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Unmanaged or Managed Switches, Which to Choose for SMB Network?

Network switches are an essential part to build networks for small-to-medium-sized businesses, which tend to encounter confusion about which type of switch to adopt, typically, there are two categories, namely, unmanaged switches and managed switches. This article aims to explain the concept of network switches, take a look at the differences as well as attempt to offer some recommendations on choosing the suited type for SMB network.

What is a Network Switch Meant for?

First of all, it’s wise to learn the basics about network switches before we go ahead with the differences between the two types of switches, as only when you have a rough understanding of network switches, and it is helpful to make the decision easily. In the following, we are going to get you covered with the definition, importance, applications, and expectations referring to network switches.

Definition of Network Switches

In most cases, businesses rely on local area networks (LAN) to achieve data transmission and communication. In simple terms, all the devices connected to LAN are permitted to send and share data with one another directly without the help of the Internet. And network switches are the devices to help with that. Network switches receive data from the source and forward it to the targeted devices, and this is the so-called switching capability. 

Importance of Network Switches for Businesses

Network switches are fundamental networking hardware for small to medium-sized businesses(SMBs), which act as the “brain” of the network for traffic control, enabling businesses to communicate and share information over the LAN, serving a specific geographic area, like offices, buildings, warehouses, etc. This largely enhances work efficiency and promotes collaboration to some extent. 

Moreover, businesses often contain more network devices, that being said, a huge amount of data is generated and needs to be managed, which is beyond handling by staff. While with the assistance of network switches, the work of traffic management can be accomplished correctly and effectively. As a result, they are useful to streamline operations and minimize complications.

Common Applications of Network Switches in Small-to-Medium Sized Businesses

Network switches are applied to serve various network devices in small to medium-sized businesses. SMBs generally use network switches to connect computers, printers, and servers within the buildings or properties. For some SMBs integrated with IP communication, IP security camera system, and wireless coverage, applications like VoIP phones, IP cameras, and wireless access points are connected and controlled by network switches.

Expectations for Appropriate SMB Network Switches

Although SMBs can be defined in different fields and their networks are supposed to have specific needs in practical scenarios, there are some worth-including expectations for suitable network switches to build an effective SMB network.

  • A qualified network switch should serve high network speed to ensure smooth data transmission without the network being stuck in the process of work.
  • Supply good voice quality in commercial calls, which is of great importance for SMBs.
  • Easy to install and use is always a major factor for small businesses to look into for quick deployment without additional investment.
  • Affordable but no discount on quality, this is critical to small businesses with a tight budget.

What are Unmanaged Switches?

Unmanaged switches, aka plug-and-play network switches, are the basic network switches that just make network devices connected with one another for communication. They require the simplest setup with fixed configuration, and ask for little IT technical knowledge, for these reasons, most of them lack advanced features on promoting network management or security. The majority are simple desktop switches for home or small business uses.

What are Managed Switches?

By contrast, managed switches are deemed as a more complicated version of unmanaged switches, offering more capabilities in network management and control for setting up a customized-style network to meet different businesses. These switches allow managers or IT staff to manage, configure and monitor the network, even on each port. Managed switches also support a greater level of traffic flow control, thus, demanding businesses have a larger preference for using them. In a nutshell, managed switches always do more things than unmanaged switches.

How to Differentiate Between Unmanaged and Managed Switches? 

To differentiate the two types of network switches, effectively, at its core, is mainly to understand what additional capabilities and features are provided by managed switches because managed switches actually can do all the things that unmanaged network switches supported. Below we will walk through a number of essential capabilities and benefits of managed network switches.

Flexible Configuration 

As illustrated previously, managed network switches unlike unmanaged network switches featuring fixed configurations, these switches offer flexible configurations to satisfy practical applications with different levels of requirements on management, monitoring as well as control for optimal utility, performance, and protection.

Granular Monitoring

Managed switches do better than unmanaged switches by supporting granular monitoring on the network to enhance stability and efficiency. 

Simple Network Management Protocol(SNMP)

Simple Network Management Protocol is the universal standard used for managing and monitoring networks. With the SNMP protocol being implemented, the IT managers are able to monitor the status and performance of all the connected devices within the LAN without physical touch on the switches. In addition, managers are even capable of flagging potential risks beforehand and fixing problems remotely with no need to present on site.

Port Mirroring

Port Mirroring is an ability offered by managed switches that aims to help IT managers to diagnose problems of the network that may occur. With proper configuration on Port Mirroring, it allows sending copies of traffic that might trigger issues to any port of the same managed network switch for convenient analysis via a network analyzer. That being said, managers can diagnose and fix problems without the need to make the network out of function.

Greater Performance 

What’s more, managed switches serve greater performance with the help of QoS and Prot Aggregation. Let’s take a closer look into them and learn how you may benefit from them.

