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Unlocking the Power of the Network Switch

A switch is a device which – simply put – connects all the elements of your network. It acts as the bridge or control unit for computers, printers, servers, and all manner of other devices to communicate with each other.

Network switches are sometimes referred to as bridging hubs, switching hubs, and MAC bridges, and they are most commonly of the ethernet type.

How do switches work?

A MAC (Media Access Control) address is the unique identifier every piece of hardware has assigned to it. They are reliable identifiers used to differentiate between devices sending and receiving data on the network.

Switches operate at Layer 2, and they learn the MAC addresses of the connected devices, allowing them to filter or forward decisions for every frame received correctly. Routers, on the other hand, route IP packets based on IP addresses at Layer 3.

The reason the switch is so powerful is due to a technology called packet switching. When a device sends a data packet to the switch, it can determine where the intended destination of the packet is and send it to that device alone. Network hubs, by comparison, send the packets on indiscriminately to all connected devices. By having the switch send data only to the intended device, the switch prevents overloading the network with traffic, conserving bandwidth, and performance for all users. They are essentially traffic cops managing busy crossroads.

Every port on a switch is in a different collision domain — so a switch is a collision domain separator — but all the ports on the switch are still in a single broadcast domain.

Why are switches growing in popularity?

Switches might seem like an old technology that surely can be replaced with something new, but in fact, demand for switches continues to grow with more homes and businesses requiring better connectivity and higher capacity. IoT devices are increasingly being added to home, office, and industrial networks, and switches help manage bandwidth and relieve pressure from WiFi networks. As more businesses move to remote workforces, cloud switches are key for ensuring businesses can keep up with modern working methods while also ensuring their network users are well-served.

Industries that are going through rapid digital transformation, such as healthcare with virtual medicine solutions, and agriculture with connected farming devices, will continue to require the most reliable, stable, and fast connections between their various network devices to ensure the benefits of digital technology can be realized.

What are the different kinds of switches?

Depending on your network requirements, there are various kinds of switches that can be used, and there are many things to look for based on the spectrum of your needs.

  • Unmanaged switches – These are simple switches for basic networks, which are easy to install and use; typically, they are plug-and-play. They have limited capacity, however, and usually only have a few ports. For SOHO (small office/home office) purposes, WiFi speeds are constantly improving, but if you are regularly sending large files, or use programs requiring large chunks of bandwidth, using an unmanaged switch to connect your network could be a good option.
  • Managed switches– These are more complex switches that can be used for businesses with greater needs and IT expertise. They allow for more flexibility and capacity across the network and can be customized to fit your business use. Some examples of management features are the ability to link bandwidth and duplex settings, configure of Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) and Shortest Path Bridging (STB) features, port mirroring, and Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) monitoring of device and link health.
  • Smart switches – Traditionally, managed switches are controlled by IT teams, but to appeal to businesses in need of complex networks without a robust IT team, smart switches (or “partially-managed” switches) tend to have web-based interfaces to make it easier for organizations to control their networks without having to invest in deep IT expertise. This could be a good option for a business that needs a medium-sized network set up quickly and efficiently, and which can be managed with a lean IT team.
  • Cloud switches – As their name indicates, these switches are managed via the cloud. They can be more secure, allow for automatic updates, and are easier to manage at scale remotely. For SMB (small business) networks, cloud-managed switches could simplify network management by reducing the need for a highly-skilled onsite IT team, while also providing the complexity required for a growing business.
  • PoE (Power over Ethernet) — These switches remove the need for separate power adapters for the devices plugged into the switch: both power and data can be received over just one cable. It makes for a cleaner set-up for devices such as VoIP phones, IP Cameras, or wireless access points, and also means that the connected devices can continue to operate if the regular office power cuts out.
  • Harsh environment — Harsh environment switches are those built to be rugged, dust-proof, and water-resistant, so they can be used in applications that subject them to shock, vibration, or extreme temperatures. They are designed to be reliable so that systems can continue to operate in the event of a power outage or other such interruption; an example might be railways.

What are the different ways to deploy and optimize switches?

There are many different ways to utilize your switches to fit with your key unique organization requirements.

Deployment scenarios

  • Edge (access) switch — These switches are located at the edge of the network and connect to computers, printers, IP phones, IP cameras, and wireless APs. They have “uplink” ports that connect traffic to the aggregation switch.
  • Aggregation (distribution) switch — These are switches in the middle layer of the network. They are connected to edge switches on the downlink side and core switches on the uplink side. They aggregate the data from the edge and manage the flow of traffic.
  • Core switch — These are high capacity switches located in the backbone or core of the network. They act as the foundation of the network by connecting the edge and aggregation switches, and often connect the network to servers and storage, other external networks, or the Internet.

Switch stacking

Switch stacking allows for multiple switches to connect and behave as one single switch to better manage the flow of traffic in a network. This arrangement means the network administrator only has one touchpoint to manage, reducing complexity while also allowing for scalability and flexibility. For example, if you want to add capacity to your network and thus need more switch ports, you can simply add another switch to the stack without having to reconfigure the entire network.

Find out more about which switch is right for your business, and how D-Link can help you build a network fit-for-purpose, here.

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