When it comes to network Ethernet switches for your business, there are many brands, types, sizes and features to decide from.  The first rule of thumb is not to go on the cheap and do not short-change yourself.  A network switch is the backbone of your critical business systems – Internet, e-mail, online ordering, printing, VoIP –  you get the idea… switches are important!

During the process of selecting and implementing new network switches, we always encourage our clients to answer the simpler questions first, so that you can narrow your selections down out of the gate.  Here are the list of questions and options listed “easiest” to the more complicated that will help you narrow down the selection process:

  • Speeds – We are not going to spend much time on this, but essentially there are three speeds of Ethernet switches – 100 Mbps, Gigabit (1000 Mbps) and 10 Gbps. Almost all organizations will purchase Gigabit and that provides you with the necessary speeds for an efficient and robust network.  The 10 Gbps switches are used primarily in data centers or for businesses that have iSCSI SANs (storage area network) connected to their servers.
  • Rackable vs non-rackable –  The vast majority of switches come with the ability to rack them within a full server rack or within a two-post rack, which is designed to hold networking equipment.  The switches that are non-rackable are typically smaller desktop switches, and those only have 5 or 8 ports.
  • Quantity of ports – Switches come in all types of sizes and organizations will select a size depending upon how many ports or available devices that can be connected to them. Typical sizes are 8, 16, 24 and 48-port switches, and the most common out there will be 24 or 48-port switches.  For organizations that have a need for a large number of ports, you have the ability to daisy-chain or create uplinks between the switches, so that you can expand the network.  With all switches you can use the existing Ethernet ports to connect the switches together, but for higher-end switches there are dedicated uplink ports that will allow you to create a more robust connection between the switches.
  • Expansion slots for fiber – This usually comes as a surprise to most people, but the maximum length than you can run an Ethernet cable is 300 feet. After the 300 feet mark, you need to have another switch to boost the signal, which in most causes isn’t feasible when you need extremely long runs.  In the case in which you need to bridge a far area in your office or another building, you will use fiber so that you aren’t limited to the 300 feet.  When you need to run fiber, you will need higher-end switches that will have the ability to have expansion slots that will be able to accept and bridge that connection to the existing Ethernet network.
  • Power Over Ethernet (PoE) – Switches have the ability to carry low voltage power over Ethernet cables in order to power devices such as VoIP phones or wireless access points (APs). This is a great feature for people who want to mount wireless APs on a ceiling or obscure location in which there is no AC power outlet available.  It is also a great convenience for VoIP phones, because a power cord is one less cable that is required at the desk.  PoE is one of the features that do increase the price of switches (generally about 25%), so organizations usually purchase switches with PoE capabilities if they only have devices that will take advantage of the power source.
  • Managed vs. Non-Managed – This is the big decision when selecting your network switch and the best way to describe the differences is that a managed switch is considered to be a “smart” switch, and a non-managed is more “dumb.”  That doesn’t mean that a non-managed switch will drop network traffic or forget to send an e-mail, but there is no intelligence when it comes to routing traffic.  A non-managed switch just takes network packets (your e-mails, VoIP, YouTube videos, server files, etc.) and route them to the appropriate Internet source or server.  A managed switch has the capabilities to program rules and intelligence in how network packages are routed, segmented and managed.   A great example of when this would be a business requirement would be if you have VoIP phones and you want to ensure that you are providing a higher priority (QoS) for the voice packets and traffic, so that when someone is streaming or opening a large file on the network or from the Internet, the switch will prioritize your phone call over the person opening that file.  This way you have a clear and quality phone call experience.  Another great example in which you would want to implement a managed switch would be if you needed to segment the traffic on your network.  If you wanted to provide guests or visitors access to you wireless for Internet access, but not allow them access to your servers or other secure systems, a managed switch allows you can create VLANs that segment the traffic to protect and secure your systems.

We realize that evaluating and selecting the switches that will be the backbone of your network infrastructure is not an easy process, and we did not even dive into the various brands out there – Aruba, Cisco, Netgear, Linksys, Meraki, Dell and HP.   For more information on Ethernet network switches or assistance in determining what the best switch is for your organization, please give us a call at 312-361-3800.   We are always there to help!

Managed vs Non-Managed Network Switches – What Kind of Switch Do I Need?