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15 Differences Between Switches and Routers

Switches and routers are essential components of networking infrastructure in offices and organizations of every size. This article discusses each concept in detail. It also explains the 15 ways routers differ from switches and five similarities between them. 

Switch vs. Router

Switches and routers are both networking hardware that form an essential part of IT infrastructure. Before we compare and contrast the two, let’s first have a basic understanding of switches and routers and the benefits and drawbacks associated with each.

What is a router?

The term “router” refers to networking equipment moving data packets from one computer network to another. A router operates at layer-3 of the open systems interconnection (OSI) stack and allows several devices to use the same internet connection. It also manages traffic between the computer networks by forwarding data packets to their specified internet protocol (IP) addresses.

When a router receives a data packet, the router scans the network address data inside the packet header to identify where the data packet is headed. The device then consults the information stored in its routing table to route the data packet along the route to get it to its final destination as quickly and effectively as possible before sending it on to the subsequent network.

The following are some of the benefits that routers offer:

  • They allow communication between different networking architectures, such as Ethernet and token rings.
  • They reduce network traffic by creating collision and broadcast domains.
  • They use dynamic routing algorithms to determine the best path across the internetwork, thus minimizing traffic load.
  • They provide sophisticated routing, traffic isolation, and flow control.
  • Since they are interoperable with other networking devices, such as modems, one may use routers in conjunction with those other devices.

However, the following are the disadvantages of routers:

  • They are more expensive than other networking devices.
  • Their firmware contains several vulnerabilities that cyber attackers can easily exploit.
  • They are relatively slow as they process data packets at three layers.
  • They operate on routable network protocols. However, not all protocols are routable.

See More: How Does an Edge Network Work and What Does Its Future Hold? AT&T’s Theresa Lanowitz Answers

What is a network switch?

A network switch is an appliance that lets the many devices on a computer network connect to each other. It works at layer 2 of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model, which is the data link layer. It receives data packets and sends them to the correct device by switching packets. A switch sends data only to the single device it is intended for.

When a data packet enters a network switch, the switch reads its header to find its media access control (MAC) address and determine its destination. Then, the switch sends the data packet through the appropriate ports that lead to the destination device. The following are the advantages of network switches:

  • They increase the network’s available bandwidth and can improve the network’s performance.
  • They support virtual Local Area Networks (LANs) and thus help in logical segmentation.
  • They minimize frame collisions in networks that use them by creating collision domains for each connection.
  • They help reduce the workload on individual host computers and support centralized management.
  • They can establish a direct connection with workstations. Also, they can allow several simultaneous conversations.

However, it also has the following disadvantages:

  • They are more expensive than network bridges.
  • Network connectivity issues on network switches are difficult to trace.
  • Cyber attackers can capture IP addresses or spoof Ethernet frames when the switch is in promiscuous mode.
  • They do not work very well when used as a diversion to limit broadcasts.

See More: What Is Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)? Meaning, Working, Benefits, and Challenges 

Router vs. Switch: 15 Key Differences

The following are the differences between a network switch and a router:

1. Definitions

Router: Data packets are sent from one computer network to another via a router, enabling several devices to share a single Internet connection. It forwards data packets between computer networks. Routers control traffic to ensure that the data packets pass through the most efficient paths to their destination.

Network switch: On the other hand, a network switch is an appliance that links different devices that are part of the same computer network. It processes the data via packet switching to receive it, then processes it and sends it to the target device. A network switch only sends data to a single device it is intended for.

2. Operational OSI model layers

Router: According to the ISO-OSI model, a router works on layer-3, which is the network layer. It sends data packets to their destinations based on the IP address found in the layer-3 IP packet. It doesn’t “remember” anything about the packet after it has been forwarded.

Network switch: On the other hand, a network switch works at the data link layer, which is layer 2 of the OSI model. The switch performs an error check before forwarding the data packets, which makes it more efficient. In addition, multilayer switches can also forward data at layer 3 by incorporating routing functionality. 

3. Differences in their broadcasting domains

Router: In routers, all ports have their broadcast domains. The broadcasting domain in routers is broken into parts and does not permit propagation.

Network switch: In a network switch, however, there is only one broadcast domain — unless virtual LANs are implemented. An Ethernet switch creates a separate collision domain for each of its ports. This lets all of the devices that are connected to the switch ports send data without any problems. As the devices are connected to ports on the switch, each switch port becomes its collision domain, or collisions are eliminated.

