Understanding Network Switches

When working on building out a data center, or organizing a simple network room for a company, it is important to make the right decisions on what type of equipment you need to buy. If you’re not an IT expert with years of education and experience, the options can be quite overwhelming. One piece of equipment that many individuals and companies overlook is known as a network switch. Learning more about this piece of hardware will show why it should be a key component of almost every network design.

To put it simply, a network switch is a piece of hardware that allows multiple other devices to communicate with each other quickly and easily. They can also be used to connect multiple devices (PCs, printer, ect) to one device or connection type. A simple example would be connecting all the computers in an office to an Internet router or modem so that all the computers can access the web at once.

Choosing a Network Switch

Switches are used in almost all network situations ranging from a small home setup to massive data centers. In people’s homes, most people have a piece of hardware from their Internet Service Provider (ISP), which they plug devices into, or it operates wireless. This piece of hardware has a switch built right into it so it can handle multiple connections at a time.

In large corporate environments or data centers, a switch will typically have 48 (or more) individual ports going into it. Each port will have a speed at which the device connected to it can communicate. These speeds range from 1 MBPS on the low end, all the way up to 1 GBPS, or even faster, for higher end equipment.

The number of ports and the speed of the switch are the two main things that one must evaluate when purchasing a network switch. It is good to remember that you don’t have to use every port in the switch, so ordering one that is bigger than you strictly need can leave room for growth. Likewise with the speed, a switch that can communicate at 1 GBPS can be configured to slow down a port to 100 MBPS, for example, if that is what is needed. Of course, you don’t want to invest more money than is needed so it is best to try to determine the right switch based on your current needs and the projected needs for the next year or two.

Managed or Unmanaged

Another thing you’ll want to consider when choosing a switch is whether it should be managed or unmanaged. In the past this has also been referred to as a ‘smart’ switch or a ‘dumb’ switch. The difference between the two are as follows:

  • Unmanaged Switch – This type of switch allows you to turn it on, plug devices in, and let it run. It will pass traffic freely without any rules or restrictions.
  • Managed Switch – A managed switch can be configured to only pass certain types of traffic. It will typically also have some troubleshooting options built in, and much more. Managed switches are usually going to be used for corporate environments as they can improve efficiency and add a lot of security to the network environment.

Housing a Switch

On the inside, a switch is basically a computer that is designed to do one specific task. Like all computers, you will want to make sure your network switch is kept in a safe place that won’t get wet, won’t get too hot, and won’t get bumped or dropped. In addition, since switches typically have a lot of cables going into them, you need to make sure that these cables aren’t pulled or damaged.

Ideally, a switch should be mounted in a computer rack located in a data center. Rack mounted switches will be able to operate with far fewer problems because the airflow is optimized, which can keep it running at the proper temperature. Of course, a rack will also provide physical protection from bumps, cable pulls, and other issues.

If you are unable to get a rack at this point, a switch can operate on a shelf or other secured location within your facility. Just make sure that nothing is covering the switch up that could restrict airflow, and that it won’t ever get wet. Keeping it in an air-conditioned location is also going to help ensure the switch doesn’t run into any issues. another alternative is using universal rail kits or “L” brackets, which also prevent drooping.

One last point to make about a network switch is that they can often be a ‘single point of failure’ for many environments. Large companies and data centers will have redundant switches running, but smaller environments often don’t want to invest the money to have a backup switch on site. With this in mind, it is very important to always keep your network switch in as safe of an environment as possible.

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