Switches and routers are the two most common devices on a home/small office network.
In fact a very simple small home network consists of a single device called a home router which functions as a router,switch,access point and modem all in one. This is depicted in the diagram below:
So what is the difference between a router and a switch and how do you know if you need a switch or a router?
What are Routers
So what are routers and what do the do exactly?
Routers connect two networks together. Your home router connects your home network to the Internet.
Routers work by examining the IP address and are called level 3 devices in most of the technical literature.
You can use a router to split a network into sub networks but this is seldom done on a home network.
Hence home networks only have 1 router.
What are Switches
So what are switches and what do the do?
Switches connect network segments together and work on the physical or MAC address. They do not use the IP address (but see managed switches).
They are known as level 2 devices in most of the technical literature.
Physical Difference Between a Switch and Router
Just looking at a switch and a router it is difficult to tell them apart as they usually look more or less the same.
Below is a picture of a router and switch side by side. As you can see that don’t look that different from each other.
However on a router you will usually find an Ethernet port labelled WAN or Internet.
Unmanaged vs Managed or Smart Switches
Unmanaged switches are simple switches that have no configuration options. You just plug them into a network and use them
Managed switches can be configured. For example you can create VLANs, set QOS levels etc.
They are generally managed using a web browser, and because of this they require an IP address.
Common Questions and Answers
Q- Do switches have IP addresses?
A- Unmanaged switches don’t have an IP address whereas managed switches do have one so that you can manage them with a web browser.
Q- Is a Router slower than a switch?
A- Yes because it operates at the IP level and routing is done in software.
Q- I Have a switch do I need a router?
A- Yes if you want to connect to the Internet otherwise no.
Q – Should I configure a static IP address for my managed switch(es).
A- Yes I would advise you do that but do it on the DHCP server. See DHCP and static IP addresses
Q- Do switches create separate broadcast domains?
Q- Do routers create separate broadcast domains?
Q- How does a switch affect mDNS?
A- It doesn’t unless you are using VLANs
Q- Do network clients need to know the IP address of a switch?
Q- Why is my home router also called the default gateway?
A- This is an historical term and is because it is the gateway (gate) to the Internet.
Related Tutorials and Resources
- Expanding Router Ports and Connecting Switches Together
- Two Routers on The Same Home Network
- Mobile Routers
- How to Create a Guest Network
- VLANS on Home Networks