4. Use of routing tables during transmission

Routers: Routers can store their IP addresses in routing tables and keep an address on their own. When they get a data packet, the routers look through existing routing tables to find the best match between one of the addresses in their routing tables and the IP address of the packet’s final destination. Only then do they send the packet on to its final destination.

Network switch: Conversely, network switches use content-accessible memory (CAM) tables to find MAC addresses to reach their destinations. This is usually accessed by application-specific integrated chips (ASIC). They can also store the MAC addresses in a lookup table and maintain an address on their own.

5. Modes of transmission

Router: By default, routers are transmitted in full-duplex mode. However, users can change this to half-duplex, depending on their preferences. In routers, there are fewer collisions. Collisions reduce network efficiency.

Network switch: Data in network switches is transmitted in both full and half-duplex modes. Users can change this to auto-negotiation mode depending on their preferences. Switches segment networks and split larger collision domains into smaller ones. Each device is connected to its port on the switch in half-duplex modes. Thus, each port becomes its collision domain. Therefore, in full duplex mode, there is only one transmitter and one receiver; the risk of a collision is wholly removed from the equation.

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6. Network types

Routers: They are used in environments such as wide area networks (WANs), local area networks (LANs), and metropolitan area networks (MANs). The speed of these network devices varies depending on the type of environment that they are used in. For instance, in environments with MAN or WAN types of networks, a router works faster than a network switch.

Network switch: In contrast, network switches are only used for LAN environments. In LANs, a network switch is faster.

7. Differences in their ports

Router: During production, routers are fitted with two ports by default. However, one can add more serial ports as the need arises. It can have 2, 4, or 8 ports. Routers consist of both hardware and software ports. Hardware ports include WAN and LAN ports, as well as USB ports. Software ports enable routers to determine where data packets will be allocated and keep track of them. Each application has a specific designated port number.

Network switch: Network switches, on the other hand, are multiport network bridges. The number of ports in a switch varies depending on the device’s function. A home router can have 5 ports, while an extensive network switch can have up to 52 ports. The number of devices that may connect to an Ethernet switch is always one fewer than the number of physical ports accessible on the switch. One port on the switch is always allocated for the connection that links the switch to the router. It has the following ports: an access port, a trunk port, and a hybrid port.

8. Data formats

Router: In routers, data is transmitted in the form of packets. 

Network switch: In contrast, data is transmitted in network switches in the form of frames and packets. In the L2 switch, it is transmitted in frame form. In the L3 switch, it is sent in both frame and packet forms.

9. Translation of port and network addresses

Router: They can perform network address translation (NAT) and port address translation (PAT). Through NAT, routers enable several devices to access the internet using a single public address. This helps to overcome IP address shortages, especially in networks that use internet protocol version 4(IPv4). 

It also provides security by masking the entire network’s IP address. PAT is less flexible than NAT, but it offers extra address expansion. PAT uses the unique host’s port numbers inside the global IP address to differentiate between translations. In addition, routers provide other services such as NetFlow and quality of service (QoS).

Network switch: On the other hand, network switches cannot perform NAT or PAT. They also do not offer QoS, or NetFlow services.

10. Types of addresses used for data transmission

Router: It uses IP addresses to transmit data.

Network switch: It uses MAC addresses to transmit data.

11. Network speeds

Router: The performance and speed of wireless routers vary from one model to another. Most modern wireless devices use a standard known as 802.11 that ensures that wireless devices from different manufacturers can work together. However, some devices use newer standards such as 802.11g and wireless n. 

Users can access speeds ranging from 1 to 100 megabytes per second (Mbps). However, in wired connections, the rates increase to a range between 100 Mbps and 1 gigabyte per second (Gbps). 

Network switch: The speed and performance of network switches vary from model to model. When choosing a switch model, users should consider the type of throughput they need. Fixed configuration switches offer 10 to 100 Mbps for fast Ethernet, 10/100/1000 Mbps for Gigabit Ethernet, and 10/1000/10000 Mbps for ten gigabits. 

12. Internet access requirements

Router: A router does not necessarily require an internet connection. An internet connection is only needed for additional security and to enable connections between multiple remote devices outside the personal area network.

Network switch: It requires an internet connection.

