IF YOU WERE TO TRAVEL BACK in time to the early days of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, engineers would view modern-day network switches more like magic black boxes than configurable appliances that get packets where they need to go.
Even today, simple unmanaged switches fling packets between multiple devices at incredibly high speeds without any form of configuration—a marvel given the incredible complexity of TCP/IP networking. However, it’s the powerful managed switches designed for enterprises and backbone communications that are the wondrous unsung heroes of networking, fully configurable and scalable in every way, making communications possible between billions of devices.
And then there are “smart” switches. What the heck are those? As a network switch aficionado, I’d never say a switch is “simple,” but the difference between the various types of network switches used to be pretty straightforward—managed vs. unmanaged vs. backbone. However, the “smart” category of switches has made the market of business-oriented switches far more diverse. And with “smart” being something not clearly defined, choosing the right switch is far more difficult than it used to be.
If you’re the type of person who loves digging into the inner workings of network technology, you win! Prepare yourself for hundreds of hours of quality time with documents detailing the OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) model, network encapsulation, various abstraction layers, and communications protocols. Just be warned: There are no Xbox Live! achievements if you make it through to the end. For those who would rather drop a powered network switch into your next bath rather than learn what makes it tick (other than electricity, of course), then this next section is for you!
The Ethernet Switch Breakdown
Devices on a network need to send packets of data to one another, and switches help efficiently manage data communication between devices by eliminating or reducing network collisions (when more than one device in a collision domain tries to broadcast simultaneously). Ethernet switches operate at the data-link layer (layer 2) in the OSI model. There are multilayer switches too, but ones that operate at the network layer (layer 3) or higher tend to be called routers.
When comparing switches that operate within a layer—say, 24-port Ethernet switches—the major differences are whether various aspects of the switch can be configured. Unmanaged switches are preconfigured and can’t be customized, but the upside is that these switches are truly plug and play in environments that lack complexity.
Conversely, managed switches expose configuration options, usually through a command-line interface or a browser-based UI, and can often be centrally managed. At the high end, these customizations allow users to tweak just about everything. Want all traffic on a specific port to be considered a higher priority? No problem! Want to aggregate a few ports to act as one to increase bandwidth to a specific device? Simple! How about playing with the duplex or bandwidth settings for individual ports? Done! Want to program a specific route for specific packets from one device to another? Have at it!
Yet offering these customizable features comes at a cost, both in dollars and complexity. Surely businesses with large networks and those with complex needs fully utilize the customizable features offered, and are willing to pay for them. But SMBs often find these extensive customizations unnecessary. That’s where smart switches come in.
Keeping it simple, smart switches are like the SUVs of the auto world. Originally, there were either cars or trucks. Sure, some trucks were bigger than others and some cars smaller, but it was still cars and trucks. (Let’s ignore the existence of big rigs, okay? Just work with me here.) Then SUVs came along with some of what cars and trucks each had to offer, making a new auto category. In the switch world, smart switches are the SUVs. SMBs are the target market for this category of switch, which offers some of the customizable features found in managed switches, but at a far reduced cost.
Irvine, Calif.-based Linksys, now part of Belkin International Inc., is a networking hardware provider that has fairly recently begun working its way back into the channel as a player in SMB networking, and has since unveiled many innovative switches across categories. In an interview with Anthony Pham, senior product manager, and Ron Chang, senior product development manager—both heavily involved in the design of Linksys’s line of Ethernet switches—they shared some insight into how Linksys looks at smart and managed switches, as well as what to look for when considering smart switches for certain projects.