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Routers and Switches

Switches and Routers Buying Guide
When it comes to home computer setups, networking i...
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Switches and Routers Buying Guide

When it comes to home computer setups, networking is often the area where people are the most uninformed. Although the hardware required is often quite basic, it's the wide variety and classifications that leave people confused on something that is otherwise more simple than they think! If you're thinking about doing a wireless network setup, then check out the great article in the wireless networking category on this site. Here, we're going to concentrate on the main link in a wired networking setup; either a switch or a router.

Switch vs Router
Although they look seemingly alike; both are either small plastic cases or large scale rack mount units with a variety of ethernet ports, a switch and a router are both quite different on the inside. What makes them different is how they handle network traffic flow and how they connect to other networks. In layman's terms, a router is used when you want to join multiple area networks together. This can be several local networks or a local network to a wide area network (such as your internet provider). Unless you are running dial up, chances are fairly high that you'll have high-speed phone line internet or cable internet. These types of internet work by essentially joining you onto the network that your ISP has, which in turn links you to the backbone of the world wide web. When you're using a router you are joining the network of your ISP to the network of your home or office. This means any computer connected to the router can have access to the internet. To allow multiple computers access to a local network as well as your internet connection most routers will have a built in switch of at least 4 ports. This leads us to the next explanation...
A switch works very differently from a router in the way that it does not join networks, rather it creates them. Switches allow you to link network devices together so you can create a network for things like sharing files, sharing printers, sharing the internet connection of a computer on the network, etc. Switches are intelligent in the way that they will scan network packets to identify what packets go to which computer and communication is done by switching through all the computers to prevent packet collisions. When you're using a hub (something I won't touch on here), all the data is sent to every port which not only slows down the network but can also cause problems requiring computers to resend requests. Switches CAN be connected to routers. This means if you have, for example, a home network with a router to share your internet but you have more than 4 computers (the number of ports on your router) then you can connect a switch into one port on your router and more computers can then be connected to that switch. Switches come in two forms:
Managed Switches - Managed switches are something you generally won't use in a home environment. They allow you to connect to the switch through a computer for extensive network configuration. Although highly valuable for huge workplace and corporate networks this is unnecessary on the home level.
Unmanaged Switches - Unmanaged switches work right out of the box and don't allow any advanced configuration past their basic function of providing a network switch point. When you walk into a computer store and buy an inexpensive switch off the shelf for your home network, it will be an unmanaged switch.

"I just have a small home network, why should I spend more money on a router when a switch is cheaper?"
Each computer connecting to a router is assigned an IP address through a system called DHCP. The router itself also has an IP address of it's own. When you're connecting to your ISP with your modem connected to a router, they see only one IP address connecting; that of the router. Since many modems allow only one computer to connect through them, the router will serve as that system and will in turn share the internet flow to any system connected to it. When you dial into the internet through a switch (assuming your modem supports this), each computer will use it's own IP address and your ISP will see multiple computers connecting. For many ISPs, this means you will have to pay a separate fee for each computer using your connection (they see it as multiple users dialing in because you technically can't tell them you are alone while running all four computers by yourself).

With the wireless world we live in today it's becoming harder and harder to find a consumer level router that doesn't have a built-in wireless access point on it too. For the price, usually only a few dollars will separate the two on the shelves. By going with a wireless router you can still hard-wire your computer but you will also have the freedom of wireless at the same time. Wireless will come in handy not only for laptops but also many gaming systems, wifi cell phones and much more. If you're debating between the sub-$100 router and the more expensive one then take a look at the specifics. More expensive routers will often have built-in firewalls, allow more simultaneous connections (great feature for gamers and downloaders) as well as many other useful and sometimes performance enhancing features. Switches are much the same - most households will likely suffice with a simple unmanaged switch but larger users and business will want to look into the advantages of a managed switch.

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