In discussions about networking, you might find that the terms “hub”, “switch”, and “router” are being used interchangeably when they should not be. The reason for the confusion is understandable. Besides looking similar, all three devices pass along data traffic through connectors called ports. Plus, as these devices become more sophisticated, the functional differences between them continue to blur.
To understand the differences between hubs, switches, and routers, it helps to look at their fundamental roles as well as their levels of intelligence.
What Is a Hub?
A hub is the least intelligent of the three hardware devices. It serves as a connection point for the computers (and other devices such as printers) in a network. A hub simply passes along the traffic it receives to the computers connected to it. Any traffic that goes in one port comes out the other ports. As a result, all the computers receive the traffic, even if it is not for them. For that reason, they have been rendered obsolete by switches.
What Is a Switch?
A switch is more intelligent than a hub. Like a hub, a switch is the connection point for the computers (and other devices) in a network. However, a switch is more efficient at passing along traffic. It records the addresses of the computers connected to it in a table. When traffic comes through, the switch reads the destination address and sends that traffic to the appropriate computer rather than sending it to all the connected computers. If the destination address is not in the table, the switch sends the traffic to all the connected computers.
What Is a Router?
A router is the most intelligent of the three hardware devices. It is typically a small computing device designed specifically to understand, manipulate, and direct traffic. Routers include a user interface so that you can tell them where to direct the traffic.
The primary function of a traditional router is to connect two or more networks (or network segments in a very large network) and direct traffic between them. For instance, a business might use a router to manage the connection between its local network and the Internet. To distribute the traffic to the computers in the local network, the business could connect the router to a switch or hub.
While traditional routers are still available, most small business and home office routers today combine the functionality of a router and the functionality of a switch or hub in a single unit. These integrated routers often include additional software that lets businesses set up features such as network firewalls and virtual private networks. There are two main types of integrated routers: wired (e.g., for networks using Ethernet broadband) and wireless (e.g., for Wi-Fi networks).
The Lines Continue to Blur
Integrated routers are blurring the functional lines between routers, switches, and hubs. But they are not the only devices doing so. As switches become smarter, they are taking on some of the tasks that used to require a router. We can help you sort through the many types of routers, switches, and hubs so that you can pick the best routing solution for your business.