What is Difference Between Managed and Unmanaged Switch?


Networking devices like switches play an integral role in today’s interconnected world by enabling communication between computers, servers, mobile devices and other endpoints within a network. With the exponential growth in devices that need wired and wireless connectivity to transfer data, video and voice, switches have become the cornerstone that helps meet these demands.

A network switch is an intelligent data traffic controller that receives incoming data packets and forwards them to their intended destination within a network. Switches create dedicated point-to-point connections between the source and destination devices, allowing for simultaneous transmission of data between multiple pairs of devices connected to the network switch.

There are two main types of network switches:

  1. Managed switches
  2. Unmanaged switches

The key difference between managed and unmanaged switches lies in their configurability and the level of control they provide over the network. While managed switches offer granular control and customization of various parameters, unmanaged switches act as plug-and-play devices meant for basic connectivity.

Understanding Managed Switches:

Managed switches are highly configurable network switches that provide organizations with fine-grained control over their networks to manage performance, security and growth. These switches comes equipped with a multitude of features that allow network administrators exert greater control over network traffic and connectivity.

The Power of Configurability:

The defining capability of managed switches is that they allow configuration of an array of parameters to customize switch operations for optimal performance as per business needs. Configurability provides power over vital aspects like availability, traffic prioritization, bandwidth utilization, and access controls.

Network administrators can log in to the command-line interface or web console of managed switches using protocols like SSH, Telnet, HTTP, HTTPS etc. to tweak various settings. For example, features like port mirroring, rate limiting and IGMP snooping can be enabled or disabled as required. Settings related to VLANs, trunking and spanning tree protocol can also be configured.

Such flexibility to fine-tune a wide range of functions letsmanaged switches deliver efficient, resilient and secure network infrastructure vital for today’s applications.

Advanced Features Galore:

Managed switches provide a wealth of advanced features for optimized networks under full administrative control:

  • Traffic Monitoring: In-depth visibility into network traffic via sFlow, RMON and SNMP support to identify and resolve bottlenecks.
  • VLAN Segmentation: Logical grouping of devices despite physical proximity enabling secure access controls.
  • QoS Prioritization: Intelligent classification and scheduling of network traffic so critical applications get priority bandwidth.
  • Access Control Lists (ACLs): Granular control over access to network resources by specific devices based on parameters like IP/MAC addressing and TCP/UDP ports.
  • IGMP Snooping: Efficient multicast traffic management by examining IGMP network packets for precise forwarding to hosts requesting multicast streams.
  • Port Trunking: Linking multiple switch ports to provide increased bandwidth between switches and servers/router uplinks.
  • Spanning Tree Protocol: Loop prevention in redundant topologies by selectively making links dormant to avoid bridging loops.

These features provide network professionals the control they need to run secure, optimized and resilient networks while managing growth – a flexibility not present in unmanaged switches.

Centralized Management:

A key capability offered by managed switches is centralized management wherein an entire network of managed switches spread across multiple sites can be monitored and controlled from a central location.

By leveraging management platforms like CiscoWorks, network administrators can configure domain-wide settings, push out firmware upgrades, backing up and restoring configurations for all managed devices in a network simultaneously instead of doing it at individual devices.

Tools like OpenNMS can also collect performance metrics enabling administrators to monitor traffic flows and troubleshoot issues through an unified interface instead from local console of each device.

Centralized management saves tremendous time while enabling a global view of the network for administrators to control all switches via policies from a central point. It also facilitates easier troubleshooting, trend analysis and capacity planning using data aggregated across the network.

Decoding Unmanaged Switches:

In contrast to the expansive configurability of managed switches, unmanaged switches provide only basic functionality focusing primarily on ease-of-use.

Simplicity Reigns Supreme:

Unmanaged switches work right out-of-the-box without requiring any complex configurations or management. They have plug-and-play simplicity – users can just connect unmanaged switches to power source and networking cables to devices that need interconnection.

They automatically learn MAC addresses of connected devices and create paths for packets to reach intended destinations. Configure IP address on connected device and they can immediately start communicating without additional administration or management of the unmanaged switch itself.

Basic Network Connections:

The primary purpose of unmanaged switches is providing connectivity between devices on small home or office networks with zero management overhead.

For example, connecting PCs on a LAN segment so they can share access to internet or a printer. Or interconnecting IP cameras, access control systems and endpoints in a basic surveillance network for a small office.

Unmanaged switches offer the bare minimum level of intelligence required for transporting data packets between connected devices without extra protocols, configurability or software dependencies.

Cost-Effective Solution

Absence of complex features implies simpler hardware architecture making unmanaged switches significantly cheaper compared to managed counterparts with similar port density and speed.

