“What is a network switch and what does it do?” Network switches explained & FAQs

We often get asked questions about network switches that are so simple, but so important! In this article our network engineers cover:

1. What is a network switch?
2. What does a network switch do?
3. How does a network switch work?
4. What are the types of network switch?
5. Switch vs router: what is the difference between a switch and a router?
6. How much does a network switch cost?
7. What is the difference between a network switch and ethernet switch?
8. When should you replace a network switch?
9. When choosing a network switch, what speed is suggested for good performance?

Let’s get cracking!

1. What is a network switch?

A Networks switch is a device used to connect devices within a wired network. A network switch provides additional ports to which devices can connect. These devices could be anything from Laptops, Printers, CCTV, Servers or even another switch. In an enterprise environment it is common to have multiple switches to provide the number of ports required.

2. What does a network switch do?

A Network switch connects devices that are part of the same local network. For example, a network switch provide connectivity between, Laptops, Printers and Servers, so that these devices can communicate across the network. In addition, some switches that support Power over Ethernet (PoE) can provide power and data connectivity to devices. A common example of this is using a PoE enabled switch to power a wireless access point.

3. How does a network switch work?

A network switch works by using the ethernet protocol (IEEE 802.3). Layer 2 switches use MAC addresses to identify devices and transfer frames between them. Layer 3 switches have the same functionality a layer 2 switches with the added ability to identify devices based on IP addresses.

4. What are the types of network switch?

There are many different types of network switches, however, here are some of the most common types of switches.

Layer 2 – Layer 2 switches use MAC addresses to identify devices and transfer frames between them. Typical use of a Layer 2 switch is at the network edge to connect as laptops, printers and sometimes access points.

Layer 3 – Layer 3 switches have the same functionality a layer 2 switches with the added ability to identify devices based on IP addresses. These switches often support other advanced features such as DHCP Servers and routing protocols. These switches can often be found at the distribution layer or core of the network. These switches can use fibre connections that offer faster port speeds. It is also common to see redundancy build into these switches with additional fans and power supplies.

PoE – These switches can provide both power and data to connected devices.

Non-PoE – These switches only provide data to connected devices.

5. Switch vs router: what is the difference between a switch and a router?

Switches connects devices within a local area network, for example a laptop and a printer. A router is the bridge between the internet and the local area network.

6. How much does a network switch cost?

Networks switches can cost anywhere between £100’s to £10,000’s of pounds and sometimes even more. The price of a switch depends on the capabilities of the switch.
The following list provide some of the factors that can influence the price of a switch.

  • Number of ports
  • Layer 2 or Layer 3
  • Fibre or copper ports
  • Power over Ethernet (PoE)
  • Port speed
  • Redundancy
  • Allow more 5GHz channels to be used by enabling DFS

7. What is the difference between a network switch and ethernet switch?

Both terms are synonymous and can be used interchangeably.

8. When should you replace a network switch?

Network switches can be replaced for a variety of reasons, but here are the most common:

  • If the switch is End of Life (EOL), this means that the manufacturer for this switch is no longer providing support or firmware updates. At this point, the switch can become a security risk as new vulnerabilities may not be patched.
  • The switch is no longer fit for purpose, for example if your current switch has ports that operate at 1Gbps, but you required faster port speeds, a replacement switch supporting these features is the solution.
  • The switch is at the end of it warranty period. It is a good idea to replace your switch once it’s out of warranty to ensure that your network is operational and guaranteed by the manufacturer.

9. When choosing a network switch, what speed is suggested for good performance?

  • 1Gbps connectivity is recommended for most client devices.
  • 2.5, 5 or 10Gbps is recommended for connections to servers and access points, especially Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7 Access Points.
  • 10, 25 or 40Gbps is recommended for connectivity to other networks switches and firewalls in an enterprise setting, depending on the network’s bandwidth requirements.

It is also important to consider the backplane capacity of the switch, to ensure that it can operate if all ports are active and operating at full speed.

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