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How to choose between a managed or unmanaged network switch

Ethernet
Ethernet (Image credit: Windows Central)

Switches are essentially smart boxes that connect a number of other devices together on a Local Area Network (LAN) and utilize what is called packet switching to forward data to and from said connections. The easiest way to think about a switch is to look at a LAN event where gaming PCs or consoles are hooked up to switches and hubs to connect with one another.

In this case, PCs are connected via ethernet cabling. The actual size of a switch can range from just a handful of ports all the way up to 48 (or more). Switches themselves can be used in the home, a small office or at a location where multiple machines need to be hooked up. There are two basic kinds of switches, managed and unmanaged, and which is best for you depends on your requirements.

Managed Ethernet Switches

NETGEAR ProSafe

A managed switch is a device that can be configured and properly managed to offer a more tailored experience to those who will be utilizing the box. These not only offer tools and the means to monitor the network, but also control over traffic. Managed switches are very much like Virtual Private Servers where you'll be in charge of setting everything up, managing the device and take responsibility for any configurations that cause downtime.

Managed switches can be administered through a supported method, whether it be a command-line interface (accessed via secure shell, etc.), a web interface loaded in your web browser or Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) for remote access. This access will unblock various options, including port speed, virtual LANs, redundancy, port mirroring, and Quality of Service (QoS) for traffic prioritization. All of this means you can prioritize traffic for specified ports — you're streaming 4K Netflix to your Xbox One, you'll want maximum bandwidth speed and quality to the Xbox, the rest of your network will be throttled back to limit buffering.

When looking at managed switches, there are two types available. Smart switches have a limited number of options for configuration and are more affordable than their fully-managed siblings — ideal for home and office use. Fully managed solutions are targeted at servers and enterprises, offering a wide array of tools and features to manage the immediate network better.

Managed switches are designed for intense workloads, high amounts of traffic and deployments where custom configurations are a necessity.

Unmanaged Ethernet Switches

D-Link Unmanaged Switch

D-Link Unmanaged Switch

Where a managed switch requires, well, some management in exchange for your network working exactly how you want, an unmanaged switch works with no input from you. These networking devices will work in the most basic form, allowing for your devices to connect with one another. The configuration is locked to OEM specification and provides consumers peace of mind to connect everything up and get going.

Think of unmanaged switches as adding additional ethernet ports to your network. Should you have a limited number of available outlets on routers and access points, unmanaged switches are perfect for allowing for additional hardware to be connected. Unmanaged switches are best suited for home and small office use.

tl;dr

A managed switch allows you to have more control over the network as well as all traffic that moves through the device. An unmanaged switch takes this control away and handles everything automatically. The former is for advanced users, and the latter is specifically built for beginners and those who wish to simply build a network and leave it to technology to oversee.

We've run through the basics when it comes to switches — both managed and unmanaged — but which route you travel down is entirely up to you. Should you be comfortable with managing a LAN and configuring everything then a managed switch is a powerful option. Those who wish to keep things simple at home should go with an unmanaged solution.

Rich Edmonds
Senior Editor, PC Build

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

32 Comments
  • I haven't seen a managed switch yet that doesn't just work right out of the box.  None that I've ever worked with had to be setup in order to function effectively the same as an unmanaged switch.  So if someone thinks they might like the functionality of a managed switch but doesn't necessarily want to take time to get it up and going, they actually don't need to do anything to it before it will pass network traffic.
  • Some models of Cisco manage able switch comes with web gui disable & no IP assign yet, user needs to access it with serial port to enable them with CLI. It is better for regular/common user to avoid managed switch, it's more expensive anyway.
  • You're talking about the Catalyst range of switches. The Small Business range pick up an address from DHCP (if running on the LAN) and enable the HTTP interface by default. Although they are cheaper and supposedly simpler to manage than the Catalyst switches, there is still no reason for a normal user, or even most IT Pros to get a managed switch.
  • It isn't just the Catalyst range that runs out of the box.  I've never seen one that doesn't. Most people wouldn't benefit that much from one, but if someone is on the fence there isn't much of any reason to not get managed at this point.  They aren't that much more expensive, and they have an upgrade path.   I use multiple managed switches at home. It has made things run more smoothly, reduced the amount of hardware (fewer switches due to the ability to create VLANs), and has been a real boon when I need to troubleshoot a network issue.
  • Who has a serial port these days?
  • Pretty much everyone with a usb connection on their PC. You can pickup usb serial adapters for about $3. They work perfectly fine connecting to managed rj45 console port.
  • -   If its only about regular files respectively mundane network traffic,
    a lower-cost switch probably will do the job no matter what.   However:
    If you plan to stream isochronic data like video, it might make sense to invest in a more expensive switch. I have a 50 Mbit DSL line and did experience problems connecting my Fire TV box to a (now fairly old unmanaged) switch. 
    When I connected the Ethernet cable directly to my router, the problems went away.  Ethernet switches can be quite expensive, depending on their features.  When buying one, one should check whether the switch handles high res videos appropriately.  You will find infos about this feature in the description of device. 
    Most vendors explicitly do mention that a specific router is ok for video.  If video handling is not mentioned by a vendor for a certain device,
    don't touch this SKU it if you want to stream video over it.  Also:  
    Go for Gigabit switches only, 10/100 is ok only for printers and office files. 
    10/100 switches might do the job,
    but one day they might not as the services and devices you use become better and more demanding. 
    So it is better to have some headroom.  Even you do not have a gigabit DSL line (which is normal, unfortunately):  
    Gigabit refers to the total capacity of all network traffic occuring simultanously a switch can handle.
      In addition to that: Ethernet has a lot of protocol overhead build in to make sure data do arrive reliably. 
    Always subtract 30-40% of the advertised transmission capacity,
    this is what you get (at most) in practise.  This applies to WLAN "speeds", powerline modems etc. as well.
    I always cut those numbers in half "to be on the save side". This is a switch that says it supports video:
    https://www.amazon.com/Linksys-8-Port-Metallic-Gigabit-SE3008/dp/B00F3NU...
      If you plan to install a couple of web- or surveillance cams, 
    you might also consider a switch that supports Power-over-Ethernet.  This means, that you can connect a cam with an Ethernet cable 
    and you're good. No need to have an extra power supply for the cam.    Also have an eye on the power consumption of the switch 
    as you likely never will power it off, it will draw power 24/7/365.   -
        
