The key difference between them lies in the fact that a managed switch can be configured and it can prioritize LAN traffic so that the most important information gets through.
An unmanaged switch, on the other hand, behaves like a “plug and play” device. It cannot be configured and simply allows the devices to communicate with one another.
Benefits of Managed Switches
Managed switches give you better control over your LAN traffic and offer advanced features to control the traffic. Managed switches have all the features of an unmanaged switch and additionally have the ability to configure, manage, and monitor your LAN. So this helps you to monitor and decide who should have access to your network and gives you greater control over data flow through your network.
But you cannot configure unmanaged switches as they do not support any configuration interface and options. They are like plug-and-play devices and you need to connect your computer or other network devices directly to the unmanaged switch. If there are no advanced applications needed, then unmanaged switches should be the best choice.
Managed switches have several other benefits. They use protocols such as SNMP or Simple Network Management Protocol for monitoring the devices on the network. SNMP helps in the exchange of management information between network devices. SNMP queries also determine the health and status of devices on a network. So an IT administrator can read the SNMP data, monitor the performance of the network from a remote location, and detect and repair network problems from a central location without having to physically inspect the switches and devices. Managed switches also support more advanced functions. They can be used to insert loops in the network, increase the security level of a network, and support multiple VLAN as per requirement.
The Quality of Service (QoS) feature of a managed switch also allows you to prioritize your network traffic by assigning a higher priority to the critical traffic. This helps to improve network performance and helps in better transmission of delay-sensitive data such as real-time voice. So by assigning the highest priority to voice data you can ensure the voice packets don’t get dropped or delayed and mangled during transmission and you can hear crystal clear voice during a conversation.
Switches can be used in VLAN configuration to logically group devices as per the working departments and managed switches can be used to isolate traffic between these groups. This segmentation and isolation of network traffic help to reduce unnecessary traffic. For instance, you can segregate traffic between your finance and marketing groups, so that critical finance information can flow without delay to the finance users and not get bogged down by marketing traffic. This allows better network performance and an additional level of security.
Another important feature of a managed switch is redundancy. Redundancy means to provide an alternate data path to network traffic to safeguard a network in case a connection or cable fails. Managed switches incorporate Spanning Tree Protocol or STP to provide path redundancy in the network. This provides redundant paths but prevents loops that are created by multiple active paths between switches. STP allows one active path at a time between two network devices, prevents loops, and establishes redundant links as backups so that there is lesser downtime. This makes the job for a network administrator easier and also proves more profitable for a business.
The port mirroring feature of a managed switch along with a network analyzer also helps in diagnosing problems. It copies the switch network traffic and forwards it to a single port on the same switch for analysis by a network analyzer. You can use the analyzer on a monitor port to troubleshoot network problems by examining traffic on other ports or segments. This enables you to troubleshoot problems without taking the network out of service.
Which Switch to Buy?
Managed switches are costlier than unmanaged switches. But managed switches definitely have more benefits and ensure improved, consistent network performance.
Weighing the pros and cons of both the types of switches, each business needs to evaluate its network needs. When their network requirements outgrow and they need better control and monitoring of their network traffic, then they may consider managed switches.
Also, if they are planning to deploy advanced services such as wireless LANs or IP telephony in the near future, then managed switches can lay the foundation for these technologies. But as long as networking needs are simple as in homes and small businesses, unmanaged switches are good options to consider.