Network Switches - A Complete Buying & User Guide


In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at the most important aspects of what switches are, give an overview of how they work as part of a wired internet or intranet setup, and identify what sorts of additional features or benefits the various different models of ethernet switch might provide.

What are network switches?

When asking the question ‘what is a network switch?’, the most straightforward answer is that it’s a type of wired hub device, chiefly used for connecting multiple people and devices to a given computer network. (In technical terms, a ‘hub’ is actually its own discrete category of hardware - but, for the purposes of this introductory guide, we can think of a network switch as a type of hub; they fulfil several crossover roles.)

As we’ll see later, the full answer can be somewhat more involved, depending on the precise type and model of switch in question. However, understanding that a network switch acts as a sort of physical hub for wired connectivity between numerous users and resources is a good start.

In the context of home, office or industrial computer networking and connectivity, the main role of network switches is to physically link online resources and devices through a single multi-port entry/exit point. As you’d expect, users connected to the same network via a switch can then be granted access to share some or all of the resources and devices on that network.

Examples of the sorts of resources you’ll commonly find wired together through network switches might include:

  • Any incoming internet connections, usually via a router
  • Numerous types of external storage and file-sharing modules, such as high-capacity hard drives or server arrays
  • A wide range of key hardware and peripherals - desktop computers, laptops, games consoles, smart TVs, UPS power supplies, printers and more

Network switches are often referred to as an ethernet switch or LAN switch (Local Area Network). The latter name reflects the fact that they typically rely on cabled connections to support networking activities across a relatively limited physical space, such as a single home or office.

How does a network switch work?

If you’re looking to gain a fuller understanding of exactly how an ethernet switch works, it’s important to be aware of the various different types available. We’ll touch on this in more depth over the following sections; for now though, we’ll focus on the most basic answer to the question ‘what does an internet switch do?’.

As noted in the introduction above, a switch deployed in a computer network provides a single point of wired connection for numerous individual devices and resources. Data, online connectivity and more can then be shared between some or all of the users on that network, and some models allow these connections to be managed and controlled via an onboard software interface (see ‘managed network switch’, below).

At their simplest, a network switch can be thought of as somewhat akin to a big USB hub, but one specifically made to accept ethernet cables (also known as RJ45 cables due to the familiar RJ45 connectors they use), enabling multi-device sharing of a single wired internet/data connection.

If you have a standard internet router at home, it will likely include at least one built-in ethernet port, but probably not more than two or three for midrange models. In order to provide a far more robust connectivity solution that allows you to hook in multiple devices and resources - thus creating a more complex Local Area Network, or LAN - you’ll need to add a network switch.

Switches are typically attached directly to a router or server, and their key physical feature is providing a greater number of ports for plugging in additional ethernet cables. The main factor in deciding on which type and model of LAN switch to buy will be the demand created by the size and scope of the network you wish to connect through it.

Accordingly, the number of ethernet ports a given switch provides can range from as few as three, up to 50 and well beyond. (Where extremely heavy duty industrial network switches are needed, it’s even possible to find versions offering 100 or more, although these are considerably less common and more expensive.)

What are the different types of network switches?

There are many different types of network switches available on today's market.

Stackable network switch

A stackable switch is one that can be used either as a fully standalone hub, or combined with multiple other stackable switches to offer an even greater range of connectivity options. When combined, stackable versions are typically designed to perform and respond as a single large/complex switch, but with the combined port count of however many units are connected together.

Other types of network swtich include:

Unmanaged network switch

This tends to be the most basic type, and effectively functions as an easy way to add more ethernet ports to your setup. Unmanaged switches usually don’t require any further input from the user beyond hooking up their devices via ethernet cables, and as such are often referred to as ‘plug and play’ or a simple LAN switch.

These switches are often used in small offices or homes where precise network control is not as crucial.

    Main benefits:
  • Plug in and play
  • Simple to use
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Managed network switch

These switches are used for greater control and advanced functionality, managed switches offer a built-in dashboard or similar interface (often displayed through a connected web browser). This provides admin-level users with a suite of tools for monitoring and tweaking various aspects of the network configuration as traffic flows through it.