  • Just a small correction about "Gigabit refers to the total capacity of all network traffic occuring simultanously a switch can handle​". ​Most switches have a ports speed and a higher internal backplane speed. Gigabit refers to the capacity of each port, a single link between the backplane and a device.
    In enteprise-grade switches, the backplane is often sized depending on the number of ports. For example, a Catalyst 2960-L has a 20 Gbps switching bandwidth for the 8-ports model, 36 Gbps for the 16-ports, 56 Gbps for the 24-ports, and 104 Gbps for the 48-ports. Considering the 8 and 16 ports have two extra uplink ports, and the 24 and 48 have 4 extra uplink ports, it means all ports can take advantage of their full 1Gbps full-duplex capacity simultaneously.
    (source: http://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/products/collateral/switches/catalyst-2960-...) ​A cheaper switch with a backplane that is not sized to support the maximum speed of all ports means you will slow down traffic when several devices are busy simultaneously. This is called a blocking switch fabric.
  • Good info, thanks.    A higher backplane speed makes a lot of sense 
    especially because the backplane traffic is internal 
    and thus does no go through a Phy which is a limiting factor.   -   -  
  • Most mid- to high-end switchesquote the backplane speed in the product specifications too.
  • He's kinda right only to the extent of consumer level budget switches. They tend to have a backplane that's the same as the ports. They just connect to your router via ethernet and basically act as a splitter.
  • "Also have an eye on the power consumption of the switch as you likely never will power it off, it will draw power 24/7/365​" ​This is good advise, I would add to look for Energy Efficient Ethernet (sometimes called Green Ethernet), which will lower the power consumption depending on activity and suspend ports that are disconnected (unused or connected to suspended devices).
    This is one of the reason modern PCs and consoles switch to 10Mbps when suspended, to keep connected-standby networking while allowing the ethernet hardware both in the PC/console and switch to move into a lower-power mode. This also means you should never fix the speed of a switch port, dynamic speed negotiation is required for this to work.
  • That's good advice, thanks!  
  • @Fred_EM actually Gigabit Switches are fairly cheap these days, especially unmanaged variants. You can buy a unmanaged 5 port gigabit switches for £10 or so. I would not recommend anyone buy 10/100 switches at all since it makes no economic sense whatsoever as that standard is pretty much redundant. Plus you forego the ability to upgrade your network and not to mention all switches have auto-sensing ports. Each consumer grade switch takes minimal power so it's negligible in the grand scheme of things. The only scenario you have to keep an eye on switch is when you use POE switch (especially 802.3at switches that supply 30 watts per port and 60 watt at the extreme high end) that provides power and data per port.  Even though 802.3af POE switches provide 15.4 watt per port so it doesn't mean for example all 5 port poe 802.3af switches have a power budget of 77 Watts, some have a power budget of 60 or 46 watts or so.
  • Good input, thanks!  
  • I rather use my cisco than alot of netgear etc, I work in a dc and see so many reasons why you don't go for these options for customers main switches. When you see there colo's with netgears you shudder
  • "Should you buy a managed or unmanaged network switch?" quick answer: If you have to ask, you don't want a managed switch.
     
  • Was thinking that should been the first paragraph in the article.
  • If you have a small, flat (single subnet) network you simply don't need a managed switch. Most activity on a home network won't even touch the sides of a half decent unmanaged switch, save your pennies and your sanity! A more useful article would be what wireless infrastructure one should consider in the home/office as most devices in those environments are wirelessly connected these days.
  • Actually, I will disagree with you on the basics.  With a very slight (20%) increase in cost there is a very real increase in quality and reliability.  Since most managed switches are really designed for business that is really where good companies get most of their profits.  So, if you're talking about $30 for an unmanaged and $40 for a managed switch that is a VERY small expenditure to buy a much better product.
  • Maybe in the context of this article there's some truth to your opinion. I work in a school as an network admin and a proper fully managed edge switch goes for a couple grand (AUD) whereas this article is referring to what I'd class as 'toy switches', suitable for the home environment. Most people don't need to manage their home network, they simply need to plug in all their gear on a flat network and just have everything talk. That extra level of 'management' (read: complexity) comes at its own expense of time/sanity and unless you have a complicated home network it does not warrant that expense for what you might perceive as a better quality product. In fact, I would argue that if the price is close to an unmanaged switch then its quality is probably lower than that of an equivalently priced unmanaged switch and it would be better to invest in something with better quality components and warranty. 'Managed' switches in this price bracket simply aren't as sophisticated as what you fin