The switch is the “brain” of a network. It connects all network devices (e.g., computers, printers, servers, etc.), enabling them to talk to each other, no matter where they are located in a building or campus. Constructing a network is not possible without a switch to link all these devices.
There is much confusion about which type of switch to use: managed or unmanaged. This post aims to help users make an informed choice as to which kind of switch is best for them.
Let’s start with some basics.
What is a managed switch?
Managed switches have the most comprehensive features of the two types and are often used as the backbone or core layer in large, complex data centers. However, managed switches are equally useful for home or small networks, and we strongly recommend purchasing a managed switch whenever possible.
The Managed Switch in a Snapshot
- Dynamic ARP inspection
- IPv4 DHCP snooping
- IP routing
- Port mirroring
Performance: Excellent. Can be configured. Has control over Access Control over LAN traffic. Priority SNMP. Can troubleshoot remotely.
Security: Very good. Protects the data, control, and management planes.
Application: Data centers, large enterprise networks.
What is an unmanaged switch?
The unmanaged switch appears a bit “brainless” when compared to a managed switch. Unmanaged switches are basic, plug-and-play devices with no configuration, management, or monitoring options. These are simple desktop switches used in home settings or for conference rooms, labs, etc.
The Unmanaged Switch in a Snapshot
Features: Fixed configuration.
Performance: Plug-and-play with limited configuration such as default QoS settings.
Security: Poor. No security measures other than a lockable port cover.
Cost: Less expensive
Application: Small business networks, home, labs, conference rooms, etc.
A Side Note About Smart Switches
There is a third type of switch called a smart (or hybrid) switch. These switches were developed to meet the needs of different-sized networks. Smart switches offer a “lite” version of network management, QoS, and security features. It is important to note that smart switches cannot be monitored or accessed remotely and have no troubleshooting capabilities. Smart switches are most commonly used for simple networks or at the edge of an extensive network in which managed switches are the core infrastructure.
Why a Managed Switch is a Must When it Comes to Handling IACS Traffic
When it comes to Industrial Automation Control System (IACS) traffic, an unmanaged switch simply does not hack it. A managed switch is invaluable for five significant reasons.
Reason #1: Security
Imagine this scenario: An unaware employee connects their PC to an unmanaged switch in the office and spreads a virus throughout the entire company network. This happens all the time.—but it will not happen if the business uses managed switches, as they can disable ports that prevent unauthorized access.
Reason #2: Redundancy
Should a link or device in a network fail, it is vital to ensure the rest of the network remains functional. Unmanaged switches have no redundancy protocols, while managed switches have several options that support redundancy—two of the most common being Rapid Spanning Tree Protocol (RSTP) and ring topographies.
These types of protocols prevent loops and establish backup links that keep integrated systems available. The upshot of these safeguards is the prevention of downtime, which is expensive and disruptive.
Reason #3: Prioritization
For a network to run smoothly, it is critical that the Local Area Network (LAN) traffic can be prioritized. The most important data must always get through. Prioritization prevents heavy network traffic from causing a malfunction. A network crash causes costly downtime and IT Department service calls and leaves a lousy performance impression for users.
Managed switches have a Quality of Service (QoS) function that gives critical traffic a high priority. On the other hand, an unmanaged switch simply allows devices to communicate with minimal QoS functions.
Reason #4: Segmentation
Managed switches allow the creation of Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs) to segment network traffic. A VLAN is a Local Area Network (LAN) that segregates (segments) devices on a basis other than geographical location. For example, a business’s marketing employees may be dispersed throughout an office building but can be assigned to a single VLAN that allows them to share resources and bandwidth. Other departments’ resources may be invisible or accessible to the marketing VLAN members, depending upon how the VLAN is set up.
This isolation helps reduce unnecessary traffic that enables better system performance and an additional layer of security. Unmanaged switches do not have this capability.
Reason #5: Monitoring
Monitoring a network’s traffic and performance is crucial. Only managed switches have protocols such as Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) that keep an eye on a network’s health or a specific device’s status. SNMP helps to uncover and repair network problems—and can even do so remotely.
Managed switches also permit port mirroring. Port mirroring (also known as Switched Port Analyzer or SPAN) is a network monitoring method where the switch is enabled to send a copy of all network traffic on a single port or VLAN to another port where the packet is analyzed. This process allows troubleshooting without having to take machines out of service.
The Industrial Switch
Manufacturing is becoming smart and agile. An important key to this transformation is the industrial switch. Industrial-grade switches are so durable they can survive even the most caustic environmental conditions.
A managed industrial switch plays a vital part in industries that use sites with harsh environmental settings, such as:
- Industrial and factory automation
- Outdoor applications
- Rail and intelligent transportation systems (ITSs),
- Oil and gas
Industrial switches differ from IT switches in that they have been developed to withstand dirt, dust, vibrations, excessive heat, and extreme cold. Because industrial networks are now being connected to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), it is more crucial than ever that they be configured, managed, and secured correctly.
Whatever your business environment is, the bottom line is always providing the best, most seamless experience for your employees and customers. Network security, redundancy, plus the ability to prioritize, segment, and monitor data is paramount.