Research Hub > Unmanaged vs. Managed Switches

January 06, 2022

Article
6 min

Unmanaged vs. Managed Switches: What are the Differences?

Managed and unmanaged switches both have their place in the office, but choosing the switch that works best for you is entirely up to the unique needs of your business.

In the enterprise space, switches are at the core of your IT infrastructure. Having the proper switch in place can be the difference between smooth operations and tedious downtimes. The primary purpose of a switch is to manage traffic across your network and ensure that data gets to the correct location. Switches come in many shapes and sizes and are able to scale with the needs of your growing business. Managed and unmanaged switches both have their place in the office, but choosing the switch that works best for you is entirely up to the unique needs of your business. Continue reading below to learn more about network switches, their many features, and how they can benefit your business. 

What is an Unmanaged Switch?

Unmanaged switches are simple yet powerful devices that are great for connecting groups of systems to a new network. What makes unmanaged switches so simple is that these devices are considered plug-and-play. This means that unmanaged switches can easily be added to a network without the need for complicated setup or configuration of multiple devices. The simplicity of unmanaged switches makes them an ideal choice for small businesses or organizations with limited network traffic. Keep in mind, there is little room for customization or advanced configurations with unmanaged switches. 

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What is a Managed Switch?

Managed switches are a necessity for larger organizations or any network that stores sensitive information. The power of managed switches lies in their ability to be configured precisely to the needs of your network. While they may require a more substantial setup, managed switches also boast many added features such as redundancy procedures or data recovery solutions. Be warned that unlike most unmanaged switches, these devices will often require an IT professional to be set up and managed properly. 

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Comparing Unmanaged and Managed Switches

While the main difference between unmanaged and managed switches is in their name, many other subtle variances can prove crucial for your business. Every additional feature of a device can improve or hinder your network. That's why it is essential to consider all options and speak with a network professional whenever possible before finalizing a switch purchase. Everything from security features to remote access and overall performance will be affected by switches on the network. There are a few common differences between managed and unmanaged switches and how these switches could affect your organization. 

Features

When it comes to features, the clear winners are managed switches. These devices come packed full of features, including data recovery solutions, built-in redundancies, and the ability to create virtual networks to better separate and manage devices within a business. The features for unmanaged switches include pre-configured QoS services designed to ensure a device works as intended right out of the box. 

Security

If your network stores sensitive client information or requires regular guest connections, an unmanaged switch may be problematic for operations moving forward. Managed switches give an IT professional the ability to efficiently manage network traffic and shut down potential threats before they can become a substantial issue. The complexity of managed switches and their many security features is a double-edged sword in that these devices should only be accessed by individuals with adequate training and understanding of your network.  

Cost

While the main difference between unmanaged and managed switches is in their name, many other subtle variances can prove crucial for your business. Every additional feature of a device can improve or hinder your network. That's why it is essential to consider all options and speak with a network professional whenever possible before finalizing a switch purchase. Everything from security features to remote access and overall performance will be affected by switches on the network. There are a few common differences between managed and unmanaged switches and how these switches could affect your organization. 

Performance

While they may lack in features, unmanaged switches are rarely lacking in performance. The plug-and-play nature of unmanaged switches is incredibly valuable for small and medium-sized businesses without complex network needs. The built-in features of unmanaged switches ensure that the devices will work as intended for extended periods and let users focus on more crucial aspects of day-to-day operations. That being said, managed switches have a much higher ceiling in terms of possible performance. The many features, applications, and controls available to managed switches make them powerhouses of infrastructure in the hands of the right IT professional. 

Applications

When operating within a home or small office, unmanaged switches are ideal because they do not require complicated configurations, and they allow you to add the device to your network quickly. These devices can then increase the number of machines on a network or relieve network congestion without the need for regular maintenance or management.

Managed switches are a much more serious undertaking. They are typically reserved for enterprise-level networks or businesses that span multiple locations, or even states. These devices are necessary for large-scale networks where traffic needs to be carefully monitored. A drawback and benefit of managed switches are that they require an IT professional to operate properly. While this is an added cost, having an expert who understands your network can significantly improve performance and reduce troublesome downtimes. 

Downtime

Managed switches have features such as ACLs or Access Control Lists that help to greatly reduce downtimes as a result of network attacks or loss of data. Furthermore, by using a managed switch to set up virtual LANs, you can separate devices and traffic hiding sensitive information and increasing protection in specific areas.

Unfortunately, unmanaged switches do not have the same redundancies or features as their managed counterparts, which can significantly increase downtimes. In more extensive networks, problems with unmanaged switches can quickly lead to unsatisfactory performance or user perception of your business. 

Settings Control

The difference in settings and control between unmanaged and managed switches is night and day. While unmanaged devices may be quicker to set up, they ultimately lack the most basic facets of modification and user control. Managed switches are a direct solution to this problem because they are inherently built to be controlled and scale with the needs of your network. Remember that in order to properly use and implement a managed switch, you will need an IT professional to change settings, services, and applications as needed. Managed switches are powerful yet delicate devices, and improper maintenance or configuration can do more harm than good to your network. 

Remote Access

Just like with settings control, remote access is primarily limited to managed switches. Unmanaged devices simply lack the power to function in such away. That being said, remote access to managed switches can be an invaluable tool for network security, access permissions, and day-to-day troubleshooting. IT teams can use managed switches to gain remote access to any device on a network, significantly reducing maintenance and downtimes.

How to Choose Between Managed and Unmanaged Network Switches

While there is no definitive answer to which device is better, knowing the needs of your network can help you identify which type of switch is best for you. Unmanaged switches are affordable devices that work well for small to medium-sized organizations with limited IT needs. Managed Switches may come with a heavier price tag but offer countless benefits, including added security features and total control of the device. Choosing the right switch for your business requires an understanding of your users' specific needs and finding the device that best fits them. 

Conclusion

Buying any piece of new technology, whether for home or the office, can be a daunting task. Remember that the first step to any new purchase is appropriately assessing your current infrastructure and determining possible problems or areas for growth. By being comfortable with your existing network, you can easily understand your needs and find a device that is ready to grow alongside your business. You may find that no one switch is perfect for your organization, and that's perfectly normal. Many modern institutions use a collection of various network devices to achieve a specific goal or scope of network infrastructure. No matter what your network needs, you can always speak with the experts at CDW to learn more about managed services or specific IT hardware.