150 models for small businesses. You don’t have to buy an unmanaged switch from a specialty provider. Stores like Walmart, Best Buy, and anywhere else with an electronics section sell them as “internet network hubs”. Keep in mind that buying from a big box store means you’ll be responsible for setting up and maintaining your network on your own.

Refurbished managed switches are often sold with multi-year warranties and before they're sold, go through a rigorous testing and inspection process to ensure that they offer the same performance and reliability of a new model.

Configuration: Managed switch

One of the biggest benefits of a managed network switch is its ability to be configured to your exact needs. Let’s take a closer look at some of the possible configurations for a managed Cisco switch and how they work.

What Are 10/100/1000 Switch Ports?
Switches connect devices to the Ethernet via uplink and downlink ports. These numbers refer to Ethernet speeds in megabits per second (Mbps). Cisco managed switches come in a variety of speeds, including:

  • Fast Ethernet (10/100)
  • Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000)
  • Ten Gigabit (10/100/1000/10000)

Some network switches with multigigabit tech have even higher speeds than these.

What Are SFP and SFP+ Ports?
While most managed switches come with standard Ethernet connectivity, they can also have Small Form-factor Pluggable ports (SFP). These ports can connect you to gigabit Ethernet and fiber-optic internet for faster connection speeds. SFP ports can support data speeds of up to 4.25 Gbps. SFP+, the new high-powered version of SFP, supports rates up to a whopping 16Gbps.

What Is PoE?
Power over Ethernet (PoE) capabilities let you direct power out of the switch and into another device. This allows you to put network endpoints in areas that aren’t easily accessible or are far away from other power sources. You can use this to set up Wireless Access Points, IP surveillance systems, and VoIP phone networks across the office.

What Is an IOS Image? What Are the Different Types?
Many Cisco routers and network switches run on Cisco Internetwork Operating System (IOS) software. This software is so named because it holds two different imprints of the system called IOS images. The boot image loads the network from scratch or after there’s been a corruption error. The system image is located in the device’s flash memory and runs during normal operation.

Depending on which Cisco IOS switch version you get, it will have one of these three feature sets:

  • IP Services: the highest level of service, comes with layer 3 features, best for enterprise-level businesses
  • IP Base: a moderate service level, has advanced layer 2 features, is best for smaller enterprise-level businesses
  • LAN Base: entry-level service, provides basic layer 2 features, best for small and mid-size businesses

Side note: The layer 2 and 3 features mentioned above refer to the OSI model, a framework that describes networking protocols in a series of layers. Layer 2 operates with data links (the sending and receiving of data packages) and can extend to MAC and LLC controls. Layer 3 uses switching and routing to create virtual circuits for data transmission.

Configuration: Unmanaged switch

While you can’t customize the configuration on an unmanaged switch, you can choose the model that best fits your needs. The main differences between unmanaged switches are the number and types of ports. You can usually choose between 5, 8, 10, 16, 24, 28, 48, and 52-port models. The main type of port you’ll find is a standard RJ-45 Ethernet connection, but some may have options for fiber-optic internet connections as well.

Netgear 48 Port Unmanaged Switch

  • Easy to install
  • Little setup required
  • Great for home or small business networks
  • Can purchase for around $50 at most electronics stores

Brands & Where to Buy

Here are the top brands of managed switches for your business’s network:

Cisco – Cisco managed switches are the top-end selection when it comes to managed switches. However, their software is not the easiest to use and will require a professional to setup. Cisco switches offer the most security & configuration options for your network. Cisco is definitely one of the most expensive brands, but provides the best features. You can find great deals on new & refurbished Cisco switches from SourceTech & Hummingbird Networks.

Ubiquity – Ubiquity’s software is a bit easier to understand than Cisco’s, although you will lose some level of control over your network as compared to Cisco. These switches are not as expensive, so if you are trying to save some money and don’t need all of the enterprise options that Cisco provides, Ubiquity switches are a great choice for your network. You can purchase them directly from Ubiquity or a reseller such as NewEgg.

Here are the top brands of unmanaged switches (routers) for your home network:

Netgear – Netgear’s unmanaged switches are generally the cheapest, but they also has some high-end models that are very reliable. You can get a low-end model at Walmart, or shop from Netgear directly and view their entire inventory.

Asus – Asus provides some of the best consumer-oriented home routers on the market. They can be a bit expensive – It’s not uncommon for these to run upwards of $300, but you get what you pay for. View Asus’s supply of high-end home routers.

Managed vs Unmanaged Switches: The Choice Is Yours

The answer to whether a managed vs unmanaged switch is best depends on your specific situation. Are you running a large enterprise, data center, or an operation that needs high-security network protection? If so, you would benefit most from a managed network switch. At-home networks, individual conference rooms in an office, or small labs may be fine with the unmanaged option.

If you’re looking for a network switch that matches both your needs and your budget, Source-Tech Systems has you covered. Check out our shop to choose from a variety of like-new refurbished Cisco switches at the lowest prices in the industry. When you’re ready to get started, contact us online to request a quote or give us a call. We’d be happy to answer any networking questions you have and get your network set up for success.