It used to be that switches were either managed - and pricey - for big companies with complex networks, or unmanaged - and cheaper - for small companies. Now, a third option is emerging in the "smart switch", which has some management features accessed through a web interface, but is priced like an unmanaged product.

The smart switch is aimed at small-to-medium size businesses, which don't have full-time network technicians, and don't want to learn a network operating system like IOS. Given that target market, it's no surprise to find Netgear involved - the company sells mostly to small companies, SOHO businesses and home users, and is a leader in unmanaged switches.

"We've pioneered the smart switch," boasts Netgear product line manager Peter Newton. "It gives you the key management features without having to buy a managed Layer 2 switch."

The switches don't have a console port or a command line interface, he explains: "You don't need to know IOS, but you get management features through a browser interface - it's easy to use.

The company launched its smart switches two years ago, and now has a range on Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet. "Other vendors have followed us, including 3Com, Linksys and D-Link, but so far Netgear has maintained leadership. In the US, we have most of the market - we sell more smart switches than all the rest combined."

Although some other vendors have joined the smart switch market, several are noticeable by their absence. "HP is not doing a smart switch so far," says Newton. "It's afraid of cannibalising its revenues. HP is targetting the sophisticated enterprise customer, not pursuing smaller customers. That's in line with the corporate strategy. I wouldn't expect smart switches under the Cisco brand either" (although Cisco has smart switches from its lower-end Linksys brand).

Enter the stackable smart switch
Despite the idea of keeping things simple, Netgear has been extending the idea of the smart switch by adding Gigabit ports. The resulting range of stackable smart switches was launched in December, but in Newton's words, has been "difficult to find" outside the States till now.

The stackable smart switches do more or less what other stackable switches do, but with a simpler interface. They hook together through Gigabit ports, and then act as one unit, with up to 192 ports, controlled through one interface.

"Users can stack using two Gigabit ports on the front, using standard Cat5 cables to get a bidirectional redundant resilient loop with up to 4 Gbit/s of bandwidth," says Newton. "It's load-balancing and bidirectional, and designed to be as resilient as possible, and easy to use." The stack automatically selects a master and a secondary master, with other switches acting as slaves. "Configurations on the master are mirrored on the secondary master, so if one goes down, another master comes up."

So smart switches are creeping up the evolutionary ladder. Where will it end, with a smart chassis switch? "I don't think we're going to go to a chassis smart switch," laughs Newton. "We're getting more advanced in the features we offer, but we're only offering features that are necessary for our customer segment.

"The stackables have a more powerful feature set than the standalone switches," he says. "They all support trunking and Layer 2 prioritisation, but the stackable supports SNMP up to version 3, and the number of VLANs is doubled to 64. They also have 802.1x port level security to ensure that the network stays safe."

"The basic smart switches are great for up to 40 users," says Newton. "In that environment, in a relatively small location, you know all the people you work with, so if someone shows up and tries to plug in, you'll see them." By contrast, the stackable switches are for organisations with 40 to 140 users: "In that space, you've gotten to be a bit larger, you're in more than one room, and the security requirements are different than the basic smart switch."

Packet prioritisation happens at Layer 3 as well as Layer 2, in the stackables, also. All this comes for about a £50 premium over a basic smart switch, he says. A 24 port stackable smart switch with four Gbit ports costs £220, compared with the basic model at £150.

PoE on smart switches
Netgear's aim seems to be to put any useful feature of enterprise switches onto the smart switches, but without skimping, says Newton: . "A power-over-Ethernet (PoE) version is going to be available next month, with PoE on 24 of the 48 ports."

The idea is to use the switch for voice over IP deployments, where there are pretty much as many IP phones, powered off the LAN, as there are desktop PCs. The PoE ports, can also be used for network cameras, or wireless access points, he says.

There's still a significant price jump for PoE, with the powered version listed at around £900 and probably for sale at around £700. The non-PoE 48 port switch, by comparison, costs around £500 on the street.

What else is coming?
On the subject of wireless LANs, Newton doesn't predict an immediate move to wireless for access in the small-to-medium business, so there's no hurry to put centralised management for wireless access points in the range.

"We haven't seen people consolidating and using wireless instead of wired connections," he says. "We don't see that wireless delivers the reliability to replace wired connections at the desktop." That's especially true given the price of wired connections, he adds: "Most laptops and desktop ship with Gigabit, and you can buy a five port Gigabit switch for £40."

By contrast, "most wireless LAN switches are pretty expensive, and so far they're focused on the enterprise space," he says. "But we do see that there is an opportunity for a WLAN management switch, in this range at some point."

What about going into SANs for SMBs, perhaps a souped-up version of the Storage Central that Netgear (read review) sells to consumers? "We're looking at SMB storage networks - there are opportunities there," he says "But Storage Central doesn't have business features. We would have to come up with a different solution, probably rackmountable, and scaling to larger sizes with four or eight drives... but we have no product at this time," he adds.

That leaves only one other obvious product to deliver. "There are two basic shifts in the industry - from non-PoE to PoE, and from 10/100 to Gigabit." So, it's safe to expect a stackable Gigabit smart switch from Netgear.