Managed vs Unmanaged Switches: What is the difference between a managed and unmanaged Network Switch?

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Managed vs Unmanaged Switches
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Managed vs Unmanaged Switches: Setting up a local area network involves several considerations and components.

A network switch is one of the most crucial pieces of networking hardware, as it acts as the core of the whole network infrastructure, connecting different devices and ensuring adequate data transmission between Local Area Network (LAN) components.

Business owners should ensure they have the right network switch to cover their IT department’s needs.

Switches are designed in a variety of sizes, configurations, and specifications. They are typically categorized based on materials, ports, and other factors. However, they primarily belong to one of the two types – managed and unmanaged switches.

In this post, we try to understand how managed ethernet switches can differ from unmanaged network switches to help business owners understand what type best suits their applications.

RELATED: Switch vs Router: What’s the Difference?

What are Managed Switches?

Managed network switches facilitate communication between Ethernet devices while allowing network administrators to configure, manage, and monitor the network to provide a customized experience to users. These devices offer tools to monitor the network and better control how the network transmits information from one end of a local network to another.

Managed switches are like Virtual Private Servers, where you control setting things up and stay responsible for configurations that result in downtime. This type of switch can be administered using a command-line interface, web interface, or Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP).

Managed Switches are available in two types – smart and fully managed. Smart switches are designed to be less expensive and have limited configuration options. Hence, they are ideal for home and office use.

On the other hand, fully managed switches offer a wide range of tools and options to manage networks and are ideal for servers and enterprises. Managed switches are for high-traffic loads, intense workloads, and applications that demand custom configurations.

What are Unmanaged Switches?

While a managed switch requires some management to get the network working the way you want, an unmanaged switch generally functions without input from you. These devices work in their most basic form to facilitate a connection between network components.

Unmanaged ethernet switch switches are just like adding extra ethernet ports to the network. These devices offer a great way to connect additional hardware when you have limited outlets and access points. This type of ethernet switch is suitable for small office and home usage.

They don’t allow configuration or need setup, so they cannot control traffic passing through the network. This makes them easy to deploy. A good example of this type of unmanaged switch, is a surveillance system. A camera records the activity and sends it to an unmanaged switch, which then passes the data to a managed switch to the more extensive network.

Managed vs Unmanaged Switches – How do They Differ?

An unmanaged network switch provides a plug-and-play utility to connect multiple devices more quickly. In contrast, a managed switch gives better control over connections. However, there are several key differences and areas where the two types of network switches differ.

Performance

Unmanaged network switches are just plug and play back-and-play devices with built-in QoS services that ensure easy setup and operation. However, with a managed switch, you can prioritize channels to ensure you receive the optimum performance when needed.

It also uses protocols like SNMP to analyze the performance of network devices through a comprehensive interface. This protocol also has remote access capabilities that allow remote management of the network and components without any physical intervention.

Security

Unmanaged switches generally have a basic level of security. They are secured by ensuring no vulnerabilities with accessories like a lockable port that protects the device from direct tampering.

On the other hand, managed switches have additional security benefits, like simple network management protocol and network admins” ability to control and monitor the network to protect data and manage threats.

The security features vary between switches, some of the most common being access control lists to prevent unauthorized access to switch ports, network communication encryption, VLANs for limited network and media access control only, and more advanced features.

However, it should be noted that managed switches offer much more control over the network, which could be a potential threat. This is why a technician with the correct privileges should continually monitor them.

Cost

Regarding the cost, it is quite easy to differentiate the two types of network switches. Unmanaged switches are generally affordable and much cheaper than managed switches. You can expect to find these at about $50-$100, depending on how many ports you want it to have.

With all their capabilities, managed switches cost more than most unmanaged switches. They can cost anywhere between $1,500 and $2,800 per port. The price depends greatly on features like access controls, network security, and configuration.

These switches also demand more expertise to manage and monitor, translating to higher costs for staff.

Features

An unmanaged switch has a simple design and functionality; it connects Ethernet devices with a fixed configuration that you cannot change. This is unmanaged switch that is often used for smaller networks or to add systems to a more extensive network.

A managed switch port lets you configure and monitor your network settings. You can control the LAN traffic, prioritize channels, and create new networks to manage traffic better. This type of managed switch port comes with redundancy features to make copies of data in case of a device or network failure.

Here are some typical features in managed switches, though they vary between models and brands.

Application

The application is one of the biggest factors differentiating the two types of network switches. An either managed switch ports or unmanaged switch, is generally ideal for smaller networks like one for a home, single office, or small-sized business.

On the other hand, managed switches suit large-scale businesses with a bigger network or enterprises that need increased control over the network traffic.

Managed vs Unmanaged Network Switches – How To Choose?

Looking at the significance of the network component and the key differences between the two types of switches, it is clear that choosing the right network switch that suits your requirements is vital. However, a technician or network manager is the best person to make this decision for the business.

Managed switches are pricier because they need frequent updates, software patches, and expertise for deployment and maintenance. This is why they are often found in complex networks containing wireless access points, servers, IoT devices, and computers for better configuration options.

On the other hand, small businesses with a few dozen devices would generally deploy unmanaged switches because there are no critical requirements for availability and basic security either.

