Like most people, I used consumer-grade switches on my home network for years and years, like TP-Link switches. They’re fine, but my older Linksys switch started acting flaky the other night. My oldest son’s computer kept dropping off the network. So that got me thinking. Do I need a managed switch at home?
Whether I need a managed switch for my home network or not, I bought a Dell Powerconnect 2824 smart managed switch, and I got it for less than a Linksys. This is a great opportunity to learn wired networking at home, the way businesses do it. Sure, it’s overkill, but here’s why I think it’s a good idea.
Do I need a smart managed switch at home? At this price, who cares?
First things first: You can pick up a used Dell Powerconnect 2816 or its bigger brother the 2824 for around $40, especially if you look early in the week. Here’s why. That’s about what an 8-port consumer-grade gigabit switch runs, if you buy one of the nice ones in a metal case. But these Dell switches are fully managed, with a Web interface and a command line so you can configure ports, set up VLANs, set up 802.1x port security, and do what real offices do.
Many consumer-grade managed switches only let you set the port speed.
Dell is a second-tier brand when it comes to enterprise networking, but other IT professionals who know networking better than I do say the commands are very Cisco-like. As much as I would love to say I have Cisco equipment running my home network, the Dell cost me a quarter as much as a comparable Cisco switch. If the Dell switch is half as good, it’s a bargain.
Now, if you really need a managed switch at home, you’re probably not asking the question. If you don’t know, you probably don’t. But if you have any interest in networking, it’s awfully nice to have one. It might even help you land a better job at some point. More on that in a second.
Even if you have no great interest in IT, you can get an enterprise-grade managed switch, put secondhand enterprise-grade Intel NICs in your computers, and be pretty confident it’ll all work flawlessly for a number of years. If nothing else, if you’re doing a lot of data transfer over your network, you’re less likely to lock up an enterprise-grade switch than you are a consumer-grade one. Those problems are rare, but they also happen during those times you need dependability the most. If you’re going to put gigabit in your home, why not put in enterprise-grade gigabit?
Misconceptions about managed switches
A managed switch isn’t going to allow you to dispense with your router. Managed switches are smarter than dumb switches and include some of the features that a good consumer router does, but they don’t route.
Look at a managed switch as a robust alternative to consumer-grade equipment, but not as an all-in-one device. Enterprise equipment generally tries to do one thing really well. Think of your consumer-grade router as being a foot wide and an inch deep. An enterprise managed switch is an inch wide and a mile deep.
But speaking of routers, when I got gigabit Internet, after I plugged the switch into my ISP’s router and moved all my stuff onto it, my connection speed benchmarked slightly higher. That could be a coincidence. It’s also possible the switch frees up resources on my router and that allows it to route packets faster. I don’t know that I’ll ever prove it one way or the other. But I found it interesting. Doesn’t that at least sound like a good excuse for a managed switch at home?
Unboxing and setup
My dog let me know when the UPS guy arrived with my Dell Powerconnect 2824 managed switch. She also let the UPS guy know she wasn’t happy to see him. I unpacked the switch, set it up near a network port, plugged it into the network port, and plugged my laptop into it to see what would happen. It worked pretty much like I would expect an unmanaged switch to work. Next, I hardcoded my IP address to 192.168.2.2 and pointed a web browser at 192.168.2.1, which is the switch’s default IP address for its management interface. It connected. The default username is admin and the password is blank. I signed in and took a look around.
I assigned it a new IP address, fitting with my home network scheme, then flipped my laptop back to DHCP and connected to the switch’s new address.
The switch allows me to set port speeds, set up VLANs, team ports, and fine-tune connections. For basic home use, you may never need to touch any of that beyond perhaps limiting speeds on a couple of ports.
But I recommend you learn what some of these settings do and experiment a bit. Watch some Youtube videos on what these features are, how and why to set them up. Dell switches aren’t exact Cisco clones but they’re close enough to learn on, and many companies have them whether they realize it or not. When I scan corporate networks as a routine part of my regular job, I find them on corporate networks pretty frequently now that I know what they are.
What good is a managed switch at home?
If nothing else, I expect this switch to be a good deal more reliable than the cheaper switches I’ve been using. Dell claims it’s warranted until 2038. I expect to have something better by then. Twenty years ago, I had a 10-megabit network.
I don’t really need VLANs or port security, but there’s no harm in setting it up, if only to prove you can. VLAN off a handful of ports, stick a computer and an old Linksys WRT54G or, better yet, pfSense, on that VLAN and figure out how to get that VLAN onto the Internet.
In a job interview several years ago, my interviewer asked me about my home network. I downplayed it. Word got back to me afterward. The interviewer called me meek.
I sold myself short. My equipment wasn’t enterprise-grade of course, but most people just let their ISP set up their router, then connect a laptop, a game system, and some tablets and phones to the wifi and don’t even change the username and password, let alone anything else. I had several rooms wired and a web server connected to it.
My home network was on par with his highest performers, but I didn’t give him a chance to assess that.
How to build a home network worth talking about
Don’t do what I did. Buy some enterprise-grade network gear and manage something with it. Wire your house. Experiment with the switch a little. When someone asks about your home network on an interview, talk about what you have and what you’ve done with it. Ask the interviewer about his or her home network and figure out if yours is better. It’s OK if yours isn’t. If it isn’t better, tell your interviewer why, and what you’d do with that gear if you had it.
Not all IT professionals have elaborate setups at home, and not everything you do at home scales to business scale, let alone enterprise scale. But if you want the high-paying job, having some enterprise gear at home and doing something business-like with it sets you apart. Even if you don’t want to specialize in networking, you’ll have to work with networking people. If you understand the concepts, you’ll work better with them. You’ll enjoy working together. It will open other doors for you, and a good hiring manager knows this.
So do I need a managed switch at home? Not for ordinary home computing I don’t. But it’s good for my career and it might be good for yours too.