What Is a Switch Port?

Amanda Holland
Amanda Holland

On a network switch, the switch port is the physical opening where a data cable can be plugged in. Generally, switch ports are rectangular on three sides with a V-shaped point on either the top or the bottom.

A network administrator can configure each port in a managed switch to create a complex VLAN.
A network administrator can configure each port in a managed switch to create a complex VLAN.

A network switch is a piece of hardware that facilitates computer networking. It accepts physical connectors from computers and other devices on a network and then receives and forwards data using packet switching. Connecting various devices to the ports on a network switch allows them to interact with each other through data transfer within the switch. Most networking devices also connect to the internet, allowing the devices to obtain internet access through the switch ports.

On some switches, the ports are configured through a command-line interface.
On some switches, the ports are configured through a command-line interface.

How Many Ports Does a Switch Have?

The number of ports on a switch varies depending on the device’s function. A typical home router may have five ports whereas a switch for a large network may have up to 52 ports. The number of devices that can connect to an Ethernet switch is one less than the number of physical ports, because one port is reserved for the cable that connects the switch to the router.

A switch port is a rectangular physical opening that accepts a data cable.
A switch port is a rectangular physical opening that accepts a data cable.

Different Kinds of Switch Ports

Network switches are frequently used to create and manage VLANs. In this type of network, there are three basic types of switch ports: access, trunk, and hybrid. Each type of port has a unique function, and a standard Ethernet interface can function as any of these ports.

One port is designated for the cable that connects the switch to the router, so the number of connections a switch accepts is one less than the number of ports.
One port is designated for the cable that connects the switch to the router, so the number of connections a switch accepts is one less than the number of ports.
  • An access port connects a network host to a single VLAN and manages data traffic for that virtual network. Because data can only go back and forth on the designated VLAN, an access port handles untagged Ethernet frames.
  • A trunk port usually connects to another switch, and it’s able to interact with several VLANs. On a complex network with multiple VLANs, a trunk port manages data transfer to and from those virtual networks. To do so, a trunk port recognizes frame tags that specify the intended destination for the data.
  • A hybrid port can function like both an access port and a trunk port. It can manage both tagged and untagged frames, and it can receive data from more than one VLAN. Both user devices and network devices can be connected through a hybrid port.

Most network switches also have a console port that controls the operation of the switch itself. A user may connect a computer to the switch’s console port and then configure the switch using the computer’s interface.

Common Types of Network Switches

Although the term “switch” is frequently used to refer to various types of networking hardware, including hubs and bridges, these devices have different capabilities and applications. A hub simply retransmits received data packets out of every hub port whereas a switch determines which devices should receive data and forwards the packets only to the necessary ports. A network switch is more efficient and secure than a hub.

There are several different kinds of network switches. Each one offers different benefits, and the price may vary widely depending on a switch’s capabilities.

Unmanaged Switch

An unmanaged switch can connect Ethernet devices to each other in a network. The ports can accept Ethernet cables from computers, video game consoles, and other devices. This type of switch usually has plug-and-play functionality and is best for basic networks that don’t require customization.

An unmanaged switch can automatically change between half-duplex and full-duplex operation as needed. It can use half-duplex mode (transmitting/receiving data in one direction at a time) for efficiency and can switch to full-duplex mode (transmitting/receiving data in both directions at the same time) when necessary.

Managed Switch

As the name implies, a managed switch requires some hands-on oversight, usually from a network administrator. It offers the user more control and customization options than an unmanaged switch does. In this type of hardware, the administrator can configure each port based on the needs of the network.

Managed switches can be used to create VLANs and may serve as aggregators in very complex networks. Generally, these switches cost more than unmanaged switches. However, they offer unique benefits, including remote access for administrators and support for Gigabit Ethernet.

KVM Switch

Keyboard, video, and mouse switches reduce the number of cables needed to operate multiple computers or servers. With a KVM switch, a user can control several different computers or servers with just one keyboard, monitor, and mouse. Many models are programmable, allowing the user to create hotkeys that switch between each connected computer or server.

Smart Switch

Also called an intelligent switch, a smart switch is essentially a managed switch with limited options. This type of switch allows certain customizations. A user may be able to configure the duplex modes or use the smart switch to create a small and simple VLAN.

PoE Switch

A power over Ethernet switch distributes power (along with data) to connected devices. If a compatible device is connected to a PoE switch, it doesn’t need to be plugged into an electrical outlet to function. This type of hardware is an excellent choice for installing smart home devices, such as lights and security cameras.

How Do You Configure a Switch Port?

Managed switches and smart switches are configurable. Depending on the device, you may be able to enable or disable certain ports, set up port mirroring, control the bandwidth, designate access and trunk ports, or create a VLAN. There are several methods for configuring switches and ports, including command-line interface and Simple Network Management Protocol. You may be able to configure your switch through a web-based interface. The manufacturer should provide detailed configuration instructions.

