We live in a world where anything that computes, connects. Today, seamless and reliable connectivity is non-negotiable. While the end user browses through Google and web pages, the packets from the PC travel overseas to reach google and vice versa, behind the scenes. These packets are routed via switches and routers. With increasing data consumption and plethora of IoT devices, routers and switches have gained complexity and become difficult to manage.

Within an enterprise, a private network is setup to handle the data. This helps ensure multiple access levels, different quality of services for different subnets, security aspects and a better way of monitoring data access. A network switch plays a key role in this data network.

Here, I will discuss my view on how we can go about managing the switches better.

Network switches can be broadly categorised into two types:

  1. Unmanaged Switch
Unmanaged SwitchAn unmanaged switch simply allows Ethernet devices to communicate with one another. They are easy to set up and offer simple connectivity with no need for management. They are shipped with a fixed configuration and do not allow any changes to this configuration.

Therefore, when users need a few ports in their home or a conference room, an unmanaged switch can be used.

2. Managed Switch

Managed SwitchManaged network switches have more capability than unmanaged network switches. The former allows you to have better control of your network and all the traffic through it. It provides all the features of an unmanaged network switch along with the ability to configure, manage, and monitor your LAN. And this gives you greater control over how data travels over the network and who has access to it.

In larger sites or venues, where there are a lot of devices connected over the internet, managed network switches are used.

Generally three types of interfaces are provided to manage a Network switch:

Simple Network Management Protocol:

Also known as SNMP, it is a protocol that facilitates the exchange of management information between network devices SNMP queries can determine the health of a network or the status of a particular device.

Command Line Interface:

Aka CLI, this is an exhaustive set of commands that can be accessed via serial console, Telnet, and Secure Shell.

And finally, the Web Interface:

User can monitor and configure the switch from a browser, by entering a URL.

Among all the options, I am a big fan of Web Interface. The reason is the simplicity of use. Traditionally switches have survived with SNMP & CLI. But now, the era of web interface has begun. Due to high complexity, even for the expert users, SNMP & CLI can be confusing. And come on, just because someone is an expert, we dont have to make it difficult for him. An expert will also not mind, if things are provided to him, in an easy to grasp manner, saving him from thinking over the same things again and again.

At Alethea, we have seen this multiple times, where hard core geeks, once given a simple web interface, has moved on from CLI to web interface, and never gone back for mundane things. They go back to CLI to handle something complex, which is worth the effort.

Now if we agree that Web Interface is good stuff, then the next problem arises: Web and Switch doesnt seem to go together. When we talk of web applications, we talk of cloud and big servers and load balancers and lot of fire power. But if a switch has to host it, then its a small piece of hardware, already doing a lot. There are embedded constraints on CPU and memory. So in a nutshell, it is tricky to develop web interface as it requires a web server to run on an ethernet switch which has limited resources.

Good news is that there are frameworks and methods to address this concern and make a lightweight web server, which can work on the switch.

Another important concept thats needed for web interface development is to understand the ports of managed switch and what to use when. SNMP & CLI are usually bundled with network switch binary. To flash binary on a switch one needs console port. To run a web server on switch, one needs to use Management port.

I think it may be confusing, so let me just put important aspects of the ports in tabular format.

PARAMETER CONSOLE PORT MANAGEMENT PORT
IP address Assignment Cant give IP address to console Port IP address can be given to a management port
Communication Type Asynchronous Synchronous
Physical Interface Serial(RJ45, USB) Ethernet
Remote access via Telnet/SSH No Yes
Use case Dedicated out-of-band management & local access.Used to flash image/binary file to the switch. In-band management primarily & remote access.Used to monitor/configure the switch.

Hope this helps to gain clarity on developing a web application for the network switches. We encourage all such developers, who are doubtful about Web interfaces, to give it a try. You may be surprised with the end user feedback.

So, what has been your experience with network switches? Share your experience and help our readers gain further insights.

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