What are the differences between unmanaged, smart, and managed network switches?

An unmanaged switch maintains its database but is inaccessible via any interface (e.g. web, CLI, SNMP, etc.). It is simply present on the network to route frames to appropriate ports. Unmanaged switches are also incapable of handling any type of advanced Layer 2 features, including VLANs.

A managed switch has a full set of OSI Layer 2 features used for managing the wired traffic on a network. It is addressable via an IP address and can generally be accessed via both a web interface (e.g. http or https) and a CLI (e.g. telnet or SSH). Managed switches are capable of supporting a long list of industry- standard OSI Layer 2 features, including but not limited to the following:

  • VLANs
  • Viewable dynamic MAC address table (i.e. the switch port database)
  • Link Aggregation with Link Aggregation Control Protocol (LACP)
  • Spanning Tree Protocol (STP)
  • Access Control Lists (ACLs)
  • SNMP
  • Logging (local and remote)
  • Port mirroring
  • Cable and other diagnostics

A smart switch is a limited managed switch, which is typically less expensive than a managed switch but also typically only supports a subset of features found on a managed switch. Smart switches will typically only have a web interface and support a limited set of VLANs.  However, unlike managed switches, there is no industry standard for the term “smart switch”, and what constitutes a “smart switch” can vary widely both between vendors and between different switch models from the same vendor.

It is best practice to use managed switches on the LAN side of a network. This ensures that the full set of OSI Layer 2 features are available, and to facilitate troubleshooting by enabling network devices can be monitored and managed remotely.  Unmanaged switches should generally be avoided.

Every model of network switch currently manufactured and sold by EnGenius is a full managed switch with all of the industry-standard OSI Layer 2 features available.