What is a managed switch?

Managed switches are devices which can perform all kinds of interesting functions. Here is a brief explanation of what they are and what they do so you can decide for yourself whether or not you should be interested in them.

What is a switch?

Before you can know what a managed switch is, you need to know what a basic switch is. A basic switch is just a piece of hardware which is used to connect devices on a network. The difference between a switch and a router is that a switch is designed to work within a network whereas a router is designed to connect networks together. 

These days, it’s possible to buy devices which combine the functions of switch and router, in fact at this point in time, it’s probably the standard in the private world and may be a feasible option for freelancers and the smallest of SMBs. The key point to note, however, is that even though the same piece of hardware may combine both functions, they are actually separate functions.

What is an unmanaged switch?

Managed and Unmanaged Switch

An unmanaged switch might be more accurately called an unmanageable switch, although that might not be great for marketing purposes. Basically an unmanaged switch is a switch which is pre-configured by its manufacturer and which allows few to no changes to this pre-set configuration. 

Depending on your point of view, this can be limiting or liberating. On the one hand, there is really very little you can do with an unmanaged switch. It is what it is and that’s all there is to it. On the other hand, if you’re a freelancer or at the smaller end of the SMB range and you just want a switch to connect together various devices and nothing else, then the “plug-and-play” simplicity of unmanaged switches could have a lot of appeal.

What is a managed switch?

As you may have guessed from the previous paragraph, a managed switch might be more accurately called a manageable switch and it’s basically a switch you can configure to suit your needs, wants and priorities. 

For the sake of clarity and completeness, not all managed switches are created equal. They have different levels of functionality and this is one of the two main factors involved in determining price, the other one being the number of ports the switch has, which is usually between 5 and 48 (although some switches can be “stacked” to provide more ports). That said, they will all tend to offer enhanced functionality (compared to unmanaged switches) in similar areas.

Security

At this point in time, the fact that managed switches offer the potential for enhanced security may well be their single, biggest selling point, especially for companies operating in heavily-regulated areas. In fact, any company handling sensitive/personal data should probably give preference to a managed switch, even if it means allocating extra resource not only for the managed switch itself, but also for the person to manage it as managed switches really only add value if you actually know what you’re doing with them.

Similarly, if your company regularly needs to give people short-term/limited access to your network, for example you employ a lot of temporary workers/freelancers, if only at certain times of year, then a managed switch could also be a very good idea.

For the sake of completeness, however, the security benefits of a managed switch depend entirely on it being managed properly, otherwise you could find that your security investment actually turns into a security nightmare.

Quality of service

Managed switches allow you to prioritize your network resources so that the most important data traffic gets sent ahead of traffic which can wait. For example, you might want to prioritize traffic related to communications between people over traffic related to jobs being sent to the printer.

Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs)

VLANs are basically when you use managed switches to group devices together through software controls rather than having your IT team go around the building and physically move cables around (which may involve moving people around so that the IT team can get at their desk area). In other words, they are an elegant solution to one of IT’s most irritating and time-consuming tasks. Using VLANs can substantially cut down on unnecessary traffic leaving more resource for genuinely essential tasks.

Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP)

This is essentially what the name says. It’s a basic, widely-understood and very popular protocol for network monitoring and management. Even the most basic of managed switches will almost certainly support it and it can be extremely useful.

Benefits of managed it services