A network switch is a device that manages the sharing of multiple computers or networks on the same data connection. Another name for this device is a network bridge, which is a physical device responsible for routing and processing data within the open systems interconnection model. A network switch does not include hubs or repeaters, as these devices do not include any type of logical processors.
A network switch can support 10/100 Mbit/s (Megabits per second) or 10/100/1000 Mbit/s port transfer rates. It is possible to have multiple switches operating at different speeds on the same network. However, this type of setup lends itself to bottlenecks and restricts the possible routes available for the flow of data.
These devices are absolutely critical in the management of a computer network. They function as the traffic management system within the network, directing data packets to the correct destination. They are used to connect peripheral devices to the network and ensure maximum cost effectiveness and the ability to share resources.
A typical setup of a network switch is two computers, one printer, and a wireless router. All the devices are connected to the switch, and each item must be clearly identified and connection rules created.
Once the setup is done, any computer on the network, can use the same printer. All computers can transfer files to each other and anyone with a wireless card can access the network, print and transfer files. The switch is designed to allow the resources to be shared without reducing performance.
A simple analogy for a network switch is a policeman at a four-way stop. The cars are the data packets that are sent from each device as it attempts to communicate with the other devices in the network. The "policeman" directs traffic, sending the data to the right location, without having any collisions.
There are four main types of network switches. The four types are unmanaged switches, managed switches, smart switches, and enterprise managed switches. Each different types has its own strengths and weaknesses that need to be considered.
An unmanaged switch is the cheapest option and is typically used in a small office or business. These perform the basic functions of managing the data flow between a shared printer and multiple computers. They can either be desktop models or rack mounted.
A managed switch has a user interface or software offering that allows users to modify the settings of the switch. There are multiple methods for updating the network switch, ranging from a serial console to an Internet based application. This type of device requires a knowledgeable user to adjust the settings as needed.
A smart switch is the middle product offering between a unmanaged and managed switch. The user interface is web-based and set with the most popular default settings. Adjustments to one setting result in an automatic adjustment to the related setting.
An enterprise-managed network switch has a wide range of adjustable settings to allow use within a large company or organization. These are usually managed by network specialists and are constantly monitored, due to the size and complexity of the network.