While all network switches transfer data from point A to point B, there are significant hardware and software differences between enterprise-grade switches that impact any IT infrastructure deployment. Let us examine the various types of network switches that are currently available on the market.
1. Unmanaged, intelligent, and controlled switches
Understanding the management and configurability of a community change is one of the most important purchasing decisions a network architect must make. For small branch locations or work-from-home offices, an unmanaged change may be suitable. The majority of these switches are plug-and-play models that permit multiple units to communicate within a single broadcast domain. Due to their limited capabilities, unmanaged switches are significantly less expensive than their intelligent and managed counterparts.
When comparing the differences between intelligent and managed switches, things become somewhat confusing. Technically, both units are technically manageable. In general, however, network equipment distributors that sell intelligent switches tend to omit most of the more advanced features, leaving only virtual LAN (VLAN) creation, basic quality of service settings, port aggregation, and a few Spanning Tree Protocol options. In contrast to command-line interfaces, sensible switches are typically configured via a web-based GUI (CLI).
However, managed switches are at the top of the switch food chain. These switches provide dozens to hundreds of configuration options, many of which are incredibly useful for medium- to large-sized business LANs. In addition, management of these devices may include a graphical user interface (GUI), but they are typically managed via the command line interface (CLI) for speed and simplicity of use by trained network professionals.
2. Layer-2 & Layer-3 switches
Keeping the focus on managed switches, these can be further subdivided into two distinct function types. Depending on where they operate on the OSI model, they are sometimes referred to as Layer 2 and Layer 3 switches. Layer 2 switches are also referred to as multiport bridge switches, whereas Layer 3 switches are commonly known as multilayer switches.
Layer 2 switches can intelligently transfer knowledge frames between ports on the same VLAN. However, information that must be transmitted between VLANs, also known as inter-VLAN routing, requires a device that can route IP packets. When utilizing Layer 2 switches, this step is usually achieved with an exterior router utilizing a one-armed architecture.
For large networks with multiple VLANs and diverse routing between them, it is typically simpler and more efficient to combine the capabilities of a Layer 2 switch and router into a single hardware and software device. Exactly this is what a Layer 3 change does.
Instead of relying on an external device to route traffic between VLANs, a Layer 3 switch can be configured to do so via its own internal switching backplane. Consequently, for LANs that require a routing element, a Layer 3 change reduces the community equipment footprint and improves performance compared to one-armed designs that rely on an external routing element.
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3. Power over Ethernet switches
Energy over Ethernet (PoE) is the capability to transmit low-voltage power over the same twisted-pair copper cabling used to transmit and receive data. This feature is used to power wireless access points (APs), IP telephones, and a variety of IoT devices.
If PoE is not required in any capacity, non-PoE switches are the more cost-effective option. However, for those who require PoE, additional steps are required to ensure that PoE endpoints receive sufficient energy.
IEEE-mandated PoE standards specify the maximum wattage that can be transmitted over copper cabling. Depending on the endpoint, a certain type of power may be necessary. A typical IP telephone, for instance, can be powered via PoE using a PoE port that can transmit up to 15.4 watts (W) of power. However, modern Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E APs may require significantly more power to operate. Therefore, a PoE change that can only deliver IEEE 802.3af standards will not suffice.
4. Fastened, modular and stackable switches
From a physical standpoint, network switches are available in three distinct hardware configurations:
- Fastened switches. With fastened switches, the ports, interfaces, power supplies, and cooling fans are fixed and cannot be changed, added, or removed. Additionally, fastened switches cannot be stacked on top of other switches to create a single logical change to manage.
- Stackable switches. Stackable switches are fixed switches with a backplane cable interface for connecting multiple switches together to form a single logical switch composed of two or more physical switches. This can increase the speed of change-to-change data transport and simplify the management of the stack by treating multiple physical switches as if they were a single switch. Some stackable switches are even capable of sharing power between each stack. Consequently, if a switch in the stack experiences a power failure, it will likely continue to function by utilising unused power capacity from other switches in the stack.
- Modular switches. Modular or chassis-based switches enable the insertion of change playing cards into a large, fixed-form-factor chassis that can help two or more playing cards. As change interfaces can be swapped out as necessary, such a modification offers the most flexibility and upgradeability. In addition, if a card on a modular switch fails, a local technician can replace it without shutting down the entire switch. Lastly, it is common for modular switches to allow for the replacement of power supplies and cooling followers in the event of required upgrades or failures.