A network switch (also called switching hub, bridging hub, and, by the IEEE, MAC bridge) is networking hardware that connects devices on a computer network by using packet switching to receive and forward data to the destination device.
A network switch is a multiport network bridge that uses MAC addresses to forward data at the data link layer (layer 2) of the OSI model. Some switches can also forward data at the network layer (layer 3) by additionally incorporating routing functionality. Such switches are commonly known as layer-3 switches or multilayer switches.
Switches for Ethernet are the most common form of network switch. The first MAC Bridge was invented in 1983 by Mark Kempf, an engineer in the Networking Advanced Development group of Digital Equipment Corporation. The first 2 port Bridge product (LANBridge 100) was introduced by that company shortly after. The company subsequently produced multi-port switches for both Ethernet and FDDI such as GigaSwitch. Digital decided to license its MAC Bridge patent in a royalty-free, non-discriminatory basis that allowed IEEE standardization. This permitted a number of other companies to produce multi-port switches, including Kalpana. Ethernet was initially a shared-access medium, but the introduction of the MAC bridge began its transformation into its most-common point-to-point form without a collision domain. Switches also exist for other types of networks including Fibre Channel, Asynchronous Transfer Mode, and InfiniBand.
Unlike repeater hubs, which broadcast the same data out of each port and let the devices pick out the data addressed to them, a network switch learns the identities of connected devices and then only forwards data to the port connected to the device to which it is addressed.
A switch is a device in a computer network that connects other devices together. Multiple data cables are plugged into a switch to enable communication between different networked devices. Switches manage the flow of data across a network by transmitting a received network packet only to the one or more devices for which the packet is intended. Each networked device connected to a switch can be identified by its network address, allowing the switch to direct the flow of traffic maximizing the security and efficiency of the network.
A switch is more intelligent than an Ethernet hub, which simply retransmits packets out of every port of the hub except the port on which the packet was received, unable to distinguish different recipients, and achieving an overall lower network efficiency.
An Ethernet switch operates at the data link layer (layer 2) of the OSI model to create a separate collision domain for each switch port. Each device connected to a switch port can transfer data to any of the other ports at any time and the transmissions will not interfere.[a] Because broadcasts are still being forwarded to all connected devices by the switch, the newly formed network segment continues to be a broadcast domain. Switches may also operate at higher layers of the OSI model, including the network layer and above. A device that also operates at these higher layers is known as a multilayer switch.
Segmentation involves the use of a switch to split a larger collision domain into smaller ones in order to reduce collision probability and to improve overall network throughput. In the extreme case (i.e. micro-segmentation), each device is located on a dedicated switch port. In contrast to an Ethernet hub, there is a separate collision domain on each of the switch ports. This allows computers to have dedicated bandwidth on point-to-point connections to the network and also to run in full-duplex mode. Full-duplex mode has only one transmitter and one receiver per collision domain, making collisions impossible.
The network switch plays an integral role in most modern Ethernet local area networks (LANs). Mid-to-large sized LANs contain a number of linked managed switches. Small office/home office (SOHO) applications typically use a single switch, or an all-purpose device such as a residential gateway to access small office/home broadband services such as DSL or cable Internet. In most of these cases, the end-user device contains a router and components that interface to the particular physical broadband technology. User devices may also include a telephone interface for Voice over IP (VoIP).
Switches are most commonly used as the network connection point for hosts at the edge of a network. In the hierarchical internetworking model and similar network architectures, switches are also used deeper in the network to provide connections between the switches at the edge.
In switches intended for commercial use, built-in or modular interfaces make it possible to connect different types of networks, including Ethernet, Fibre Channel, RapidIO, ATM, ITU-T G.hn and 802.11. This connectivity can be at any of the layers mentioned. While the layer-2 functionality is adequate for bandwidth-shifting within one technology, interconnecting technologies such as Ethernet and Token Ring is performed more easily at layer 3 or via routing. Devices that interconnect at the layer 3 are traditionally called routers.
Where there is a need for a great deal of analysis of network performance and security, switches may be connected between WAN routers as places for analytic modules. Some vendors provide firewall, network intrusion detection, and performance analysis modules that can plug into switch ports. Some of these functions may be on combined modules.
Through port mirroring, a switch can create a mirror image of data that can go to an external device such as intrusion detection systems and packet sniffers.
A modern switch may implement power over Ethernet (PoE), which avoids the need for attached devices, such as a VoIP phone or wireless access point, to have a separate power supply. Since switches can have redundant power circuits connected to uninterruptible power supplies, the connected device can continue operating even when regular office power fails.
Modern commercial switches primarily use Ethernet interfaces. The core function of an Ethernet switch is to provide multiple ports of layer-2 bridging. Layer-1 functionality is required in all switches in support of the higher layers. Many switches also perform operations at other layers. A device capable of more than bridging is known as a multilayer switch.
A layer 2 network device is a multiport device that uses hardware addresses (MAC addresses) to process and forward data at the data link layer (layer 2).
A switch operating as a network bridge may interconnect otherwise separate layer 2 networks. The bridge learns the MAC address of each connected device. Bridges also buffer an incoming packet and adapt the transmission speed to that of the outgoing port. While there are specialized applications, such as storage area networks, where the input and output interfaces are the same bandwidth, this is not always the case in general LAN applications. In LANs, a switch used for end-user access typically concentrates lower bandwidth and uplinks into a higher bandwidth.
Interconnects between switches may be regulated using the spanning tree protocol (STP) that disables forwarding on links so that the resulting local area network is a tree without switching loops. In contrast to routers, spanning tree bridges must have topologies with only one active path between two points. Shortest path bridging and TRILL (TRansparent Interconnection of Lots of Links) are layer 2 alternatives to STP which allow all paths to be active with multiple equal cost paths.
Switches are available in many form factors, including stand-alone, desktop units which are typically intended to be used in a home or office environment outside a wiring closet; rack-mounted switches for use in an equipment rack or an enclosure; DIN rail mounted for use in industrial environments; and small installation switches, mounted into a cable duct, floor box or communications tower, as found, for example, in fiber to the office infrastructures.
Rack-mounted switches may be standalone units, stackable switches or large chassis units with swappable line cards.
It is difficult to monitor traffic that is bridged using a switch because only the sending and receiving ports can see the traffic.
Methods that are specifically designed to allow a network analyst to monitor traffic include:
These monitoring features are rarely present on consumer-grade switches. Other monitoring methods include connecting a layer-1 hub or network tap between the monitored device and its switch port.
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