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What is the difference between a managed and unmanaged switch?

Our routing and switching expert explains the difference between a managed and unmanaged switch, pointing out that although a managed switch is more complex and requires skill to maintain, it offers many benefits for network control and configuration.

QUESTION: What is the difference between a managed and unmanaged switch?

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Managed switches have more capability than unmanaged switches but also require a skilled administrator or engineer to make the most of them. A managed switch allows you have better control of your network and all the traffic moving through it. An unmanaged switch allows Ethernet devices to communicate with one another automatically using auto-negotiation to determine parameters such as the data rate and whether to use half-duplex or full-duplex mode.

A managed switch lets you adjust each port on the switch to any setting you desire, allowing you to monitor and configure your network in many different ways. It also provides greater control over how data travels over the network and who has access to it. Managed switches generally offer SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol), which allows you to monitor the status of connections and gives you statistics like traffic throughput, network errors and port status.

Features available on managed switches may vary between manufacturers and models, but often include Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) support, ability to implement quality of service (QoS), support for virtual LANs (VLANs), bandwidth rate limiting and port mirroring. These switches usually have a remotely accessible console (command line or Web interface) to allow administrators to make changes or adjustments without being in the same physical location.

Managed switches are also quite a bit more expensive. Setting them up may take a little longer as compared to unmanaged switches, which are generally plug and play.

This was first published in September 2008

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