Network switches connect different parts of a local area network (LAN) together. Each network device connects to the switch via a dedicated port. Once connected, a device can transmit data to and receive data from other connected devices. The number of ports a switch has varies from 4 ports for small, entry level switches through to 52 ports or more. Switches can also be interconnected for increased port capacities.
For small networks an unmanaged switch is a cost effective, plug and play network solution that has no configuration interface or management options. Smart switches provide a limited set of management features that allow basic settings to be managed via a web console. Fully managed or enterprise switches offer sophisticated traffic management and monitoring options and are suited to large or complex networks.
When buying a switch there are several things you need to consider. How many users do you need to connect to the network? The more users you have, the more ports the switch will need and generally the faster the transfer speeds will need to be. Remember that it’s not just people you need to factor - a user can be any device that needs to be on the network as well; so printers, VoIP phones, access points and cameras all count towards the total.
If your network needs to handle a lot of data, look for a switch that has Gigabit ethernet (GbE - 10/100/1000) ports which can automatically detect and use the fastest data transfer speed available between the sending and the receiving devices. Plan for the future as well rather than just thinking about your immediate requirements. Faster multi-gigabit switches are also available that offer better scalability and bandwidth as your business grows.
Many of the network devices you’ll want to connect to your switch will be PoE (power over ethernet) which means they draw their power via an ethernet cable connected to the switch. Make sure the switch you intend to buy has enough PoE ports to deliver the power you need for all the devices you plan to hook up. Some switches have PoE+ ports which can deliver more power than PoE models.
Switches are available in different form factors (physical chassis type). Some are designed to sit on a desk or be wall-mounted whereas others are rack-mountable and intended to be deployed in a server room or rack. Desktop switches are usually smaller, quieter and cheaper but typically lack the full feature set found on more enterprise, rackmount switches.
Finally, switches also vary by feature set so you’ll need to look at the specs to see which features a particular switch has to see if it meets your individual needs. Common traffic management features to watch out for include LACP, VLAN, QoS, IGMP snooping, and bandwidth control.