Why no one was ever fired for buying a managed switch

In the early days of networking, switches were all pretty much the same. Provided they had enough ports and didn’t fail too often, one was as good as another. Even the name ‘switch’, familiar from its more mundane everyday usage, seems to imply simplicity itself.

But don’t be fooled. Today, not all switches are created equal, and the wrong choice can have far-reaching consequences for your business, and perhaps even your career.

All Ethernet switches can be used to connect computers and other network devices to form a local area network (LAN). Beyond this, however, switches vary in a number of important ways.

In most cases, the first choice to be made is between unmanaged, web-managed, or fully managed switches. For the uninitiated, this decision would seem at first glance to be a simple one. Do I need to manage and monitor the switch on an ongoing basis or not? And if so, how?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. There is also a big difference in the relative capabilities of these switches. As the manageability increases, so too does the range of functions available to be managed. So a better way to determine whether you need an unmanaged, web-managed, or fully managed switch is to first determine the detailed functionality required for your application.

Interestingly though, at Zyxel we find that the choice of unmanaged vs managed usually has more to do with the level of experience of those making the purchase decision, than the actual networking applications themselves.

For those new to switching and on tight budgets, the lower cost of unmanaged switches can seem appealing. Providing they have the requisite speeds and feeds, why pay more for basic connectivity, right?

What this approach fails to consider, however, is the complexity of building and maintaining a high-performance network capable of meeting the evolving needs of the business. Only after users start complaining that key applications are failing, that their IP phones are practically unusable, or that the payroll system in accounting has been hacked, does the unfortunate IT manager begin to realise the true cost of that decision to purchase an unmanaged switch.

Of course, this is not to say that a managed switch will necessarily prevent all such potential problems, but the greater ease with which attributes such as resilience, Quality of Service (QOS), and security can be applied – for example through the judicious use of VLANs – is usually worth far more to an experienced network administrator than any initial saving in capital expenditure.

With advanced multi-media applications, Voice over IP (VoIP), video conferencing, IP surveillance and other live video streaming applications now becoming commonplace – even within small and medium business – the basic Ethernet connectivity offered by an unmanaged switch is rarely sufficient.

In spite of its rather dull name, the ‘switch’ is today one of the most important components of your network infrastructure. Far from merely providing connectivity, your choice of switch can have a huge influence on how your users experience the IT services you provide and the business returns they enable.

With the right functionality and configuration, your switches can enhance the security of your most precious informational assets, increase the performance and reliability of service delivery, save you money, both in capital and operating expenses, and even help to protect the environment for future generations.

In short, the decision to purchase a web-managed, or fully managed switch, rather than an unmanaged switch, will never be a cause for regret. Your business will benefit, your life will be easier, and your career will be safer.