Demystifying network switches: A brief guide for beginners

Understand the basics of network switching with this easy-to-follow guide. Explore the benefits and advantages of network switches.
Christopher McFadden
Discover the wonderful world of network switches.


  • A network switch is a fundamental networking component essential to contemporary computer networks.
  • It is responsible for joining various devices within a network and guiding data bits to the right place.
  • Each sort and configuration of a network switch is intended for particular networking environments and applications.

As you will discover, network switches are critical computer network components. In short, if you have ever used a computer network, chances are your data has passed through one of these at some point.

But what are they? If you have no idea, join us as we dive into the world of network switches. Here we will talk about their types, uses, and basic tasks. We will also review some essential factors when choosing a network switch for your business or personal needs.

So. let's get right in, shall we?

What is a network switch used for?

Demystifying network switches: A brief guide for beginners
What are network switches anyway?

A network switch is a networking tool that links objects on a computer network together. It is a piece of hardware that connects different devices in a network by using packet switching to send data to the suitable device.

In a sense, though this is not a perfect analogy, a network switch can be thought of as a modern-day equivalent of a telephone exchange. Just as a telephone exchange routes calls between different phones, a network switch routes data packets between other networked devices.

A network switch, which works at the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI for short — more on that later) model's data link layer, tells data packets where to go. It looks at the data packets' target addresses and sends them to the right device.

Network switches are used at home, in small businesses, and in large corporations. They make it easy and safe for devices to talk to each other so that users can send data quickly and safely.

Switches can also be used to split a network into separate subnetworks for different types of traffic or to make the network more secure. In other words, a network switch is an important part of modern computer networks, making it easier for networked devices to talk to each other.

What is Open Systems Interconnection?

The Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) conceptual model explains how a computer or communications network's communication features operate.

The OSI model comprises seven levels, and each level describes a set of tasks that must be done for networked devices to send and receive data reliably.

The OSI model's seven levels are as follows:

  • Layer 1: AKA the "Physical Layer," defines the network's tangible characteristics, specifying the electrical and mechanical requirements for network connectors and the encoding and decoding of signals. This layer includes the physical equipment involved in the data transfer and is where the data s converted into a bit stream.
  • Layer 2: The "Data Connection (or Link) Layer" sends data frames over the physical layer. It offers mechanisms for detecting and fixing transmission errors, ensuring that data is transmitted without error. This layer facilitates data transfer between two devices on the same network.
  • Layer 3: The "Network Layer" is in charge of directing data between various networks. It breaks up segments into smaller units, called packets on the sender’s device, and reassembles the packets on the receiving device. The network layer also finds the best physical path for the data to reach its destination. This is called routing.
  • Layer 4: The "Transport Layer" provides end-to-end data transport services, such as flow management, error correction, and congestion control. It guarantees effective and dependable data delivery between devices. The transport layer is also responsible for flow control and error control.
  • Layer 5: The "Session Layer" is responsible for opening and closing communication between the two devices, known as the session. It creates and controls sessions for device-to-device interactions. It offers methods for creating, sustaining, and severing links and synchronizing data transfer between devices.
  • Layer 6: Data manipulation and depiction are the responsibilities of the "Presentation Layer." It ensures that data is displayed consistently so that both sending and receiving devices can understand. The presentation layer is responsible for translation, encryption, and compression of data.
  • Layer 7: AKA the "Application Layer," is the only layer that directly interacts with data from the user. It offers protocols and data manipulation that software, such as email, web browsers, remote login, and file sharing, relies on to present meaningful data to the user. In addition to actively interacting with software programs running on networked devices, it offers a user interface for gaining access to network services.

The OSI model offers a standardized method to describe the various functions of a network and the interactions between devices, making it a valuable tool for network designers and engineers.

How do network switches work?

Network switches are devices that link various network components and enable their communication. A switch employs MAC (Media Access Control) addresses to forward data between networked devices as it operates at the OSI model's Layer 2.

To identify which port the target MAC address is connected to when a device sends data to another device on the network, the switch reads the source MAC address of the incoming data and consults its internal MAC address table.

The switch will broadcast the data to all ports besides the one it got it from if the MAC address is not listed in the table.

