What Is a Network Switch?

June 13, 2024

Network switches are essential computer networking devices connecting multiple devices within a local area network (LAN). They manage data traffic efficiently by switching packets to receive, process, and forward data to the destination device.

what is a network switch

What is a Network Switch?

A network switch is a crucial device in computer networking that serves to connect multiple devices within a local area network (LAN). It operates at the data link layer (Layer 2) of the OSI model and, in some cases, at the network layer (Layer 3).

The primary function of a network switch is to use packet switching to receive, process, and forward data to the destination device. Unlike a hub, which broadcasts data to all connected devices, a switch sends data only to the specific device it is intended for, thus significantly improving network efficiency and security. Switches maintain a MAC address table to keep track of the devices connected to each port, allowing them to intelligently direct traffic to the correct destination. This targeted communication reduces unnecessary data transmission and minimizes the chances of data collisions.

Network switches can be unmanaged, providing basic connectivity without configuration options, or managed, offering advanced features like VLAN support, Quality of Service (QoS) settings, and remote management capabilities. They can also vary in size and port density, from small desktop units with a few ports to large, rack-mounted enterprise switches with dozens of ports, designed to handle high volumes of traffic in complex network environments.

Types of Network Switches

In networking, various types of switches cater to different needs and complexities within a network. Understanding the distinctions between unmanaged, managed, smart, and Layer 3 switches is crucial for selecting the solution that will provide optimal network performance, security, and manageability.

Unmanaged Switches

Unmanaged switches are basic plug-and-play devices that require no configuration, making them ideal for small home or office networks. They provide simple network connectivity, allowing devices to communicate with each other efficiently.

These switches typically have a fixed set of features, focusing on ease of use and cost-effectiveness. While they lack advanced functionalities like VLANs or Quality of Service (QoS) settings, they are reliable and straightforward solutions for users who do not need complex network management.

Managed Switches

Managed switches offer a higher level of control and customization, suitable for more complex and larger networks. These switches allow network administrators to configure, manage, and monitor the network settings through various interfaces such as command-line interfaces (CLI), web-based GUIs, or SNMP.

Managed switches support advanced features like VLANs, QoS, port mirroring, and link aggregation, enabling optimized performance, enhanced security, and efficient traffic management. They are essential for enterprise environments where network stability and performance are critical.

Smart Switches

Smart switches, also known as intelligent or web-managed switches, strike a balance between unmanaged and fully managed switches. They offer limited management features accessible through a web-based interface, making them suitable for small to medium-sized businesses.

While they provide some advanced functionalities like VLANs and QoS, they are easier to set up and manage than fully managed switches. Smart switches are cost-effective solutions for networks that require some level of control and optimization without the complexity of full management capabilities.

Layer 3 Switches

Layer 3 switches combine the capabilities of traditional Layer 2 switches with some routing functionalities typically found in routers. These switches can make routing decisions based on IP addresses, allowing them to efficiently manage traffic between different VLANs and subnets within a network.

Layer 3 switches are ideal for large, complex networks that need to handle high volumes of inter-VLAN traffic with reduced latency and improved performance. They offer advanced features such as routing protocols, enhanced security measures, and better traffic management, making them a versatile choice for enterprise-level networks.

What Are the Advantages of Using a Network Switch?

Network switches offer several benefits that enhance the efficiency, security, and scalability of local area networks (LANs). Below are some key advantages.

Improved Network Performance

Network switches significantly enhance performance by efficiently managing data traffic. By forwarding data only to the specific device it is intended for, switches reduce collisions and congestion, ensuring smooth and fast data transfer. This targeted communication optimizes bandwidth usage, allowing for higher network throughput.

Enhanced Security

Switches contribute to network security by segregating data traffic. Unlike hubs that broadcast data to all devices, switches send data only to the intended recipient, reducing the risk of data interception. Managed switches offer additional security features such as VLANs, port security, and access control lists (ACLs), which help protect the network from unauthorized access and potential threats.


Network switches provide scalability by supporting multiple devices within a network and facilitating easy expansion. As the network grows, additional switches can be integrated to connect more devices without degrading performance. Managed switches further support network scalability with features like link aggregation and stacking, which allow multiple switches to operate as a single unit.

Efficient Network Management

Managed switches offer comprehensive management capabilities that allow network administrators to monitor and control network traffic effectively. Features such as QoS, port mirroring, and SNMP support enable fine-tuning of network performance, prioritization of critical traffic, and proactive network maintenance.


While the initial investment in switches, especially managed ones, might be higher compared to hubs or basic network devices, the long-term cost savings are substantial. Improved performance, reduced downtime, enhanced security, and efficient management contribute to lower operational costs and higher productivity, making switches a cost-effective choice for network infrastructure.

How to Set Up a Network Switch?

