November 2012

How to Choose Switches

Switch, Switches, and More Switches… How to Choose

By: Todd Bone, XS International

When it comes to switches nobody ever wants to make one, but luckily in the networking world “switches” are a good thing.  The problem only lies in deciding which one to choose.  Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just walking into the store, looking for the best looking switch, and grabbing it off the shelf.  With so many choices and features the task of sorting through, narrowing it down and finally taking the plunge can be daunting.  Here are a few considerations to make the task a little bit easier.

Size Matters

Before you can begin to look at switches you’ve got to assess the size and needs of your network.  And don’t just take a look at the size of your network now, but take into account how rapidly you believe your network will grow over the next five or so years.  Count the number of network devices that need physical connection to the switch such as computers, IP camera, network printers, etc.  If, for example, you have 24 needed connections you’ll want to buy a switch that has at least 24 connections plus what you anticipate for your future growth.  Buying scalable or stackable switches are wise as they allow for unexpected growth in the future.

Off to the Races

Determine the speed requirements for your network.  Network response times suffer as the load on the network increases, and under heavy loads small increases in user traffic often results in significant decreases in performance.  It’s just like rush hour traffic, the more cars on the highway, the slower the traffic.  Switches help to reroute the user traffic eliminating bottlenecks, so, it’s important to pick a switch that can handle the load.  There are simple switches that have 100 Mbps ports, higher end switches that support 1 Gigabit, and enterprise level switches that support 10 Gigabit ports.  Ten Gigabit switches are primarily used for larger networks and high speed demanding applications such as digital imaging, video broadcasting, real-time financial transactions, etc.

It’s all About the Layers

There are different switches for different layers; therefore, you’ll need to determine whether you need a layer 2 or a layer 3 switch.  Layer 3 switches are significantly more expensive than layer 2 switches.  If you have a smaller network that is centrally located a layer 2 switch should do the job.  As networks begin to grow and users are broken out onto separate subnets in order to improve network efficiency and provide better traffic flow, layer 3 switching becomes the better choice.  A hybrid device is the latest improvement in switch technology.  These hybrid multilayer switches operate on both layer 2 and layer 3 of the OSI network model.   They are aimed at enterprise level networks and these switches look for common traffic flows, and switch these flows on the hardware layer for speed.

I Have the Power

Well actually, I don’t, but some switches do!  Another characteristic to consider when choosing a switch is Power over Ethernet (PoE). PoE gives a switch the ability to supply electrical power to a device over the existing Ethernet cabling.  IP phones, IP security cameras, and some wireless access points use this feature.  The PoE feature allows you to install IP phones or access points anywhere you can run an Ethernet cable.

Who’s in Charge?

If we were still back in the 80’s I’d say Charles, but since we’ve sadly left that era behind us, we’ll go back to switches.  Switches can be either managed or unmanaged depending on your network needs.  Unmanaged Switches are preconfigured with basic settings, and are cheap and easy to setup.  For many networks unmanaged switches will work quite well, and are far less expensive. Managed Switches provide more control on network security, performance and segment traffic. The main benefit of managed switches is the ability to manage broadcast and multicast traffic; whereas unmanaged switches pass broadcast and multicast packets through to all ports.

Make the Switch

There are numerous additional switch features that can be explored as you research which switch will be best suited for your network.  If you would like to find out more about networking switches  XSi can help you with all your networking needs including Cisco, Juniper, Brocade, and more.  Find out more about which switch is best for your network and make the switch!