Networks are critical for supporting business, fostering communication, providing entertainment, and beyond. A key component of every network is the network switch, which allows devices within the network to connect to transmit data and share resources. The network switch operates at the Data Link layer of the OSI model (layer 2). It receives packets being sent by devices connected to its physical ports and redistributes them through the ports that lead to the device to which the packet is intended to go. They are also able to work at the network layer, layer 3, where routing occurs. While switches are used in networks based on ethernet, Fibre Channel, ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), and InfiniBand, the majority of switches use ethernet.
Once a device is connected to a switch, the switch makes note of the device’s media access control (MAC) address, a code imprinted in the device’s network-interface card that attaches to the ethernet cable that connects to the switch. The switch utilizes the MAC address to identify where packets are being sent from and where they need to be sent to. The MAC address recognizes a physical device rather than an IP address. When a device sends data to another device, it enters the switch which reads it before determining what to do with it. The switch then matches the destination addresses and sends the data through the appropriate ports to the desired destination.
To minimize the chances of network traffic collisions, most switches provide full-duplex functionality, meaning packets going to and from a device have access to the full bandwidth of the switch connection. To better understand this, think of the difference between talking to someone on a cell phone versus a walkie-talkie. As stated, though switches operate at Layer 2, they can also operate at Layer 3. This is necessary when supporting virtual local area networks (VLANs), which are logical network segments that span subnets. For traffic to get from one subnet to another, it must pass between switches. This is done by their built-in routing capabilities.
Switches come in many sizes depending on how many devices need to be connected as well as the type of network speed or bandwidth needed for those devices. In a small office, a four- or eight-port switch is usually sufficient, but in larger setups you may find switches with up to 128 ports. Switches also differ in the network speeds they offer, ranging from Fast ethernet (10/100 Mbps) all the way up to speeds of 40/100 Gbps. Switches can also offer different capabilities. The three main types are unmanaged, managed switches, and smart/intelligent switches.
Unmanaged switches are the most basic type and offer fixed configuration. They are generally plug-and-play, meaning there are limited options for the user to choose from. The benefit of these switches is their low cost. Managed switches provide more functionality for business settings. They support simple network management protocol agents that provide information used to troubleshoot network problems but can also support VLANs, quality of service settings, and IP routing. Finally, smart/intelligent switches are managed switches that provide more features than an unmanaged switch but fewer than a managed switch. They provide a good middle ground option, as they are more sophisticated than unmanaged switches but still less expensive than fully manageable switches.
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