13. Bandwidth usage

Router: In routers, bandwidth is shared dynamically. Routers provide dynamic or static bandwidth sharing over modular cable interfaces. The default percent value is typically set at 0, and the percent value ranges from one to 96.

Network switch: In contrast, there is no sharing port in network switches. The individual port capacity can be either 10, 100, 1000, or 1000 Mbps.

14. Routing decisions

Router: The primary function of a router is to forward data packets to their destinations. A routing decision compares the destination IP address to the routing table entries and selects the best match. It is usually discarded if there is no match for a data packet. However, a router uses subnetting to determine the best path if there are several matches. Routers can make faster routing decisions. 

Network switch: Routing is a complex process that involves several layers and components, each with its priorities and policies. Conversely, in Ethernet switches, a packet that lacks a matching address is sent to every port except the source port. Network switches make slower routing decisions as they use more time to make complex decisions.

15. Types of devices

Router: Two forms of routing exist. That is adaptive and non-adaptive routing. In adaptive routing, routing decisions are made based on network traffic and topology. This is sometimes referred to as dynamic routing. However, in non-adaptive routing, routing decisions are made by consulting static tables. It is also known as static routing.   

Network switch: Three forms of switching exist. That is circuit, packet, and message switching. In circuit switching, a connection is created after a dedicated path is established between the source and destination. In message and packet switching, links are developed independently, one by one, between the nodes on the way.

See More: What Is Network Management? Definition, Key Components, and Best Practices

5 Similarities between a router and a network switch

The following are similarities between a router and a network switch: 

1. Their fundamental purpose

They are both types of computer networking devices. They may have different functions, but they are both used to connect devices. Using packet switching, a network switch links peripherals on a computer by receiving and forwarding data packets onto their designated device. Similarly, a router connects several devices to a single network by forwarding data packets between the networks.

2. Decision-making ability

They are both thought to be intelligent devices. Network switches are generally regarded as more intelligent devices compared to hubs. They are multiport devices with virtual circuit capabilities that improve network efficiencies. They maintain routing tables that they may use to identify the IP location of a data packet’s route. 

Additionally, they can make complex routing decisions on data packets, albeit at a slower rate when compared to routers. Similarly, routers are also considered intelligent devices. They can store their routing tables, which they use to determine the destination IP address of data packets. They can also make complex routing decisions faster than network switches to determine the destination of these packets.

3. Enabling network efficiency

They both offer modern solutions to solve network connectivity issues. With an increasing demand for Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as closed-circuit televisions (CCTV) and smart homes, there is a need to enhance the user experience by improving network speeds. Both routers and network switches can be used at home, in small offices, and in enterprises to increase network speeds. 

Wireless routers offer speeds of up to 100 Mbps, while wired routers offer speeds of up to 1 Gbps. Similarly, depending on the type, network switches may give rates of up to 1 Gbps. Additionally, one can use them interchangeably depending on different environments. In a LAN network context, for instance, one may use a network switch to provide high bandwidth, while routers can be employed to offer faster networks in WAN and MAN network environments.

4. Form factor and appearance

Routers and network switches are lightweight and have a similar outward appearance. This makes them portable for use at their owner’s discretion. One can use them anywhere as long as they are connected to a power source. Unlike other networking devices such as modems, both routers and network switches require power to perform their essential functions. 

In addition, they can both improve security for users. Routers use NAT to mask the IP addresses on the entire network. As a result, they reduce vulnerabilities to cyber attackers. In network switches, it is essential to disable all unused ports and use MAC address filtering to secure switches and prevent malicious traffic from bringing the switch to a halt.

5. The use of ports

Both routers and network switches have ports. WAN and LAN connections enable WAN and LAN connections to be established on networking devices. Routers typically have two types of ports, though users can add more. They have hardware ports that include LAN, WAN, and USB ports and software ports. Network switches have more ports and can consist of up to 52 ports depending on their primary objective. They are multi-port network bridges. The three types of ports in switches are trunk ports, access ports, and hybrid ports.

See More: What Is Network Hardware? Definition, Architecture, Challenges, and Best Practices

Takeaway

Ultimately, a completely effective networking environment cannot exist sans routers and switches. Switches connect multiple endpoints to enable resource sharing within a limited network. A router has a more expansive purpose, directing traffic from the public or private internet and between local destinations. Knowing the differences and similarities between these devices allows you to use both optimally and maximize your available network capacity. 

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