Computers have increased in computational power and this power has been integrated into network devices, with network switches being the product of this integration.
Before we had network switches, we had network hubs that could only repeat and segment what was said on a network segment.
Along came DEC Network Switches in the 1980’s. They added new features like full duplex communication, layer two MAC addresses, auto speed negotiation and can be network managed or unmanaged.
Both unmanaged and managed network switches take advantage of the advance in computational power.
That is why manufacturers have created chipsets specific for managed and unmanaged switches. This makes it easier for manufacturers to build different switches at different price points.
Unmanaged switches are cheaper devices to manufacture because lower cost chipsets are used.
Some unmanaged switches have no user interface at all; you just plug them into power and attach network devices.
They are cost effective and simple to use but not manageable. Some unmanaged switches have a craft port to see the port status of connected devices.
Unmanaged switches are very secure in that they cannot be remotely hacked. However, if you have a large network, going to each switch would be a lot of work.
Unmanaged switches are great for small locations and do not require much networking expertise to operate and maintain.
Managed switches use advanced chipsets. These chipsets have the latest features and are remotely manageable.
The managed switch firmware and operating system (O/S) are updated constantly to add new features and fix bugs.
Switch manufacturers require their customers to keep firmware and O/S versions up to date if they want software and hardware support on their network equipment.
After a certain number of years, switch manufacturers have End-of-Sale/ End-of-Life policies on managed switches.
This means equipment must be upgraded to keep your support contract.
Most corporate locations use managed switches that are remotely managed from corporate headquarters or contract out network support.
Additionally, today most corporate environments have hybrid environments with local servers and cloud-based equipment that are also remotely managed.
Managed switches are the heart of modern data centers. Many data centers are lights out, meaning almost all support people are remote.
However, having to support remote equipment has security issues. The support people may have to access the equipment remotely from anywhere.
Modern Managed Switch Features
1. Switch speeds: Managed switch port types include:
10 Gig, 100 Gig, 1000 Gig on Optical Fiber
10 Base-T, 100 Base-TX, 1000 Base-T on Ethernet UTP cable – Cat 5, 5e, 6a
2. Number of ports
Different managed switches have different port densities. Some managed switches also provide a range of uplink interface modules, including Gigabit copper, fast Ethernet fiber, and Gigabit fiber.
3. Power over Ethernet
POE is a way for the managed switch to provide power to the remote switch through an Ethernet cable.
This is a great cost-saving option when there is no power available where the remote switch is. Also, if the managed switch is on an UPS, then the remote switch is also getting its power from the UPS source.
4. VLANS: Virtual Local Area Networks
As managed switches got more computational power, they acquired the feature to create VLANS. The managed switch can be programmed to assign certain switch ports to certain VLANS.
A simple example of this would be to create an accounting VLAN and only have switch ports for accounting people on that accounting VLAN.
But in mature networks today there are many VLANS assigned to managed switches. They are used in many different ways and can become quite complex.
5. QoS: Quality of Service
Over the years voice/video networks slowly merged with data networks.
As managed switches got more computational power, they could now be programmed to prioritize traffic to queues that had a high priority (no delay).
Example: Voice data if delayed cannot be understood at the receiver end.
Simple Network Management Protocol, SNMP is used to monitor the network, detect network faults, and sometimes is used to configure remote devices.
It is a software management software module installed on a managed device. Almost all network devices and data center equipment support this protocol, but SNMP is insecure because SNMP messages are not encrypted.
7. Port Security
To limit access to a switch port you can configure port security. Only trusted MAC addresses you define can connect to this port.
Example: switch port 24 is configured for an employee on floor 5, suite 25.
The employee has his workstation and digital phone MAC addresses assigned to switch port 24.
8. Layer 3 Switch
Some managed switches can be configured as a Layer 3 switch. It has the functionality of a switch and a very basic router, because of the managed switch increased computational power.
The advanced chipset can look at the IP header on a received frame and make a routing decision after comparing it to a route table. This is very fast and very effective when routing between VLANS.
9. Switch layout
Managed Switches can have different layouts:
Fixed layout: Shaped like a pizza box. Fixed memory, Fixed I/O interfaces. Cheapest hardware.
Modular layout: Memory can be upgraded, I/O interfaces can be changed, some models can also be stacked with a common management module controlling a stack of pizza boxes.
Also, redundant power supplies can be purchased for some modular managed switches.
Chassis layout: These are the most expensive, high speed backplane modules, fan trays, redundant processors, redundant power supplies and can be configured with various line cards to provide corresponding type and quantity of required network ports (copper and fiber). You see chassis-based managed switches in data centers and corporate headquarters in pairs for redundancy.
10. Network Support
Each managed switch manufacturer has designed features into their boxes to make them easier to manage but this requires training to learn these features.
Conclusion: So, Which Is Better, Managed vs Unmanaged Switch?
The simpler the better is my first approach to this question.
Unmanaged switches that have no configuration are the simplest; they are plug and play. If this is an internal network that is not connected to the outside world, you are good to go.
Most businesses today depend on connections to the outside world, from checking credit of new customers to online purchasing, but the digital world outside is not a safe world.
Loss of connectivity to the Internet effects the revenue stream of the company. The moment you connect to the Internet you are exposed to hackers from around the world.
This is where you need managed switches, up to date software on the managed switches and hardware/software support from the managed switch vendor.
If users want to connect remotely to your managed switches you need a security protocol that provides centralized validation of users who are attempting to gain access to a network switch.
Managed switches solutions pair well with routers and firewalls. Using one vendor for all network devices will cut down on finger pointing when interconnect issues happen.
On the other hand, your network will be less vulnerable to a one company failure if you mix equipment from several vendors.