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Managed vs Unmanaged Industrial Switches: What’s the Difference?

Posted on Dec 19, 2023 by
1.1k

industrial switch

Industrial switches are the linchpin of industrial networks and can be divided into managed and unmanaged types. They combine industrial features such as extended operating temperatures, ruggedized enclosures and ingress protection to withstand extremely harsh environments. The key to an industrial network’s success is the deployment of proper equipment in the proper places, and that decision begins with the selection of managed and unmanaged switches. In this article, we will compare these two industrial switches from different aspects and suggest when and where to use each type of switch.

What Is an Unmanaged Industrial Switch?

Unmanaged industrial switches are the simplest active network component. They are plug-and-play and do not need to be configured, making them very flexible. They use basic standard protocols like auto-negotiation, auto-crossing, and flow-control and can automatically adjust to the different transmission speeds or connector wiring without manual intervention. They are cost-effective and ideal for simpler industrial setups where basic connectivity suffices.

What Is a Managed Industrial Switch?

Contrarily, the managed industrial switches offer more advanced functionalities and customization options than unmanaged switches. It provides greater control over network traffic, enabling administrators to configure, monitor, and manage the switch remotely. Supporting features like VLANs, QoS and security protocols, these switches are suitable for larger, complex industrial networks that require higher levels of control and security.

industrial switch

Key Differences Between Managed and Unmanaged Industrial Switches

Basically, unmanaged industrial Ethernet switches allow you to instantly plug and play devices into your network, while managed industrial Ethernet switches give you greater control over them. However, these two types of switches have deeper differences in four aspects: control functions, performance, security, and cost.

Control and Configuration

Managed industrial switches offer a high degree of control and configurability. Network administrators can adjust settings to optimize network traffic, create VLANs to segregate and prioritize network traffic, and configure Quality of Service (QoS) settings to ensure critical data receives the bandwidth it needs. Managed switches also support various management protocols such as SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) for monitoring the health and performance of the network.

Unmanaged switches, on the other hand, do not offer this level of configuration. They are typically plug-and-play devices that operate with a fixed configuration, offering no ability to change settings or adapt to specific network requirements.

industrial switch

Performance and Flexibility

Unmanaged industrial switches typically provide basic switching functionality with built-in QoS services to ensure their proper operation, which can potentially lead to less efficient performance under heavy load or in complex network topologies. However, with managed industrial switches, you can prioritize channels at will, allocate resources efficiently and minimize bottlenecks, particularly in networks with high traffic volumes or real-time data needs such as VoIP or streaming services. Furthermore, features like Priority SNMP, which allow for remote troubleshooting of the network, also make it even easier to check for any issues impacting that performance, allowing you to implement fixes if necessary.

Scalability and Security

Security is another area where managed industrial switches excel. These switches can offer advanced security features like network access control lists (ACLs), port-based security, and support for IEEE 802.1X for network access control. They can be integrated into an organization's wider security architecture, allowing for centralized security management that aligns with corporate policies.

In contrast, unmanaged industrial switches provide minimal security beyond the inherent isolation provided by the switch itself. There are no options to add further security layers or control access to the network, which can make devices connected to unmanaged switches more vulnerable to security risks.

Cost and Complexity

Cost is a critical factor that distinguishes these two types of switches. Managed industrial switches are more expensive due to their complexity, advanced features, and the technology required to support their management capabilities. The investment is justified for environments that require sophisticated network management and monitoring, as well as enhanced performance and security.

Unmanaged industrial switches are much more cost-effective, making them a suitable choice for simple installations or where budget constraints are a significant concern. While they lack the advanced features of their managed counterparts, they are adequate for basic connectivity in environments with less critical network demands.

 

Features
Managed Industrial Switches
Unmanaged Industrial Switches
Control
Managed industrial switches provides flexibility to the network administrator
Unmanaged industrial switches works like a plug and play switch
Configuration
Managed industrial switch has advanced features which allows users to manage, configure, and monitor
Unmanaged industrial switch comes with fixed configuration
Performance Monitoring
Uses QoS and VLANs to monitor the performance
Built-in QoS services
Security
Provides extensive set of security features
Provides basic set of security features
Cost
More Expensive
Less Expensive

How to Choose Between Managed and Unmanaged Industrial Switches

When considering the appropriate type of industrial switch for your network, the decision between managed and unmanaged switches hinges on several interconnected factors. If you're dealing with a complex network where precise control over data traffic is essential, a managed industrial switch becomes imperative. Notably, in environments such as large-scale manufacturing with extensive automation, the ability to prioritize communication, create virtual networks (VLANs), and establish strict security protocols is paramount. Managed industrial switches, equipped with these advanced features, facilitate not only the initial robust setup but also ensure adaptability for future network expansions and modifications.

Additionally, scenarios that demand remote management capabilities call for managed switches. They allow network administrators to monitor and make necessary adjustments from afar, ensuring seamless operation. This level of oversight is particularly crucial in networks handling sensitive data where security cannot be compromised. Furthermore, with managed switches, redundancy protocols for automatic failover can be established, guaranteeing high reliability for mission-critical systems where downtime is not an option.

Conversely, unmanaged industrial switches shine in their simplicity and ease of deployment in less complex settings. Their plug-and-play nature suits small-scale operations where sophisticated network management isn't required, perhaps in situations where technical staffing is minimal or non-existent. These switches are often favored in applications that need industrial-grade reliability in harsh conditions without the bells and whistles of managed switches. With an unmanaged industrial switch, businesses on a tighter budget can still achieve the necessary connectivity to keep operations running smoothly without incurring the additional costs associated with the advanced management features they may not need.

In practice, for example, a small industrial installation that merely requires a stable connection for devices such as surveillance cameras could opt for an unmanaged industrial switch. This choice would ensure that the cameras remain operational in an industrial environment with minimal setup complexities and without the need for on-going management.

industrial switch

In essence, the choice between a managed or unmanaged industrial switch is a balancing act that weighs the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of unmanaged switches against the flexibility and control that managed switches offer. Whether one opts for the detailed network management capabilities of a managed switch or the straightforward functionality of an unmanaged switch should be determined by the specific requirements of the operational environment and the long-term strategic goals of the network infrastructure.

Conclusion

In the realm of industrial networking, the choice between managed and unmanaged industrial switches is crucial. Unmanaged industrial switches offer simplicity and cost-effectiveness for basic connectivity, while managed industrial switches provide advanced control, security, and customization options for complex industrial networks. Understanding your network requirements is pivotal in choosing the right switch to ensure efficient and secure operations in your industrial environment.

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