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Managed Ethernet switches have more capability than unmanaged switches, but they also require a skilled administrator or engineer to make the most of them. A managed switch enables you to have better control of your network and all the data frames moving through it. Unmanaged switches, on the other hand, enable connected devices to communicate with one another in their most basic form.
Below, we compare the differences between managed and unmanaged switches.
Unmanaged Ethernet switches
Unmanaged switches use autonegotiated ports to determine parameters such as the data rate and whether to use half-duplex or full-duplex mode. Additionally, unmanaged switches have no concept of virtual LANs (VLANs). Thus, all devices belong to the same broadcast domain.
Unmanaged switches do maintain a media access control (MAC) address table, however. This table keeps track of dynamically learned MAC addresses and the corresponding switch port on which the MAC address was learned. The inclusion of a MAC address table means unmanaged switches do offer a separate, per-port collision domain. This is a key differentiator between an unmanaged Ethernet switch and an Ethernet hub.
Managed Ethernet switches
A major difference between managed and unmanaged switches is control. A managed switch lets you adjust each port on the switch to any setting you desire, enabling you to monitor and configure your network in many ways. It also provides greater control over how data travels over the network and who has access to it. Managed switches generally offer Simple Network Management Protocol, which enables you to monitor the status of the switch and individual switch ports and gives you statistics like traffic throughput, network errors and port status.
Features available on managed switches may vary among manufacturers and models, but they often include the following:
- Spanning Tree Protocol support for switch and link redundancy without creating loops;
- the ability to implement quality of service;
- VLAN support;
- bandwidth rate limiting; and
- port mirroring.
Managed switch ports can be configured as trunks, a process that tags data frames with a VLAN ID and transports multiple VLAN frames across a single link. Multiple ports can also be virtually combined to form port aggregated links that transport at speeds of two, four and eight times the speed of a single link. Lastly, managed Ethernet switches usually have a remotely accessible console -- command-line or web interface -- to enable administrators to make configuration changes or adjustments without being in the same physical location.
Another difference between managed and unmanaged switches is pricing. Managed switches are quite a bit more expensive than unmanaged switches, as they require software patches and updates and -- often -- a skilled professional for implementation. That said, when you have complex networks that consist of PC servers, wireless access points and IoT devices, the configuration options found on managed switches are often necessary.
Smart switches fill some of the gaps between unmanaged and managed switches. They offer better management and configuration control -- as well as VLAN support -- than unmanaged switches, but they are still limited when it comes to full configuration capabilities. Pricing for smart switches falls between managed and unmanaged switches.
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