1. Introduction

In this tutorial, we’ll learn the differences between managed and unmanaged switches. Both types of switches are widely used, but they’re applied to different contexts. Therefore, understanding their differences is critical to getting the most cost-effective and fulfilling the network requirements.

In short, the main difference is: unmanaged switches have limited features and no configuration interfaces, while managed switches have a wider range of configurable features. This makes managed and unmanaged switches also differ in terms of performance, security, costs, and application.

In order to allow a deeper understanding of the differences, we’ll first present the main features of each of them. Next, we’ll systematically compare managed and unmanaged switches. Finally, we point out some considerations to be taken into account when choosing the ideal switch for each case.

2. Unmanaged Switches

Unmanaged switches are the simplest. They require no prior configuration but offer no configuration support for their features. We can plug multiple network devices into it, and the devices can already communicate with each other. What makes this possible is that unmanaged switches have auto-negotiated ports which automatically determine communication parameters. These include data rates and transmission mode (half-duplex or full-duplex).

All devices that we connect to an unmanaged switch can communicate with each other. Technically, we say that all devices are in the same broadcast domain. Therefore, an important feature of such switches is the ability to maintain a table of Media Access Control (MAC) addresses. The table maps each connected device’s MAC address to its corresponding switch port. It enables the switch to send outgoing data on the specific port required to reach its destination instead of broadcasting the data on all ports (flooding).

Unmanaged switches can also include built-in QoS (Quality of Service) features. However, the QoS parameters are statically set, and we aren’t able to modify them.

3. Managed Switches

Managed switches are more sophisticated and robust in terms of both features and performance. They offer several additional features and allow configuration and management of them. Despite this, they don’t require prior configuration of the most basic features and also work as plug-and-play.

In the table below, let’s look at some of the main features that are commonly available on managed switches:

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Managed switches allow us to access the configuration of these and other features in different ways. A command-line interface that we can access via serial console, telnet, or SSH (Secure Shell) is a common method. Another typical form is a web interface that we can access via a web browser.

4. Comparison

Let’s highlight some main points to compare the switches. Let’s examine these points.

4.1. Performance

Usually, unmanaged switches have built-in QoS mechanisms. Although these mechanisms are static (we cannot change them), they’re enough to ensure that simple networks work well. However, managed switches, in addition to having QoS mechanisms, allow us to adjust their parameters according to the needs and behavior of the network. One example of this is that we can prioritize certain network traffic.

Other features of managed switches also allow us to enhance their performance. For example, SNMP support or even port mirroring allows us to monitor the network to make decisions based on metrics and perform control actions (such as limiting the bandwidth of a port). Therefore, managed switches perform better than unmanaged switches, but how better will depend on the technical skills of those who operate them.

4.2. Security

In general, unmanaged switches have very basic security. Usually, the mechanisms of unmanaged switches are related only to physical security. For example, they may have accessories such as the Kensington Security Slot (an anti-theft system) or lockable port covers.

On the other hand, manageable switches have several features that provide security. We can create ACLs to keep out unauthorized users/traffics. We can also use VLANs to offer temporary or limited access to a network for those that normally shouldn’t have access.

Despite its benefits, however, the deep network control offered by managed switches can potentially lead to vulnerabilities. So we need to manage the access privileges to the switch properly. Only technically qualified people with the proper permissions should’ve access.

4.3. Pricing

The price of switches is generally related to the number of ports we need and the bandwidth of these ports. The more ports and bandwidth, the more expensive the switch.

Therefore, we should take care to compare only managed and unmanaged switches of models of the same manufacturer, line, number of ports, and bandwidth. Usually, managed switches cost twice as much or even more than unmanaged ones. The price of managed switches still varies according to the offered features.

4.4. Summary

The table below summarizes the main differences between managed and unmanaged switches.

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5. When to Use Each One?

We need to consider a few points when choosing between managed and unmanaged switches. The first one is the network size (in terms of the number of connected devices). There’s usually no need to invest in a managed switch for a small network. Therefore, an unmanaged switch is the best option. However, it can be catastrophic for a medium, or especially a large network, not having adequate management. Thus, a managed switch is the most appropriate option.

A second point that we have to consider is the amount of traffic on the network. In some cases, even small networks can generate a lot of traffic. Therefore, in high-traffic networks, a managed switch is the best option. This is because its features allow us to avoid failures caused by network bottlenecks and other issues.

Finally, we should only employ a managed switch in a network if someone manages it properly. If there isn’t, we can have two kinds of problems. In the best case, we’ll only have a financial loss as we pay for features we’ll not use (or get the most out of). In the worst case, improper management can hurt the network in every way a managed switch does, including reduced performance and security.

6. Conclusion

In this article, we studied the differences between managed and unmanaged switches: what they’re and how to choose the most appropriate one.

If the network is more robust, we’ll need more control and performance, so the managed switch is the best option because of its many features. However, we can opt for an unmanaged switch in simpler networks since its basic features are usually sufficient, and the cost will be lower.

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