Average selling prices of unmanaged switches can be 50% or lower compared to equivalent managed switches. This makes them an affordable plug-and-play solution for price-sensitive buyers with basic networking needs rather than complex capabilities required by large enterprises.

Comparing Managed and Unmanaged Switches

Feature Comparison Table

Features Managed Switches Unmanaged Switches
Configuration Capability Extensive – command line/web UI access None – No Configurable Parameters
Manageability Fully Manageable Remotely Zero – No Remote/Centralized Management
Monitoring Traffic Monitoring, RMON and SNMP Support None – No Visibility into Traffic Flows
Qos and Traffic Shaping Yes – 802.1p, DSCP, Rate Limiting No QoS Capability
VLAN Segmentation Yes – 802.1Q tagging, Port Isolation etc. No support for VLAN tags
IGMP Snooping Yes No
Port Trunking/Link Aggregation Yes No
Spanning Tree Protocol Yes – Root Guard, BPDU Protection etc. No
Security Capabilities ACLs, IPsec/MACsec Encryption, RADIUS etc. None
Redundancy Support Yes – Mesh Topologies, Backup Paths No Redundancy Capabilities
Network Telemetry Yes – Logging, SNMP Alerts No telemetry
Energy Efficiency ELSM Support No Power Saving Features
Cost Expensive for hardware capabilities $50 – $100 for 5 ports Gigabit Switch

Use Case Scenarios:

While unmanaged switches only cater to basic connectivity needs, managed switches are suitable for wide range of use cases:

  • Building secure and resilient topologies is only possible using capabilities of managed network switches like Spanning Tree Protocol.
  • Traffic shaping based on QoS tagging is vital for networks carrying delay-sensitive Voice/Video applications possible only through managed switches.
  • Centralized monitoring, alerting and troubleshooting using tools like PRTG, Cacti, Observium require managed switches due to better instrumentation.
  • Virtualization and hyper converged infrastructure leverage VLAN capabilities to provide logical separation and access controls across multiple tenants.
  • High-throughput uplinks between clusters of compute nodes use link aggregation offered by managed switches to cost-effectively increase bandwidth.
  • Networks hosting critical applications and data use encryption, firewall policies and RADIUS authentication available only in managed switches to enforce strong access controls.

So while unmanaged switches have their place in simpler environments, business-critical network deployments need richer capabilities of managed switches.

Cost Comparison:

Features 8 Port Gigabit Unmanaged Switch 8 Port Gigabit Managed Switch
Cost $ 50 $ 250
Performance 1 Gbps Backplane 1 Gbps Backplane
Power Over Ethernet (PoE) No Yes, up to 30W per Port
Console and RemoteAccess None SSH, SNMP v1/2/
Configuration Not Applicable CLI, GUI, REST API
QOS Support None 4 Hardware Queues, DiffServ
VLAN Support None Up to 4000 VLANS, 802.1Q, MAC-based, Private VLAN
Traffic Monitoring and Analysis None Port Mirroring, RMON, sFlow
Warranty 3 Years Limited Lifetime

It is evident that managed switches do cost nearly 5 times more compared to unmanaged switches but they provide a wealth of functionality like system-wide visibility, redundancy, access controls and traffic management capabilities vital for business networks.

So buyers need to weigh factors like long term bandwidth growth, uptime needs, manageability preferences, and application types used before deciding between managed and unmanaged switches based on total cost of ownership.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

Q: When should I use a managed switch?

A: Managed switches are recommended for networks that require advanced features, such as VLAN creation, QoS management, and remote monitoring. They are also suitable for networks with a large number of devices or high traffic demands.

Q: When is an unmanaged switch a good choice?

A: Unmanaged switches are a good option for small networks with basic connectivity needs. They are also a cost-effective choice for users who do not require advanced features.

Q: What are some of the benefits of using managed switches?

A: Managed switches offer several benefits, including increased security, network optimization, and centralized management. They also provide a wider range of features, such as VLAN support, QoS, and traffic analysis.

Q: What are some of the drawbacks of using unmanaged switches?

A: Unmanaged switches lack the advanced features and customization options of managed switches. They also do not provide centralized management or the ability to monitor network traffic.


Managed and unmanaged switches cater to very different network environment needs.

Unmanaged switches are cheap, easy to deploy plug-and-play devices well-suited for small networks with basic connectivity requirements, while managed switches empower administrators with fine-grained control, advanced monitoring and resilience capabilities vital for robust enterprise networks.

Factors like performance, scalability needs, security policies, redundancy levels, types of applications, manageability preferences and cost considerations determines whether managed or unmanaged switches suit their deployment scenarios better.

So instead of treating them as competing platforms, both managed and unmanaged switches fulfil complementary roles on a spectrum of networking requirements for interconnecting systems in the modern digital era!

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