The switch forwards the data out of that port after identifying the proper port for the target MAC address and updating its internal MAC address table to link the source MAC address to the port it was received on. As a result, the switch can quickly forward data between devices without being broadcast to the complete network.

Switches can carry out other tasks, including port mirroring, Quality of Service (QoS) priority, and VLAN (Virtual LAN) tagging.

While port mirroring enables a switch to copy all data traveling through one port and send it to another for monitoring or analysis, VLAN tagging allows a switch to group ports into virtual networks isolated from one another.

To guarantee they receive enough bandwidth and reduce latency, a switch can give certain kinds of data, like VoIP (Voice over IP) or video streaming, a higher priority using QoS prioritization.

Demystifying network switches: A brief guide for beginners
Network switches are vital to computer networks.

What is a network switch versus a router?

A network switch and a router are both networking devices used to connect devices on a computer network. While they may have some similarities, there are also some key differences between them.

A network switch works at the OSI model's Layer 2 and sends data packets to the right device. It connects multiple devices in a network by using packet switching to send data to the right device.

On the other hand, a router works at Layer 3 of the OSI model, and its job is to send data packets between networks. It connects different networks using a routing table to determine the best path for data to travel between them.

The main difference between a network switch and a router is how they handle data packets. A switch forwards data packets within a network, while a router forwards data packets between networks.

Another key difference is the number of ports they have. Routers usually have fewer ports than network switches and are used to connect two or more networks. Network switches connect multiple devices within a network, while routers connect two or more networks.

In summary, a network switch is used to connect devices within a network, while a router is used to connect networks. Both play essential roles in modern computer networks and work together to ensure that devices and networks can connect quickly and reliably.

What are the different types of network switches?

There are several different types of network switches, each designed for specific networking environments and applications. Some of the most common types of network switches include:

  • Unmanaged switch: An unmanaged switch is a basic switch that does not require any configuration. It is typically used in small networks and is easy to set up and use.
  • Managed switch: A managed switch is a switch that allows for advanced configuration options, such as virtual LANs (VLANs), Quality of Service (QoS) settings, and port mirroring. It is typically used in larger networks where more control over network traffic is required.
  • Gigabit Ethernet switch: A gigabit Ethernet switch is a switch that supports gigabit Ethernet speeds (1 gigabit per second). It is typically used in networks that require high-speed data transfer, such as video streaming or large file transfers.
  • Power over Ethernet (PoE) switch: A PoE switch is a switch that provides power to PoE-enabled devices, such as IP cameras and VoIP phones, over Ethernet cables. It eliminates the need for separate power supplies for these devices.

  • Stackable switch: A stackable switch is a switch that can be stacked with other switches to create a single, high-performance network. It is typically used in large networks where high availability and scalability are required.
  • Layer 3 switch: A Layer 3 switch is a switch that can perform routing functions at the network layer. It is typically used in networks that require both switching and routing capabilities.

Overall, the choice of network switch will depend on the organization's or individual's specific networking requirements, as well as the size and complexity of the network.

Do I need a router or a switch?

Depending on your organization's or your needs' particular networking requirements, you may need a switch or a router.

A router is usually necessary to link numerous networks, such as by connecting your local network to the internet. A router can also offer security features like a firewall to safeguard your network from outside dangers.

On the other hand, a switch is frequently used to link numerous devices together within a network. You might not need a switch if your network only has a few devices and can connect them straight to your router.

A switch, however, can enhance efficiency as your network expands and you add more devices by facilitating more effective data transfer between devices.

A router with built-in switch capability may be adequate if you have a small home network with a few devices.

However, you might need to spend money on both a router and a switch if your network is bigger or you need more sophisticated networking features. Before choosing between a router, switch, or both, thoroughly assessing your networking needs and requirements is crucial.

And that's your lot for today.

To sum up, a network switch is an essential part of contemporary computer networks that enables devices to interact with one another effectively and securely. Organizations and people can choose the best control for their networking requirements by knowing network switches' various types and configurations.

Choosing the appropriate network switch is crucial to ensuring dependable and effective performance, whether setting up a small home network or a large business network. We trust that this article has given you a helpful overview of network switches and will assist you in choosing the right switch for your networking requirements.

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