Network Monitoring Basics: What Are Routers and Switches?

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December 15, 2016
Routers and switches enable connectivity between networks and devices.

Where does connectivity begin? With routers and switches. Routers connect networks, while switches manage the individual connections of each device in your network. You could say that just as the planets revolve around the sun, the network revolves around routers and switches.

It’s a given that when a core router or switch fails at work, nobody’s happy. Complaints pour in to IT. Work is stalled. IT scrambles. It may very well feel like the sun’s stopped shining.

If you work in an IT capacity, at some point or another, you’ll probably be involved with:

  • Researching the best vendors and models of routers and switches for your company
  • Purchasing/replacing routers and switches
  • Monitoring how routers and switches are performing
  • Troubleshooting poorly performing routers and switches

Routers and switches have similar but distinct responsibilities. Nail down your network monitoring basics as we review what routers and switches are, how they benefit your network, and what to do next if they crash.

What are routers?

In order for networks and devices to access the outside world, they need a router to open the door and provide the connection. At its core, a router acts as a virtual highway, moving data from the internet back into the networks it connects.

Because a router stores information about the network, network administrators can interrogate a router and ask it to bring back information about the devices stored in its inner tables. That’s why many network mapping tools ask users to start with a router IP address to create a visual map of the network.

Routers can also do more than just routing. Many routers can also provide switching and security functions as well. Having multi-function routers with routing, switching, and security functionality makes it easy to recover quickly from an outage if an IT administrator can enable a router to perform as a switch momentarily while he/she troubleshoots the failed switch.

So if a router can act as a switch, why are switches even necessary? Why can’t one multi-purpose device do it all? Although it’s possible to have a router that performs all three functions, most network administrators like to ensure separate devices have separate primary functions. That way, if, say, the router fails, users can still access internal applications via switches.

What are switches?

Switches connect PCs, laptops, printers, and more within a certain location. While routers help ensure connectivity between multiple networks, switches helps ensure fast, healthy performance of network devices. 

Managed switches give network administrators the most control over device connections. Every device that a managed switch connects will maintain its own IP address. This means that if you’re creating a map of all your network devices, the switch and all the devices it connects will be distinct on the map. Another benefit of a managed switch is that it will have an interface where users can go in and update settings, shut down or enable ports, and even match the speed of devices to the speed of the switch that’s connecting them for optimal performance.

Unmanaged devices, such as hubs or repeaters that operate at the physical layer of the OSI Model, do not have an interface. They typically do not show up on network maps and any device they connect will not have its own IP address.

Just as a router can masquerade as a switch in a pinch, a Layer 3 switch can also perform routing functions when needed. Typically it just takes some manual setup, but a capable switch can often offer that kind of interchangeable functionality.

When a router or switch fails

If the router goes down, users will not be able to connect with any external applications.  If a switch goes down, internal applications will not be available. Because users depend on routers and switches for connectivity, multi-function routers and switches can save the day by temporarily filling in for the other when a network outage occurs.

Network administrators with excellent visibility into their networks will monitor routers and switches carefully for any signs of failure. At the first sign of warning, problems can be reviewed and steps can be taken to prevent network outages. To help with this often manual task, network mapping software can provide automated monitoring and mapping of the network, sharing alerts when routers and switches are not performing optimally, and allowing IT professionals the ability to manage network traffic based on real-time data.

Key benefits routers and switches provide your network

With the help of optimally-functioning routers and switches, businesses can:

  • Share applications across networks and locations
  • Increase access to real-time information
  • Reduce operating costs (especially if your routers/switches are multi-function)
  • Ensure network security
  • Enable remote connections to get work done from anywhere
  • Improve network management

Routers and switches can be the key cogs to deploying robust network architecture. Purchasing quality devices, utilizing their full capabilities, and monitoring them carefully for signs of failure will help keep that door to the outside world open.


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