Switch It On

It may be high time to maximize your network's performance, now that there are newer, cheaper Ethernet switches in town.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the February 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

When your business is growing, your technology needs to grow with it. You not only have to consider the computers your employees will need, but also how they'll integrate with your company network. The humble Ethernet switch is the key connection between your workers and your network. The right Ethernet switch will optimize your network performance, while maintaining the investment in equipment you already have. If you're suffering from poor network performance, a switch might help clear up your problems.

The big news on the Ethernet scene is the arrival of a new generation of relatively cheap switches capable of transferring a gigabit worth of data per second. These 1000Mbps bad boys are the wave of the future for networking. They're not only faster than their 100Mbps and 10Mbps predecessors, but also backward compatible so you can upgrade your network as your budget allows. Most of the switches in our chart support gigabit connections. They cost only a few dollars more than the equivalent slower switches from previous generations, but will give you all the bandwidth you'll need for the foreseeable future.

Price tags range all over the map, with higher-priced switches sporting more advanced features and ports. Switches break down into managed and unmanaged versions; unmanaged switches generally have fewer ports and are plug-and-play with very straightforward installation and setups, but with limited remote management capability by your IT staff.

Which you choose depends on the demands of your network, of course, and some networks will use a combination. The first thing you'll notice is a massive price difference between the two. The Buffalo Technology 8-port Unmanaged Gigabit Switch LSW-GT-8W runs only $150 (all prices street), while larger managed switches can easily top $2,000. In the super economical zone, the $149 unmanaged 3Com OfficeConnect Gigabit Switch 5 gives you five ports with gigabit support and plug-and-play capability for easy additions to your growing small office or workgroup network.

Most vendors provide 24/7 technical support for their unmanaged switches. They're good for businesses that have limited access to IT help and don't need the advanced features of a managed switch.

Managed switches require more setup, but that can often be done through a familiar browser interface. These devices give you access to more diagnostic information, allow you to set access controls, and can even notify the administrator of problems. But networking novices might not want to tackle installation of a managed switch without IT help.

One way to evaluate switch pricing is to compare the cost per port. On the unmanaged end, D-Link Systems' GigaExpress DGS-1008D costs just $30 per port. The managed 24-port Netgear GSM7324, on the other hand, comes in at $133 per port*#151;still pretty cost-effective for a Layer 3 gigabit switch, which offers more scalability and advanced management features than Layer 2 switches. For comparison, the Layer 2 SMC Networks TigerSwitch SMC8624T costs about $94 per port.

At $680, Cisco Systems' Catalyst 2950-24 is an even more affordable managed switch. If you don't need to go gigabit, this 10/100 switch will deliver 24 available ports while minimizing the hit on your budget. You can find gigabit speeds elsewhere in Cisco's extensive product line. If you're concerned about longevity, the $2,032 Hewlett-Packard ProCurve Switch 2824 comes with a limited lifetime warranty. That's a lot of peace of mind compared to the five-year warranties backing up some switches.

For expanding, upgrading or increasing the efficiency of your network, it's hard to beat an Ethernet switch. While even faster Ethernet technologies are already becoming available, gigabit speeds will handle the demands of almost any growing business.

Shopping List
Which switch is which? with a wide range of prices and styles, it's easy to get confused. find the perfect switch with this guide.

OfficeConnect Gigabit Switch 5
(800) NET-3COM
10/100/10005Unmanaged, Layer 2, lifetime warranty$149
8-port Unmanaged
Gigabit Switch
(800) 456-9799
10/100/10008Unmanaged, Layer 2, two-year warranty$150
Catalyst 2950-24
(800) 553-NETS
10/10024Managed, lifetime warranty$680
GigaExpress DGS-1008D
(800) 326-1688
10/100/10008Unmanaged, Layer 2, five-year warranty$199
ProCurve Switch 2824
(800) 888-0262
10/100/100024Managed, lifetime warranty$2,032
10/100/100024Managed, Layer 3, five-year warranty$3,195
TigerSwitch SMC8624T
(800) SMC-4YOU
10/100/100024Managed,Layer 2, lifetime warranty$1,800
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