In today's marketplace, a wide variety of routers and switches exist to help computer users maintain their environments. It can often be difficult to decide on the type of equipment to purchase that meets the needs for the environment. While many articles discuss what makes a switch a switch and what makes a router a router, this article focuses mostly on delineating the characteristics between enterprise and home devices.
The first decision that must be made is whether or not to purchase a router or a switch. Regardless of media (i.e. wireless, 100Mbps or GigE), a switch is responsible for reducing collision domains, while a router divides up the broadcast domains. In layman's terms, the switch is used to connect several workstations or servers that need to talk to one another. A router is needed to connect a group of networks together so that the networks can talk to one another. For home office users, typically one switch and one router are used. For enterprises, however, one heavy duty switch and router are just the tip of the iceberg.
The main distinguishing factor between a home router and an enterprise router is the supported functionality. For home routers, the main focus is to concentrate on routing between small networks and a single Internet access point. Depending on the number of devices at the home office, a 10-port Internet router switch tends to meet all of the users needs. For enterprise equipment, routing protocols, logging and communication between device tiers are requirements. Many platform decisions are based on the conditions that the network will be placed in at maximum load and capacity. This will help determine what equipment is right for the environment.
What to look for in a home switch/router
The primary focus of home equipment manufacturers is ease of use with little-to-no technical background. However, certain key decisions should be made to support the home or home office computing environment. The first one that people generally ask about is wireless or wired connections. Additional decisions must be made to determine security parameters if a wireless router is required, along with how many connections should be required for the house or home office. Generally, there is not a requirement for extensive communication between dozens of routers, so routing protocols are not as prevalent a feature. Additionally, logging capabilities are nice to have for troubleshooting purposes but are not as extensively required.
Wireless and/or wired connectivity may be required for the home office. For a home office with a central file server and a great deal of traffic going between the machines staying local to the house, wired connections should be used. This way bandwidth limitation will not be reached. There may also be a need for a hybrid solution of a wired switch to connect the various workstations together, but a wireless router to connect the desktops and the laptops to the Internet will usually suffice.
For a typical home network, a 10/100 Mbps switch with a dozen connections, a wireless access point, and a wireless router tend to be the basic requirements. But for enterprise networks this limited amount of network connectivity doesn't connect a whole floor of a building -- much less the enterprise. For enterprises, many decisions must be made to ensure reliable connectivity. On top of the individual device connections to the network, the devices should be able to communicate with one another in the most effective manner possible. This is where a lot of the advanced features in enterprise routers and switches come into play.
Enterprise routers and switches
While enterprise routers and switches continue to perform the same types of functions their home office counterparts do, the functionality is provided on a much larger scale. Switches still allow devices inside the same network to communicate with one another, while routers segment the various networks. Some enterprise switches also have the ability to route packets like a router would. This is effective when large volumes of traffic need to be routed at extremely fast rates. So the first packet gets routed by the router aspect of the switch and then the switch continues to switch the next packets or distribute them via a route map. This mechanism is also known as "fast switching." Most enterprise switches will see this type of equipment in their core layer of the network where fast switching between many various networks needs to occur.
With other enterprise devices, be it switches or routers, the important features are their ability to communicate with the other devices on the network. Enterprise routers support various routing protocols that allow the routers to establish the best routes for traffic throughout the network. In designing and integrating networks, the routing protocols chosen will help network designers choose the right equipment. For example, many vendors support their own implementation of routing protocols that are proprietary to their equipment. If that protocol is chosen for choosing the appropriate route, then all equipment in the environment would have to be able to talk to one another using that proprietary routing protocol. For large environments that do not want to use a single networking vendor, several routing protocols are standard among equipment vendors. To choose the right enterprise router or switch, the routing protocols supported and configuration features are essential.
Additional features of enterprise devices are reporting and logging capabilities. In complex environments where hundreds of switches and routers are used to transfer data, it's essential that the enterprise platforms have the ability to log errors, report upon traffic, utilization, or volumes. For enterprises, troubleshooting tools are essential to diagnosing and resolving issues in the environment. Most home equipment contains only limited reporting diagnostic equipment.
For enterprise routers and switches, the equipment supports hundreds of thousands of connections. These devices are designed to scale and allow networks to communicate effectively while dividing the network into manageable networks. With home networks, the scale is smaller and tends to never exceed 100 connections. Most home devices are designed for small networks of 10 or more desktops, printers, or laptops. Enterprise devices have advanced logging functionality for assisting engineers with troubleshooting and issue diagnosis. Most home devices provide some logging but tend to not have the full diagnostics available to the users.
The biggest difference between home and enterprise equipment is their ability to communicate with one another. Enterprise routers and switches are primarily designed to talk to one another. Thus they support various routing protocols and the Spanning Tree protocol to prevent bridging loops. With home devices they rarely have to have complex routing or switching protocols, thus they tend to be called "unmanaged." So while the basic functionality is the same for switches and routers used in the home office and enterprise, the manageability of the devices differentiates the roles of the equipment.
Lindi Horton is a performance engineer for NetQoS and the network administration expert for SearchNetworking.com.