With all the control port security and flexibility, managed switches are ideal for networks that demand security and reliability. These networks are found in enterprise-level businesses, universities, healthcare units, and government agencies.

However, it is crucial to consider the features required and the nature of the network to decide the right switch and type of switch rather than just the network size.

Even if you have a small network of connected devices, you might want to consider managed switches if they transmit sensitive data, like customers’ financial and personal details.

Similarly, if your business works with partners and clients who require temporary, limited access to the network, you might want to use the VLAN functionality of the managed switch to ensure security.

Though managed switches cost more than unmanaged switches, the variety of models available lets users select the suitable component for the complexity and budget.

Managed vs Unmanaged Switches – Which is Better?

If you are uncertain if your business needs a more managed network ethernet switch, or an unmanaged ethernet switch, answering the following questions should help you decide.

How important is security for you?

Check whether you have a high amount of sensitive information transmitted across the network. If yes, managed switches are probably the right choice for you. These components would allow network segmenting and limit access to only authorized users and the devices connected.

How much downtime can you accept?

Interruptions can often cost many businesses in terms of productivity and revenue. Managed switches are the perfect option if your business can’t deal with downtime. Its redundancy feature safeguards against downtime with an alternate path.

These switches also control traffic, allowing the most sensitive data to get through. They also prevent malfunctions and give control of individual switch ports to the network administrator or user.

Do you want control over the switch configuration?

If you want to be able to manage, control, and configure network settings like channel prioritization and traffic, managed switches let you do so. Smaller networks that may not require control over switch and network configuration, can go with unmanaged switches.

Do you need to access and monitor the network remotely?

Managed network switches are designed to update the network status, alert you about potential issues, and facilitate remote management of troubleshooting problems. This same remote management would eliminate the need to employ staff for 24/7 onsite monitoring.

Managed and Unmanaged Switches: Next Steps

Managed vs unmanaged network switches serve different purposes and offer varying levels of control and functionality in a network.

Here are the next steps to consider when deciding between a managed network switch and unmanaged network switches:

Managed Network Switches:

  1. Assess Network Needs: Begin by evaluating your network requirements. Consider factors like network size, complexity, security, and future scalability. Managed network switches are suitable for larger, more complex networks.
  2. Budget Planning: Managed switches are typically more expensive than unmanaged switches. Prepare a budget that includes the cost of the switches, associated software licenses, and potential training for IT staff.
  3. Vendor Selection: Research and choose a reputable network switch vendor. Consider factors like reliability, support, and the availability of features that match your network requirements.
  4. Feature Set Evaluation: Identify the specific features you need. Managed switches offer features like VLAN support, Quality of Service (QoS) configuration, SNMP monitoring, and more. Prioritize these features based on your network’s needs.
  5. Network Design: Plan your network architecture with managed switches in mind. Determine how VLANs, routing, and other advanced features will be implemented to optimize network performance and security.
  6. Configuration and Management: Learn how to configure and manage the managed switches. This may involve training your IT team or hiring well-versed experts in the chosen switch’s operating system.
  7. Security Implementation: Utilize the advanced security features of managed switches, such as Access Control Lists (ACLs), to enhance network security. Implement best practices for securing the switch, such as changing default credentials.
  8. Monitoring and Optimization: Continuously monitor network performance using the switch’s management interface or third-party tools. Make adjustments as needed to optimize network traffic and ensure reliability.
  9. Backup and Recovery: Develop a backup and recovery plan for switch configurations and settings to minimize downtime in case of hardware failure or configuration errors.
  10. Documentation: Maintain thorough documentation of your network setup, including switch configurations, IP assignments, and security policies. This documentation is crucial for troubleshooting and future upgrades.

Unmanaged Network Switches:

  1. Evaluate Simplicity: Unmanaged switches are straightforward to set up and use. Assess whether the simplicity of unmanaged switches aligns with your network’s needs.
  2. Budget Planning: Determine your budget for network switches. Unmanaged switches are generally more cost-effective than managed switches.
  3. Vendor Selection: Choose a reliable vendor that offers unmanaged switches with the required number of ports and port speeds.
  4. Physical Installation: Physically install the unmanaged switches in your network rack or desired locations. Ensure proper power and cooling for the switches.
  5. Connect Devices: Connect your devices to the unmanaged switches using Ethernet cables. Ensure that devices can communicate effectively within the constraints of an unmanaged switch’s basic functionality.
  6. Testing and Monitoring: Verify network connectivity and performance. While unmanaged switches lack advanced monitoring features, you can use external tools to monitor network health.
  7. Scalability Considerations: Remember that unmanaged switches may have limitations in terms of scalability and advanced network management features. Plan for future growth accordingly.
  8. Documentation: Even with unmanaged switches, maintain basic documentation of your network layout, including the physical placement of switches and connected devices.

The choice between managed vs unmanaged switch depends on your network’s complexity, budget, and plans.

Managed network switches offer greater control and advanced features but require more investment in cost and expertise. In contrast, unmanaged switches are simpler and cost-effective but have limitations in control and scalability.

Make your decision based on a thorough assessment of your specific network requirements.

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