The Differences Between Routers, Switches, and Hubs

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Network routers, switches, and hubs are all standard components of wired Ethernet networks. They may appear identical at first. Each 

  • is a small plastic or metal box-shaped electronic device
  • allows computers to connect to it for the purpose of enabling communication among them via Internet Protocol
  • features a number of physical ports on the front or back of the unit that provide the connection points for these computers, a connection for electric power, and LED lights to display device status

Other key characteristics of these devices are what sets them apart.

Routers Forward Network Data More Intelligently

While hubs, switches, and routers all share similar physical appearance, routers differ substantially in their inner workings and contain significantly more logic. Traditional routers are designed to join together multiple local area networks (LANs) with a wide area network (WAN). Routers serve as intermediate destinations for network traffic. They receive incoming network packets, look inside each packet to identify the source and target network addresses, then forward these packets where needed to ensure the data reaches its final destination. Neither switches nor hubs can do these things.

Routers Help Connect Home Networks to the Internet

Routers for home networks (often called broadband routers) are designed specifically to join the home network to the Internet for the purpose of Internet connection sharing. In contrast, switches (and hubs) are not capable of joining multiple networks or sharing an Internet connection. A network with only switches and hubs must instead designate one computer as the gateway to the Internet, and that device must possess two network adapters for sharing, one for the home facing connection and one for the Internet-facing connection. With a router, all home computers connect to the router as peers, and the router handles all such Internet gateway functions.

Routers Are Smarter in Other Ways, Too

Additionally, broadband routers contain several features beyond those of traditional routers such as integrated DHCP server and network firewall support. Wireless broadband routers even incorporate a built-in Ethernet switch for supporting wired computer connections (and enabling network expansion via connecting additional switches if needed).

Switches vs. Hubs

Switches are higher-performance alternatives to hubs. Both pass data between devices connected to them. Hubs do so by broadcasting the data to all other connected devices, while switches first determine which device is the intended recipient of the data and then send it to that one device directly via a so-called "virtual circuit."

When four computers are connected to a hub, for example, and two of those computers communicate with each other, hubs simply pass through all network traffic to each of the four computers. Switches, on the other hand, are capable of determining the destination of each individual traffic element (such as an Ethernet frame) and selectively forwarding data to the one computer that actually needs it. This behavior allows switches to generate less overall network traffic compared to hubs - a big advantage on busy networks.

What About Wi-Fi Switches and Hubs?

Home Wi-Fi networks utilize routers but technically do not have the concept of a wireless switch or hub. A wireless access point functions similarly (but not identically) to a wired switch.