Setting up a network switch involves a few straightforward steps to ensure it integrates seamlessly into your local area network (LAN). Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Choose the right switch. Select a switch that meets your network requirements in terms of the number of ports, managed or unmanaged capabilities, and specific features like VLAN support or PoE (Power over Ethernet).
  2. Determine placement. Decide on an appropriate location for the switch. It should be centrally located to minimize cable lengths, have proper ventilation, and be easily accessible for maintenance. For larger setups, consider rack-mounting the switch.
  3. Connect devices. Use Ethernet cables to connect your network devices (computers, printers, servers, etc.) to the switch’s ports. For optimal performance, use high-quality cables (Cat5e, Cat6, or higher).
  4. Connect to the network. Link the switch to your network by connecting it to your router or another switch using an Ethernet cable. If the switch has an uplink port, use it for this connection. Otherwise, any port can typically be used for this purpose.
  5. Configure the switch (for managed switches). If you are setting up a managed switch, access its management interface. This can usually be done through a web browser by entering the switch’s default IP address, or via a console connection if a web interface is not available.
  6. Test the connections. Verify that all connected devices can communicate with each other and access the network. Check for link lights on the switch ports to ensure each connection is active.
  7. Monitor and maintain. Regularly monitor the switch’s performance and log into the management interface to check for any alerts or unusual activity. Keep the switch firmware updated to ensure it has the latest features and security patches.

What Is the Difference Between a Network Switch and a Router?

A network switch operates at the data link layer (Layer 2) of the OSI model and is responsible for connecting multiple devices within a local area network (LAN), using MAC addresses to forward data packets to the correct device.

In contrast, a router operates at the network layer (Layer 3) and is designed to connect different networks, such as connecting a home network to the internet. Routers use IP addresses to route data between these networks, directing traffic based on the best path for data packets.

While switches manage communication within a single network, routers facilitate communication between multiple networks, often providing additional features like Network Address Translation (NAT), firewalls, and DHCP services.

Can a Switch Be Used as a Router?

While a network switch and a router perform different functions, some advanced switches, specifically Layer 3 switches, can handle certain routing tasks. These switches can perform inter-VLAN routing, directing traffic between different VLANs within the same network, which is a function typically handled by routers. However, Layer 3 switches are primarily optimized for high-speed LAN traffic and might lack some of the advanced routing features found in dedicated routers, such as Network Address Translation (NAT), advanced firewall capabilities, and WAN connectivity.

A traditional router is still necessary for most home and small business networks to connect the local network to the internet and manage external traffic.  Therefore, while a Layer 3 switch can perform some routing functions within a network, it cannot completely replace a router for all networking needs, especially for internet connectivity and comprehensive traffic management.

Network Switch FAQ

Here are the answers to the most important questions users have about network switches.

Does a Switch Have an IP Address?

A network switch typically does not have an IP address unless it is a managed switch. Unmanaged switches operate at the data link layer (Layer 2) and do not need an IP address because they do not require any configuration or management—they simply forward data based on MAC addresses.

Managed switches, which offer advanced features and configuration options, do have an IP address for management purposes. This IP address allows network administrators to access the switch’s management interface, usually through a web browser or a command-line interface, to configure settings, monitor performance, and manage network traffic. The IP address of a managed switch is solely for administrative access and does not affect its primary function of forwarding data within the network.

Do Switches Slow Down the Internet?

Switches do not inherently slow down the internet; rather, they enhance the overall performance of a local area network by efficiently managing data traffic. Switches operate by forwarding data packets only to the intended recipient device, reducing unnecessary traffic and collisions, which can improve network speed and reliability. However, if a switch is overloaded with more traffic than it can handle, or if it is a lower-quality or outdated model, it might introduce some latency. Additionally, improper network configuration or network congestion can lead to slower performance. Therefore, while switches themselves do not slow down the internet, network conditions and hardware limitations can impact overall network speed.

How Long Do Network Switches Last?

The lifespan of network switches varies widely based on factors such as build quality, usage environment, and technological advancements. On average, network switches are designed to last between 5 to 10 years. When used in stable and controlled environments, high-quality switches from reputable manufacturers often exceed this range, providing reliable service for over a decade. However, rapid technological advancements and evolving network demands can render older switches obsolete before they physically wear out, prompting upgrades to newer models that offer better performance, enhanced security features, and support for the latest networking standards. Regular maintenance, firmware updates, and ensuring proper ventilation and power conditions can help maximize the lifespan of a network switch.

Are Network Switches Safe?

Network switches are generally considered safe and play a crucial role in maintaining the security of a local area network. By directing data only to the intended recipient, switches inherently reduce the risk of data interception and collisions that are more common with hubs. Managed switches further enhance security with features like VLANs, port security, access control lists, and network monitoring capabilities. These features allow administrators to segment traffic, control access, and detect suspicious activity. However, like any network device, switches need to be properly configured and maintained, including regular firmware updates and secure management practices, to protect against vulnerabilities and unauthorized access.

Anastazija is an experienced content writer with knowledge and passion for cloud computing, information technology, and online security. At phoenixNAP, she focuses on answering burning questions about ensuring data robustness and security for all participants in the digital landscape.