Routers vs Switches: What's the Difference?

By Neil Zawacki
Updated: May 24, 2011

One of the question sometimes asked by business professionals is the difference between a router and a switch. The confusion is understandable, since the devices appear to do the same thing – they allow a person to connect a computer or series of computers to a data network. There are several distinctions between the two, however, and it is important to know them when planning an office network.

Let’s start with the switch: this is a type of hub that is used to quickly route data across a computer network. It processes the data packets and serves as a waypoint, and a home office will typically have one switch to manage their traffic while a large business might have several linked switches that are working in unison.

The switch observes all of the internet traffic passing through the network and learns the location of the different addresses (more specifically, which port is related to which computer.) Once it has this information, the switch proceeds to route incoming data to the computer that it is intended for, instead of to every port on the network. This is of great benefit to data networks that experience high traffic since it can significantly increase the overall speed of the system.

A router is a much more advanced version of a switch. They can send and receive data within a network, but also analyze the packets to determine important factors like priority level and minimum delay route. This can greatly increase the quality of video streams and audio files that are transmitted across the network. In addition, many routers have their own programming language which they use to contact other routers and improve the process of transferring data.

Routers also send out constant “keep alive” signals to make sure that all the other routers on a network are operational. If any of the routers don’t respond, the service provider can know immediately and locate the source of the problem. These signals can also help the routers quickly adapt to any sudden modifications in the network, such as the addition of a new computer.

Another notable benefit of a router is the ability to create a firewall. The router can be programmed with a specific set of rules (typically based on IP address, port, or protocol) that will determine whether data packets are allowed or not allowed to pass through the network. This can help to protect any computers that are connected from hackers, viruses, and other forms of online attack.

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