What Is a Switch?

How network switches compare to hubs and routers

A network switch is a small device that centralizes communications among several connected devices in one local area network (LAN).

Stand-alone Ethernet switch devices were commonly used on home networks many years before home broadband routers became popular. Modern home routers integrate Ethernet switches directly into the unit as one of their core functions.

High-performance network switches are still widely used in corporate networks and data centers. Network switches are sometimes referred to as switching hubs, bridging hubs, or MAC bridges.

About Network Switches 

Ethernet switches are the most common type, but you'll also find switches optimized for ATM, Fibre Channel, and Token Ring network architectures.

Ubiquity UniFi 48-port managed switch
Ubiquity UniFi 48-port Switch. Amazon.com

Mainstream Ethernet switches like those inside broadband routers support Gigabit Ethernet speeds per individual link, but high-performance switches like those in data centers usually support 10 Gbps per link.

Different models of network switches support varying numbers of connected devices. Consumer-grade network switches provide either four or eight connections for Ethernet devices, while corporate switches typically support between 32 and 128 connections.

Switches also connect to each other, a daisy-chaining method, to add a progressively larger number of devices to a LAN.

Managed and Unmanaged Switches

Basic network switches like those used in consumer routers require no special configuration beyond plugging in cables and power.

Compared to these unmanaged switches, high-end devices used on enterprise networks support a range of advanced features designed to be controlled by a professional administrator. Popular features of managed switches include SNMP monitoring, link aggregation, and QoS support.

Traditionally, managed switches are built to be controlled from Unix-style command line interfaces. A newer category of managed switches called smart switches, targeted at entry-level and midrange enterprise networks,​ support web-based interfaces similar to a home router.

Network Switches vs. Hubs and Routers

A network switch physically resembles a network hub. Unlike hubs, network switches are capable of inspecting incoming messages as they are received and directing them to a specific communications port—a technology called packet switching.

TP-Link 5 Port Hub
TP-Link 5 Port Hub.  Amazon

A switch determines the source and destination addresses of each packet and forwards data only to the specific devices, while hubs transmit the packets to every port except the one that received the traffic. It works this way to conserve bandwidth and improve performance compared to hubs.

Switches also resemble routers. While they both centralize local device connections, only routers contain support for interfacing to outside networks, either local networks or the internet. Since a network switch doesn't use a public IP address, it can only forward data between devices.

Layer 3 Switches

Illustration of the Layers of the OSI model
Lifewire / Colleen Tighe​

Conventional network switches operate at Layer 2 of the OSI model. Layer 3 switches that blend the internal hardware logic of switches and routers into a hybrid device also have been deployed on some enterprise networks.

Compared to traditional switches, Layer 3 switches provide better support for virtual LAN configurations.

  • What are KVM switches?

    A KVM switch is a piece of hardware that allows you to control multiple computers using a single monitor and keyboard. You can also add additional monitors and keyboards to your setup.

  • What is a VPN kill switch?

    Some virtual private networks (VPNs) have a software kill switch that automatically disables internet access when you disconnect. This feature ensures your IP address and other personal data are never exposed.

  • Can network switches reduce speed?

    Yes, but not enough to make a noticeable difference. Just as longer cables add a little latency, extra switches also add a negligible amount of latency. If your internet connection is slow, it has nothing to do with the switches if everything is properly connected.

  • How much do network switches cost?

    Prices range drastically from under $40 to over $500 depending primarily on the number of ports and extra features. For a 20-port network switch, you can expect to pay $150-$250.

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