Quality of Service(QoS)

Quality of Service is a practical capability letting IT managers have the authority to allocate prioritization on network traffic along with management of available bandwidth. For a smooth network system run, it is rational to ensure the most important data traffic goes first. QoS of managed switch helps reach the goal by implementing customized rules created by IT managers, enabling specific devices to obtain priority of packets of data. Giving more bandwidth to particular devices that frequently interchange data between them is a typical use case.

Port Aggregation

Managed network switches provide another way to realize greater performance, namely Port Aggregation. It is a function that allows IT managers to combine multiple ports to work as if one single port for increased bandwidth and redundancy. For instance, if the switches supply 1 Gigabit network speed of one single Ethernet port, and aggregate the other three spare ports, the four gigabit ports will be transferred to one that supports 4 Gigabit network speed. 

Network Segment

Managed switches can generate network segments to reduce unnecessary traffic and allow IT managers to set up a separate network for enhanced security by defining specific access. The job relies on the Virtual Local Area Network(VLAN) to accomplish. VLAN permit IT, managers, to group devices working together with no need to run new cable or change existing network infrastructure. For example, generally, there are different types of data networks within an SMB network, they may be under-managed by different departments, or designed to serve different targets, a segregated network is useful to define accurate access and explicit responsibility.

Superior Security 

The other difference between both network switches is the security level. Managed network switches offer superior security to ensure quick recovery when encountering issues like network failure or device breakdown. 


Redundancy is an approach help maintain the stability of the network with continuous operation. It can be regarded as a backup mechanism to make a quick swap over a redundant side of the switch, and it also provides fast convergence to set up additional or replacement switches thanks to its ability to make copies of configuration. Rapid Spanning Tree Protocol is the most common option to serve redundancy. This is a crucial need for businesses that want to get rid of costly downtime.

Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) 

Spanning Tree Protocol(STP), similar to redundancy, is a link management protocol that is used to avoid loops in the LAN. Loops are prone to occur in the network with multiple paths, and they are dangerous to the network, as the image that one node encounters an issue might result in the whole network to a grinding halt. STP can help create the redundant link as standby when the network fails at one or multiple points. It makes great use to ensure system stability with automatic recovery.

Ethernet Ring Protection Switching (ERPS)

There is another way to generate a backup link to achieve fast recovery and enhanced network security, which is using Ethernet Ring Protection Switching(ERPS). It is a dedicated protocol applied for Ethernet ring topology. ERPS is meant to prevent broadcast storms caused by bridging loops within a complete ring topology network, and it also shows its great use to help recover data transmission for each node when if there is a breakdown on one of the links immediately and fast.

Basic Requirements for Employing Complex Managed Switches

Proper Configuration

To employ managed network switches, it is important to ensure a proper configuration, as improper configuration might result in numerous headaches. As noted earlier, managed network switches require more installation complexity to achieve optimal performance of the advanced features offered. The fundamental is to get the job accomplished by network managers or IT staff with a wealth of knowledge of networks and skillful operation. Moreover, constant monitoring and periodical inspection of the network to maintain the consistency of operation is critical to business normal productivity and work, especially for those hardly afford network downtime. To sum up, it is a must to be well prepared to start setting up managed network switches in case of unnecessary investment and downtime.

Partially Managed or Fully Managed?

It is also of essential significance to determine which type of managed switches to choose from. There are fully managed network switches and some others only support partial management capabilities available in the market, which are known as smart-managed switches. The so-called smart-managed switches can be simply defined as the compromise of unmanaged switches and fully managed switches, providing basic features of network management and control and being sold at a lower price. Provided that a business network calls for fewer demands on management and control of the network, a smart managed switch is a no-brain option.

Unmanaged Switches VS. Managed Switches: Which Type to Choose

Now that you have an overall awareness of the differences between both types of network switches, the next thing or the key point is to determine which type to choose and apply for business networking. Only considering their capability or performance, using managed switches, undoubtedly, is the best choice. But in the process of seeking which one to use, there are some other factors that should be taken into account, and make effects the final decision. To help you figure out the answer, some recommendations or opinions will be illustrated in the following.

Put simply, go for managed network switches if the budget allows. Managed network switches cost considerably more than unmanaged ones owing to additional features provided for a higher level of management and control. By contrast, unmanaged switches can do limited capabilities. More importantly, managed switches are always the preference to satisfy future applications as businesses grow. In fact, in most cases, with the growth of business scale, containing much more devices is inevitable, and putting out managed network switches is the ultimate solution to meet increasing network needs. Utilize managed switch in provision of future can save the hassle of replacement and upgrade within quite a long certain period.

