Network Switch 101: Get Faster and More Reliable Data Through Your Network

From time to time, will deviate from our more general coverage of news, reviews and analysis give you a more technical perspective of a particular technology or issue. After all this IS – right?
Barbara Finer, 3Com’s, Director of SMB marketing, offers an overview of what a network switch is, why it’s important for your network and how to buy one.
The Truth about Networking
Network technology, and in particular, the network switch, are essential to running an efficient, competitive, cost-effective business. They let your business instantly connect employees, customers, suppliers and other partners to current information. They allow your organization to collaborate using a range of media—voice, data, and video—to share knowledge and coordinate projects, leading to greater productivity and customer satisfaction. They help your business be more efficient, have workforce flexibility, perform professionally 24/7 and grow.
(You can get a full 6 page tip sheet about Switches here)

Why Do You Need a Network Switch?
A fundamental component of any business network, a switch allows users to communicate and share information with each other over a local area network (LAN). LANs connect the people and devices in a local geography such as an office, department or building.
LANs today are based on Ethernet (referred to as IEEE 802.3), a widely adopted standard for wiring, signaling and addressing. Every device on the LAN has a unique address, just like your business does. An Ethernet LAN readily connects a variety of products, including wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) devic es and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) devices such as IP phones. These connections involve a variety of speeds, signals and/or cables, and are made possible by a network switch.
The switch uses its physical connection points (ports) and software intelligence to transmit information as “data packets” between client devices, including PCs, printers, IP cameras, IP phones and LAN devices such as servers, wireless access points, other switches and routers. Data packets actually carry digital voice, video or data.
The switch inspects the packets as it receives them. It determines the source and destination of each packet, sets up the best network path to get it to its port or destination, and forwards it appropriately. Speed and coordination are essential, otherwise the packets collide or get dropped.
Some switches can be configured and managed so that certain traffic is segmented—transmitted only through specific ports for performance or security reasons. Packets from a payroll application, for instance, should be segmented to pass only through ports that connect the authorized users in Finance or Human Resources. And because packets from voice applications are latency-sensitive (delays cause the data to decompose; voice “breaks up”), they should be partitioned and prioritized over other applications.
The switch receives and sends packet traffic outside the LAN through a router or gateway. This edge device connects the LAN to external wide area networks (WANs) such as the Internet, using a broadband service (such as public DSL or cable, or private T1 or E1).
Now that you know “why” a switch, how can you decide what is the best one for your business?