Depending on the model in question, options might include anything from access privileges, port mirroring and redundancy, to data transfer rates (port speed), device prioritisation and more. Managed network switches can either be designed as a fully manual switch or a smart switch - the former tends to be the most versatile and expensive for very complex networking requirements (server and enterprise-level setups), while smart switches are usually more user-friendly, cheaper, and provide a more limited range of configuration options.

    Main benefits:
  • Customisable
  • Features a user interface
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PoE network switch

Regardless of whether you opt for a managed or unmanaged networking hub, you may also choose a PoE or ‘Power over Ethernet’ switch.

As the name implies, these models enable power to be transferred to compatible devices via connected RJ45 cables, as opposed to just data. If your network includes several PoE-enabled devices, buying a switch with this feature baked in can result in a far neater and more flexible solution, dramatically cutting down on excess cabling (notably to wall sockets), and enhancing overall LAN scalability and reliability.

Please note that not all hardware is intrinsically PoE compatible; you’ll need to check the specifications for each individual device you wish to connect.

    Common PoE-enabled devices:
  • VOIP phones
  • IP surveillance cameras
  • APs and RFID readers
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What is the difference between network switches and routers?

When it comes to router vs switch, many people often confuse these closely related pieces of hardware. In practice, though, the fundamental difference between a switch and a router is fairly straightforward once you understand what a switch does. As we’ve already learned above, a switch allows multiple devices on the same network to communicate with each other.

A router, meanwhile, allows multiple different networks to communicate with one another. This is the role played by your ISP-supplied WiFi router at home, for example: it communicates with external networks to deliver an internet connection into your house from outside. A network switch cannot do this - instead, it exists to provide greater versatility and flexibility on the network a router brings in.

The confusion between routers, switches and hubs typically arises because certain hardware models (particularly higher-end modern routers) can offer a limited range of functions taken from all three of these device types, most often in the form of multiple built-in ethernet ports. However, note that even when certain features of a router, hub and network switch are combined into a single device, the capabilities and roles of each remain technically distinct from one another.

What speeds can network switches handle?

When trying to pick the best ethernet switch for a given set of networking requirements, you’ll find most suppliers and manufacturers tend to list their products according to one of three or more general speed categories. These are:
  • Fast ethernet switches (FS) - 10/100 Mbps (standard IEEE 802.3u)
  • Gigabit network switches (GS or JGS) - 10/100/1000 Mbps (standard IEEE 802.3-2008)
  • Ten gigabit network switches (GSS) - 10/100/1000/10000 Mbps (standard IEEE 802.3a)
  • You may also see various other ethernet speeds and standards noted, such as 2.5 Gbps, 5 Gbps, 25 Gbps, 40 Gbps, 50 Gbps or 100 Gbps - these tend to be developed for more specialised applications

From all we’ve covered so far, you’ll no doubt have gathered that the best network switch for home isn’t necessarily going to be the best network switch for small business, gaming or enterprise use.

In fact, each of these applications will have considerably different requirements to bear in mind, largely depending on the scale and speed of connectivity you need to create a stable and strong-performing network. While speed is always an important consideration, the first specification many buyers look for when choosing a switch for their home or office network will be the number of ports it offers.

More ports means greater flexibility across the network, but the amount of traffic able to flow through the network at any one time - in other words, the number of connected devices and users a network can comfortably support - will be limited by various factors, not least the bandwidth of your internet connection.


Fast ethernet switches (10/100 Mbps)


Gigabit network switches (10/100/1000 Mbps)


20mbps network switches

How many network switch ports do you need for your network?

In trying to decide how many network switch ports your setup requires (and can handle!) for optimal convenience and performance, it’s wise to consider the following factors:
  • How many wired devices you want to connect, bearing in mind potential future device purchases
  • How much you’re willing to spend on a network switch
  • Whether you’d prefer to use a managed or unmanaged switch
  • Whether you require, or can make use of, advanced PoE models (either now or in the future)
  • What sort of bandwidth your current router and/or internet connection can comfortably support, and whether you may need to upgrade

Popular choices for home networking often include small-to-medium sized hubs, such as 4-port, 5-port or 8-port network switches, while more complex enterprise or server networks may require far more costly and capable hardware such as a 64-port PoE switch.