A port is one of the most important aspects of network hardware such as home Ethernet switches or commercial network switches. While the ports on most switches are physically the same, you may be able to configure them for different applications. The function of the switch itself determines the requirements for the number of ports and their configurations.

What Are the Types of Switches in Networking?

For half a century, network switches only appeared in office buildings and corporate data centers. Welcome to the second decade of a new millennium, where savvy homeowners now use the devices to build entertainment networks and enhance home security. A network switch is a device that enables communication between computers and other programmable — now called smart — devices. The data traffic travels as packets, 1000 to 1500-byte bundles with routing information for the proper destination. With network switches going mainstream, it is worthwhile to understand what tasks they can perform.

Unmanaged Switches

Workhorses of the networking world, unmanaged switches link multiple devices to each other and a router. Modern unmanaged switches can automatically select half-duplex mode for one-way data transmission or full-duplex mode for simultaneous two-way communications.

Smart Switches

Smart switches automatically handle some network management chores and are less expensive than managed or modular switches. Smart switches typically offer a handful of configuration options for users. Networking giant Cisco recommends smart switches for small or low-complexity networks. To cash in on the booming networked gaming market, device manufacturers have introduced specialized smart switches with auto-diagnostics to keep players reliably online.

Managed Switches

A network technician plugging a laptop into a rack of switches is a common sight in any networked business setting. These managed switches are usually configured with a web browser interface and offer a host of capabilities. Controlling bandwidth and network access is a primary mission for these switches. A network designer can individually configure each port on a managed switch and build a network that is fast and highly secure.

Managed switches also enable the construction of virtual local networks. VLANs boost network efficiency and security by segmenting traffic. Wise homeowners increasingly put their Internet of Things devices on a VLAN to fend off internet predators.

Modular Switches

Unmanaged, smart and managed switches all come with a preset number of ports installed and fall under the fixed-configuration umbrella. By contrast, modular switches accept expansion accessories as a network grows. Typical expansion modules include:

  • Hardware firewalls
  • Network monitors for status and cybersecurity
  • Wi-Fi units for wireless connectivity
  • Cooling fans
  • Power supplies

Optional Switch Features

Beyond the different mission profiles of switches, optional features can enhance a network’s utility. Some features to consider include:

  • Speed: Data transmission speeds can run from 10 megabits-per-second to 100 gigabits-per-second. Gigabit Ethernet, 1000 Mbps, is on course to become a minimum standard.
  • Port Count: More ports enable room for expansion but at a higher cost.
  • Power Over Ethernet: Switches with PoE capability can power a network device over the cable connection, a boon for devices deployed in hard-to-reach locations. Surveillance cameras are a prime use case for this feature.
  • Stackability: Stackable switches can connect and function as a single entity for network administration. Better still, if one switch in the stack fails, the remaining switches can keep the network functioning.

Does a Switch Have an Ethernet Port?

A typical switch has between five and 52 ethernet ports. These ports conform to the eight-pin RJ45 standard and accept spring-loaded connectors. Ports typically connect to devices, routers or other switches with Category 5e or Category 6 cables. Cat5e is now the most widely used cable, but the more expensive Cat6 cables reduce crosstalk and are the connection of choice for PoE switches. With long connections that demand 10 Gbps speed, Category 7 cable is an option.

What Are the Different Kinds of Ports?

Setting the correct mode on a managed switch port is essential for creating a functional network. The ports on a managed switch perform in one of three modes:

  • Access Mode: In this mode, the port can only interact with a single VLAN. Access mode is the default setting for a port and typically connects to a network endpoint.
  • Trunk Mode: Sometimes called tagged mode, a port in trunk mode can interact with multiple VLANs and usually connects with other switches. Tag frames in the transmission classify the data by VLAN to enable the correct traffic flow.
  • Hybrid Mode: A port in this mode can manage both tagged and untagged traffic, handling the functions of both access and trunk modes. This mode thus enables connections to both IoT devices and other switches. Experienced network administrators can also implement sophisticated filtering on ports in hybrid mode, enhancing security.

In addition to the standard configurable ports, many switches feature a dedicated console port. This port enables a temporary physical connection to a computer for port configuration.

An Ethernet cable can connect computers, video game consoles, and other devices to a switch.
An Ethernet cable can connect computers, video game consoles, and other devices to a switch.
Amanda Holland
Amanda Holland
Amanda Holland is equally passionate about math and grammar, and she has incorporated both into her career. She spent several years as a signals analyst for the Defense Department, creating and editing reports for the intelligence community. After her two kids were born, she transitioned to a career as a freelance writer. When she isn't crafting content, she's usually reading, baking, or playing video games.

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Discussion Comments

EchoVision

A lot of networking terminology bled over from the telephone industry and in my short experience, it seems to me that a lot of telephone network experts are also pretty well versed in data networking practices and procedures. "Switch" is one of the oldest concepts in telephony, along with "patching," which is used in telephony, data networking and audio/visual technologies. In learning data networking, it seems one inadvertently becomes at least passingly familiar with telephone networks operate.

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