Choosing an Ethernet Switch for Your SMB

Paul Mah
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I wrote earlier this year on the topic of why Ethernet is still relevant in business. While WLAN definitely has its appeal where convenience and ease of deployment are concerned, there are many scenarios in which a wired network would make more sense. Before rushing out to grab the cheapest Layer 2 network switch, IT managers should be made aware of the more advanced capabilities found in business-centric networking gear.

 

I highlight some of the more pertinent ones below.

 

Security Features

 


There is no doubt that a network switch is leaps and bounds more secure than the hubs of yesteryear. What is less well-known, however, is how entry-level switches are vulnerable to attacks such as ARP poisoning and MAC flooding. Though such shenanigans can be easily detected with modern IPS or IDS appliances, these are not hardware that all SMBs can afford, and certainly not practical for smaller branch offices. Fortunately, mid-end switches often incorporate a level of security ranging from the ability to lock down MAC addresses at the port level (useful for servers), protection from excessive ARP broadcasts or even support for authentication with a RADIUS server.

 

Switching Throughput

 

While an 8-port Fast Ethernet switch should logically yield 1.6Gbps (duplex) of throughput, do check for the published throughput instead of assuming it to be the case. Indeed, this is an area where companies opting for a cheaper, consumer-centric model need to exercise additional caution. A lower switching throughput could result in some nodes suffering from speed degradation when all connected workstations are simultaneously using the network and could cause slowdowns for companies-such as design houses or architectural firms-that regularly work with large files.

 

PoE Support

 

PoE or Power over Ethernet entails passing electrical power along with data using the same Ethernet cabling and is an extremely useful capability for deploying IP phones, IP cameras or wireless access points. Of course, midspan injectors can be deployed with a non-PoE switch to achieve the same effect, though businesses with limited rack space will probably favor network switches with built-in PoE. There are two standards in this regard, IEEE 802.3af and IEEE 802.3at, with the lower-power 802.3af standard being the most widely-used.

 

Expansion Ports

 

Called slightly different names depending on the vendor, the presence of an expansion port usually allows a network switch to be upgraded to a higher-speed uplink (1Gbps or 10Gbps). Some network vendors also sell fiber optic transceiver modules that are plugged into expansion ports to expand the network beyond the standard 100 meters afforded by copper Ethernet cables.

 

Port Mirroring

 

Finally, the ability to perform port mirroring allows administrators to monitor network traffic without leaving a trail. This is usually achieved using specialized network monitoring or security appliances, or by connecting a workstation in promiscuous mode in order to capture all traffic for future analysis.

 

As always, I must reiterate that the exact capabilities required by individual SMBs must depend on their specific requirements and network architectures-the various capabilities highlighted above are certainly not representative of what every SMB requires. Having said that, you are very much welcome to chip in on features that you feel are important in the comments section below.



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