What network switch brands are there?

Whether shopping for home use or as part of a more complex workplace networking setup, you’ll usually find several major manufacturers commonly listed among the best-known and most popular network switch brands.

Go-to names for quality, reliability, advanced functionality and strong value for money frequently include:


Netgear network switches


D-link network switches


Cisco network switches


Allied Telesis network switches


Startech network switches


Edimax network switches


Are network switches secure?

Certain models allow for far greater visibility and control over who gains access to your network than others. Managed switches are typically far more secure than unmanaged versions, as the latter generally feature ‘open’ ports - meaning anyone with physical access to the switch can theoretically connect any piece ethernet-enabled hardware, and instantly be admitted to the network via that device. Managed switches usually include options to prevent this.

Are network switches plug and play?

Simple unmanaged LAN switches tend to be, and are very simple to join or disconnect from - this can be advantageous in environments where security isn’t as critical, such as on a home network. For finer control, albeit with greater complexity when it comes to configuring and joining a network, choose a managed or smart switch.

Can you connect network switches together?

Yes, if the switches in question are specified as ‘stackable’ - if so, they’ll typically function as a single switch when connected together, but with the combined port count of all the switches in the array.

Can a network switch get a virus?

While the answer to this question can, in certain circumstances, be ‘technically yes’, the more helpful answer is ‘not usually’ (the issue really comes down to what sorts of firmware the switch in question is operating, and how it’s used/updated). As with a router, in security terms it’s more helpful to think of a switch as a simple bridging accessory, rather than a virus-vulnerable device in itself. In this sense, even if viruses don’t particularly target switches per se, they can certainly be transferred to more vulnerable devices via a network - if an infected file is shared and opened by other users, for example. Note that hardware viruses can’t typically be transferred directly to other connected devices via a switch (or router) without any individual user agency; some sort of manual end-user action, such as running a compromised programme, is almost always required for infection of a specific device to occur.

How long do network switches last?

As with desktop computer chips, phones, and almost any other sort of electronic devices, this one is a bit ‘how long is a piece of string?’. The received wisdom a decade ago was that a low-to-average life expectancy for switches and comparable items of networking gear should generally be somewhere in the region of 5 years or so. Even then, though, this was a very rough estimate, with plenty of anecdotal evidence to contradict it (usually for the better!). Today, improved hardware implementation, more advanced engineering, lower power draw and reduced heat generation can all mean that switches might well last much longer than they once did. While there’s still no hard and fast answer, you’ll typically see considerable degradation in performance long before a network switch gives out entirely, if it ever does.

Can a network switch be wireless?

Wireless network switches do technically exist, but for most user applications they somewhat miss the point of the whole ‘wired hub’ approach - namely better, faster, stronger connections across a range of devices and locations. Wireless access points tend to involve some degree of compromise in terms of throughput and bandwidth compared to wired versions, especially when multiple devices and users are connected at once. While exceptions to this rule of thumb do of course exist, there are other practical considerations that make a wired switch a better option in most scenarios. If the WiFi functionality of a wireless gadget fails, then the entire system is rendered inoperable until it’s fixed or replaced - but you can always add a wireless hub to a wired switch, which then offers the best of both worlds if you want to cut down on cable clutter.

Can a network switch be overloaded?

Yes, for a number of different reasons - insufficient bandwidth, too many users or devices connected at once, so-called ‘broadcast storms’ (basically an unexpected request overload), outdated hardware, ISP throttling... if you’re experienced compromised performance through a network switch, there’s a long list of things you may need to check on.

A managed switch makes this much easier to do, or course, and also provides numerous options for troubleshooting. However, if your existing switch itself is ultimately determined to be the cause of any bottlenecks, then it may be time to upgrade to one that better meets the demands of your network.