What is a Switch Port?

M. McGee

A network switch is a device that connects different network segments together transparently. A network switch port is the location on the switch where devices connect to the switch. The devices connected to a network switch port may be computers, video game systems or even other network switches. Switches are common in large networks, such as in an office building or school. They are also found in households with high-speed Internet, but in this case, they are typically built into a multi-function router.

A network hub.
A network hub.

The term ‘switch’ is a broad catch-all for a wide range of computer network technologies. Even so, network hubs, home routers and network bridges are more commonly called switches than other devices. Each of these devices accomplishes a similar job from a switching standpoint, but is often capable of performing additional tasks outside of switching.

The design of each of these devices centers on its wired ports. These ports appear as rectangular openings that are slightly larger than a phone cord. Depending on the type of device, there may only be a handful of these ports or there may be several dozen. Often, these devices have a single port called an uplink or wide area network (WAN) port, but the rest are switch ports.

These devices vary in complexity and function. Network hubs are the most simple forms of switches, basically just connecting pieces of a network to one another. Routers will do many of the same functions as hubs, but will also allow a connection to the Internet or outside network. Network bridges work like a super hub, directing traffic intelligently over network segments.

A switch port allows connected devices to talk to each other in parallel. This means they can talk to each other without having to access any additional resources outside the switch. For instance, if four devices were connected to a hub, they would be able to communicate between them without signals leaving the hub. If there were four groups of four devices each connected to different hubs, they could communicate within their group, but not with the other groups. If a fifth hub was used to connect the four hubs, then all 16 devices could speak to each other.

In the technical world, ‘switch port’ is an odd term. Network switches and switching technology are not official or well-defined terms in most computer specifications. While several devices may be referred to as switches, very few devices actually are called switches. The term was first used as an unofficial name for a new type of network bridge technology, but has since grown to encompass many different devices. As a result, trying to find specific technical information on a switch port will often lead to other technologies.

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Discussion Comments


A lot of networking terminology bled over from the telephone industry and in my short experience, it seems to me that a lot of telephone network experts are also pretty well versed in data networking practices and procedures. "Switch" is one of the oldest concepts in telephony, along with "patching," which is used in telephony, data networking and audio/visual technologies. In learning data networking, it seems one inadvertently becomes at least passingly familiar with telephone networks operate.

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