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Sometimes technology can seem, well, techie. There are so many terms, acronyms, and types of hardware — even when talking about one specific use case, it can be a bit overwhelming. This isn’t helped by journalists and TV shows that misuse either misuse or casually interchange terminology.
With terms like hub, switch, and router used haphazardly by the media, it can be tough to know what means what anymore. So what is the difference between each? And what are they good for?
At their most basic, all three are examples of networking devices. As for the differences and reasons why each one exists, we’ll have to dive a bit deeper to really understand the nuances. Let’s break each one down.
A hub connects multiple computers together in a Local Area Network (LAN). All information sent to the hub is then sent through each port to every device in the network.
Hubs are unable to tell one computer from another, so they receive information on one port and then blindly forward it to all other ports — whether it was intended for those computers or not.
So even though you may only want to send information to one other computer, if you have five total computers on your network, then there will be four other computers receiving data that wasn’t intended for them.
What Is It Good For?
In most home cases, nothing. Because all the information is copied to every device, not only is this a security nightmare but also its a bandwidth hog.
Imagine if you needed to print a document for your boss, but instead printed one copy of the document for every single employee using the only office printer. That’s the scenario you’re dealing with here.
Although it can be viewed as a security nightmare, if you want to keep an eye on network traffic to see if someone is spending their whole day searching for cat videos on YouTube rather than working, then hubs are a pretty good option.
Recommended Hub Model
Since hubs have pretty much been superseded by switches, “plain” hubs are few and far between these days. However, if you really want one, the D-Link DE-805TP is a good place to start.
Something to keep in mind when shopping for hubs is that — just like in the media — hubs and switches are often mislabelled. If you are unsure if the device you are checking out is a hub, take a look at Wireshark’s Hub Reference.
A switch connects multiple computers together in a LAN. After the first data transfer, it creates a “switch table” which matches ports to connected devices by their MAC addresses.
Switches, unlike hubs, are able to differentiate between computers as the first time data passes through the switch, it looks to see which MAC addresses are connected to which ports and remembers the layout.
What Is It Good For?
Creating a LAN. Hubs used to be recommended for this because they were cheaper than switches, but switches are far superior as they minimize the traffic on a network, decrease bandwidth usage, and only send data to the intended computers.
For instance Computer A wants to send data to Computer C. The switch would see that Computer A is on port 1 while Computer C is on port 4. The switch can then send data directly between them, with the data arriving at port 1 and leaving the switch at port 4. This process hugely reduces bandwidth usage when compared to a hub.
Recommended Switch Model
Great switches are relatively inexpensive these days and can be found from most networking manufacturers. The Netgear GS105NA is a five port switch which you can either use to create a LAN or can be plugged into one of your router’s Ethernet ports to increase the amount of wired ports on your network.
When buying a switch, there are managed and unmanaged varieties. Unmanaged are the most common, which allow you to plug in and get using straight away with no setup. Managed switches let you set up the network and allow you to prioritize traffic, say Skype to ensure great call quality.
If you aren’t sure if you need a switch on your network, check out our guide to everything you need to know about home networking.
A router is a device that sends packets of data between different networks.
A packet is data which also contains the address of the destination. Routers use this destination address to send the packet between routers until it reaches its destination. This is how your LAN connects to the wider Internet. So when you enter a search term on Google, your router directs this packet to Google’s servers for processing.
Take mail as an example. If you want to send a letter to one of your housemates, you might just address it with “Room A”. But what happens if you want to send a letter to your best friend who lives in “Room A” of a different house? You would need more information to differentiate.
So you add a zip code. But they live in a different state, which you can’t easily get to. So you hand it over to your friendly mail carrier and using the address and zip code, the mail carrier will make sure it ends up at the correct destination, even if it means passing the letter over to a local mail carrier.
What Is It Good For?
Sending packets between two different networks is technically a router’s only job. However, modern routers actually include quite a lot more than that:
- 4-8 port switch for the LAN which enables local sharing of services like printers.
- Network Address Translator (NAT) used to assign one set of IP addresses within the LAN and one set outside the LAN to your ISP or a Wide Area Network (WAN).
- Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) which assigns IP addresses to each device connected to the LAN.
- Firewall to protect the LAN.
- WAN Port to connect the Router to a modem which provides broadband services from your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
- Wireless broadcast letting you connect devices without cables.
Recommended Router Model
The D-Link Wireless AC1900 is one of the best and highest rated routers out there. It has some of the best networking and wireless performance of all its peers while also being great value for money.
Before buying any router though make sure that it’ll be compatible with your ISP and suits your needs.
Hubs, Switches, Routers in a Nutshell
- Hubs and switches connect computers to create a LAN.
- Switches, unlike hubs, know which device the information is intended for and sends it there.
- Routers on the other hand can send packets between LANs, while also assigning IP addresses, acting as a switch and protecting your LAN.
Have you ever had to explain what the difference is between these three? How did you do it? Is there any other technology terminology you want us to delve into? Let us know in the comments below!