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Switches, Hubs, Bridges, and Routers Explained

Computers talk to each other and the web in a variety of ways. This communication is facilitated by routers, bridges, switches, and other hardware. Tech Talker explains what these devices are, what they do, and which are best for your home's computer network.

By
Eric Escobar
November 21, 2013
Episode #101

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Switches

Remember how I said that routers use IP addresses to figure out where to transmit information? Well switches use MAC addresses of devices in order to route packets. The difference between MAC addresses and IP addresses are that MAC addresses are unique for each device. IP addresses, on the other hand can change.

A handy way to understand this is to think of your MAC address like your Social Security Number (it will stay the same no matter where you live). On the other hand, your IP address is more like your street address (as you move, it changes).

So if you took your laptop to a coffee shop, it would have a different IP address than the one at home, but the same MAC address. The benefit of using IP addresses over MAC addresses is thatswitches have a finite number of MAC addresses they can keep in their memory. Generally, the number of addresses a switch can hold is pretty high, but if someone has a ton of devices or is on a corporate network, the slots can fill up pretty quickly!

Bridges and Hubs

The next item on our list is a bridge. A bridge is like a switch but it only has one input and one output port. It literally just bridges a connection. A bridge is then followed by a hub. Hubs and switches may look very similar on the outside, but they work in completely different ways. Instead of directing traffic like a switch or a router, a hub sends the same information to every device connected to it. From there, it's up to the computer to decide if the traffic is for it or another computer.

This is incredibly inefficient! It's like you're at a bakery and you took a number, and the person behind the counter yells out a bunch of random numbers until they accidentally stumble on yours.

So why would you even bother with a switch, hub, or a bridge? As a consumer you probably wouldn't, but there are good (but very complicated) reasons why they make sense for businesses. For everyday home computing, you just want to stick with a router or a switch.

Nowadays most modern routers have switches built-in. This is pretty handy for a consumer because it allows you high network speeds and efficiency all from one box.

If you find yourself running out of ports on your router, you may want to look into purchasing a switch. Most routers come with 4-6 ethernet ports on the back which should be fine for most households. Some circumstances that might merit the need for more ports are if you are trying to hardwire in multiple ethernet jacks into different rooms in your house (like you might find in an office), or you might just have a ton of devices all connected at once. LAN party anyone?

If you’re looking for a switch, I recommend buying one with Gigabit speeds. You can get cheaper ones labeled as “Fast Ethernet” or 100 megabits, but this will make any file transfers across your network crawl. Effectively the difference between gigabit and 100 megabit is about 10 times!

The nice thing about switches is that you can plug any ethernet cable in and the switch will take care of routing information for you. This means that if you are using a single switch, it doesn’t matter if you change which plug your chord goes into. It’s very much like a power strip, it increases how many ports you have available. I’ve recently rebuilt my home network and outfitted it with great hardware that is also very cost effective. If you’d like to know more about how to do this in your home, shoot me an email at techtalker@quickanddirtytips.com

With that here are your 3 Quick and Dirty Tips for optimal networking:

  1. Most consumers will only need a router and a modem for their home network.
  2. Switches are used like power strips on the network, they increase the amount of ports you have available.
  3. Hubs and bridges are older forms of networking devices that aren’t often used in homes and are generally reserved for business use.

Well that’s all for today!

Have a question about anything in this episode? Or a suggestion for a future podcast? Send me an email at techtalker@quickanddirtytips.com or post it on the Tech Talker Facebook wall. Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!

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Network, switch, and cables images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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