Nonetheless, for small businesses with tight budgets, it is dispensable to adopt managed switches, especially when you attach simplicity of high importance. Unmanaged switches give you an easier way to build an adequate network to connect devices within range with simple plug-and-play, additionally, these switches are much cheaper. They are an ideal choice for businesses that have no need for management of specific ports and overall control of the network.

Although setting up managed network switches is a relatively tough mission, for businesses that desire a higher level of management and control of networks, it is a must to source managed network switches, especially for those that involve sensitive data transmission and demanding security protection. Furthermore, with regard to larger scale businesses, generally means a larger network system that includes more devices, and some commercial applications like malls, where would like to have a guest network to ensure network segregation between staff and consumers.

As a matter of fact, an SMB network doesn’t constrain by only one specific type of network switch. It is permitted to build a hybrid network by means of combining the managed switches and unmanaged switches. At some key points where the original plan was to let them under monitoring and control like data centers, then implement the managed type. While for locations that only want to get connected to LAN without extra requirements for advanced features, such as temporary workgroups, simply turn to unmanaged switches for help to save money and hassle.

Unmanaged & Managed Switches Purchase Guide

No matter which type of network switches to apply in your businesses, knowing how to buy the suited ones is essential. Below we are going to walk through purchase guidelines briefly.

Confirm Required Network Speed

In the use of network switches, network speed is the first factor that should bear in mind. Certainly, fast network speed is the primary demand to ensure smooth data transmission and information communication. It is able to find two common speeds of Ethernet, namely fast Ethernet(10/100Mbps) and Gigabit Ethernet(1000Mbps or 1 Gigabit). You are supposed to figure out the bandwidth of the connected devices to each switch, so as to confirm the required network speed. Otherwise, it is more potential to experience a bottleneck due to the unmatched bandwidth. Different data come with different standards. If the LAN needs to supply wireless access points or IP cameras, you should focus on those support Gigabit Ethernet. There are 10G network switches available now, but considering to common applications of SMB, 10G Ethernet is probably overkilled in most circumstances.

Estimate the Number of Ports

Network switches equip with different numbers of ports, which typically support from 4 ports at least and 48 ports at maximum. Having a rough estimation of the number of network devices is a good prevention measure to avoid the dilemma of downtime and unreasonable setup. It is highly suggested to reserve several interfaces for future-proofing. And if using managed switches, it won’t be a waste for the reason that you can aggregate the spare interface for greater performance.

Make Clear the Type of Ports

Only grasping the number of ports is definitely not enough, it is also imperative to learn the type of ports and make clear what types of ports are needed. Referring to network switches, there are a few ports you should know. RJ45 ports are designed to transfer or receive data using copper-based cabling, like Ethernet Cat5e/Cat6. Another type of port is named fiber optic slot, if you plan to adopt fiber optic cabling to achieve high bandwidth, and long-distance connectivity, network switches equipped with fiber optic slot is an option. The other type of ports, including uplink ports, and console ports, come with their own features. 

Consider Deployment Environment

In the purchasing of network switches, the deployment environment significantly affects what grade of network switches to choose from. You opt to pick up commercial-grade network switches, which well fit indoor deployments and provide good condition with a good temperature range. Besides, if the switches tend to work in tough environments, where might suffer from risks caused by elements like extreme temperature, rainy or lightning weather, dust, and so on, it is wise to buy those that come with great resistance to the above-mentioned physical damages. Outdoor and industrial-grade network switches are better choices.

Related Article: How to Choose PoE Switch for Harsh Environment

Employ PoE Network Switches if Possible

A PoE network switch is an improved version that with Power over Ethernet(PoE) capability, in other words, this type of network switch enables Ethernet cable to carry power for the endpoint connected network devices, wireless access points, and IP cameras are widely applied to make use of the advance of PoE. Since an Ethernet cable is necessary for the wired network device, using one cable to solve power and network transmission gives great installation flexibility as there is no need for an extra power outlet present around the endpoint devices. PoE varies in IEEE802.3 standards, supplying different output power. It’s worth noting that verify the compatibility between PoE switches and connected devices. Moreover, PoE switches can work for non-PoE devices still, in this scenario, the network switches only accomplish data transmission.

Related Article: Beginner Guide-How to Use PoE (Power over Ethernet)

How to Use Network Switches to Set up an SMB Network?

Using network switches to set up an SMB network can be easy or difficult work. Here we list key components that are needed and give simple instructions on the connectivity.

Key Components:

  • Modem
  • Router
  • Ethernet Switches/PoE Switches
  • Cat5e/Cat6 Ethernet Cables
  • Network Devices

SMB Network Using PoE Switch:

The Bottom Line

Now that you make clear key differences between unmanaged switches and manages switches, determine which type to use according to your business’s size and requirements. Utilize the above information to pick up the best-suited ones. If you still have no idea how to choose and purchase, or you have confusion about using network switches for your business, welcome to reach out to our FASTCABLING design team representative.

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