Inexpensive Low-End Switches

We tested six switches priced below $750 and were pleased with how much our dollar bought. Our top pick gets props for its sweet lifetime warranty, flexible uplink options and

May 6, 2005

10 Min Read
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How We Tested

Our tests were straightforward: We unboxed the gear and included sundries, set the base IP over a serial connection to the console port (one contender didn't have a management port), connected a test workstation, and ran the Web interfaces through the ringer over Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari browsers to set up virtual LANs, review port status and activate SNMP monitoring. We tested uplinks where available, and all units connected to our core switch with no problems.

We used Dartware's InterMapper to test SNMP probes with consistent results in compatibility (support of SNMP1 and SNMPv2c) and reporting of interface traffic, statistics and switch description. Our testing relied on SNMP get requests and queried the ifNumber value of the MIB 2 subset to report the number of interfaces on the switch. We also ran a full snmpwalk from a BSD Unix client to check out the information offered. Among the participants, only one switch--Netgear's FS526T--doesn't support SNMP.Our ratings are based on ease of setup, feature set, ongoing management, physical design, warranty and overall value of the switch. Because this is an Affordable IT review, we rated pricing as most important.

The ProCurve 2626 had consistently solid scores, keeping it at the head of the pack. At $699, the ProCurve wasn't the cheapest of the lot, but the lifetime warranty fills us with warm, fuzzy feelings. Out of the box, the ProCurve's excellent paper and CD-ROM manuals, clear installation guide, bundled serial cable and rack-mounting hardware gave us everything we needed to get up and running quickly, without any hassles whatsoever.

Console management is straightforward: We opened a telnet session, logged in with the default settings, switched to the menu system and easily set up addressing. The Java-based Web client is intuitive and provides excellent management and testing tools over HTTP or HTTPS. We installed our security certificate with no problems over the Web client to get SSL in place.

Although SNMP community names had to be set using the command-line menu system instead of the Web client, the ProCurve played nicely with our monitoring tools, speaking SNMP1 and SNMPv2c. The switch

returned interface status and traffic stats, provided a self-description, and gave us verbose detail from an snmpwalk command. The ProCurve was one of the quietest switches in the test and in the middle of the pack for boot-up speed, passing packets about 43 seconds once it got running. You can stack it with other ProCurve family switches and/or uplink over the 1,000-Mbps or mini-GBIC (Gigabit Interface Converter) ports to integrate into your existing infrastructure.

ProCurve 2626. ProCurve Networking by HP (800) 975-7684, (281) 370-0670. www.procurve.comThe closest thing to a plug-and-play product in this review, Netgear's entry-level FS526T is a basic managed switch that's well-suited to a large home office or small office setup. The FS526T lacks a console port, and it uses a bundled Windows application, "Smartwizard Discovery," to set the base configuration. Although the setup application worked, we initially managed the product using the default IP listed in the documentation with a browser. In keeping with its dollar-store theme, the FS526T doesn't support SNMP. Although this bargain box earned only a "C" grade, its ludicrously low cost per port should make it an attractive option for anyone looking for basic functionality from a small switch. As a bonus, it has the fastest boot time of any product we tested, at less than 13 seconds. If you just need to wire up a small workgroup, the FS526T will take care of your needs without any bells and whistles.

The FSM726S has a lot going for it with a front-mounted console port, 24 10/100 ports, 2-Gbps copper ports and two empty GBIC slots. The console interface includes a well-thought-out menu-based wizard for the initial setup. Its automated assist--the only one among the products tested--was a welcome touch that more vendors should emulate. It's especially helpful to novices setting up small networks.

With the base configuration in place, the Java-based GUI is snazzy. It provides real-time graphic updates of port status and offers easy access to system management, making it the best management interface among the products we tested. Our favorite GUI feature is the pop-up warning that cautioned against altering critical settings, as by changing VLANs, trunking or setting the SNMP community string . The FSM726S requires an administrator to enable SNMP through the Web interface, then set up both community names and the SNMP host name. This three-step process makes for smart security, but it might be tricky for a novice. As with most of the products we tested, the FSM726S supports SNMP1 and SNMPv2c, returning interface and traffic stats, system description and full information from our snmpwalk.

ProSafe 24 Port 10/100 L2 Managed Stackable Switch with 2-GB ports (FSM726S); ProSafe 24 Port 10/100 Smart Switch with 2-GB Ports (FS526T). Netgear, (888) NETGEAR, (408) 907-8000.

Allied Telesyn sent us two offerings: the economy AT-8026T with two fixed copper Gigabit uplinks at $529, and the midrange AT-8524M with two empty module slots for $649 plus an AT-A46 Gigabit copper uplink module for $95, which let it squeak in at $6 under our $750 cutoff. Both models come with a limited lifetime warranty.

We wouldn't want to be the admin setting up either of these switches in a remote office. There are no quick-start guides, and the incomplete CD manual actually directs you to the company's Web site for model-specific setup documentation. We downloaded the documentation, and from there the setup for each unit using the menu-based console was straightforward, if cumbersome. We used the AT Web management tool to enable SNMP and set community names without a hitch. Both support SNMP1 and SNMPv2c and returned interface and traffic stats, system description and full information from the executed snmpwalk command.We were impressed with the clear, straightforward Web management interface (see screen above), and aside from the setup snags, the AT-8524M is a solid product with a strong feature set. It is the only product we tested that offers Layer 2 QoS. The included Gigabit Ethernet module provides autoconfiguration and is hot-swappable.

The AT-8026T uses the same management interface as its more expensive sibling but lacks QoS and ACL (access-control list) support. More disturbing, the product specs claim SSH (Secure Shell) support but we couldn't get it to work. If you don't need QoS, the less expensive AT-8026T switch with its two built-in Gigabit ports is the better value of the two. Both Allied Telesyn products were in the middle of the pack on noise output and boot times.

AT-8026T, AT-8524M, AT-A46. Allied Telesyn, (800) 424-4284.

SMC's TigerSwitch 10/100 finished last mainly because of its scant 90-day warranty and quirky interface. In SMC's favor, it was one of the few participants to provide paper documentation, the switch's front console port is useful, and the unit runs quietly. Although we didn't see anything that would immediately lower our confidence, if SMC only has enough faith to provide three months of support, you might want to spend your $399 elsewhere.

This box had the slowest boot time of the lot. It was so lethargic on start-up that we initially thought we had a defective console port or cable. Boot time isn't as crucial in a seldom-bounced device, but all the other switches we tested booted in less than 65 seconds while the TigerSwitch took 157 seconds before it began passing packets.

The switch offers telnet, SSH and HTTP switch management, but its console is a bit clunky (Cisco-esque command line only) and the Web interface is neither well-organized nor intuitive. Another oddity: The "quick start" information wasn't in the installation manual, but in the included management guide.

SNMP setup was straightforward--we set up community names using the browser interface. SMC's product was the only switch in our tests with public and private already set to defaults. This might be a convenience for some, but it's a security risk. After resetting access passwords, we were up and running with SNMP 1 and SNMPv2c, receiving expected results from probes and snmpwalk. Two expansion ports are available; no GBIC or uplink cards were provided for our tests.TigerSwitch SMC6724AL2. SMC Networks, (800) SMC-4YOU, (949) 679-8000.

Joe Hernick, PMP, MS, is director of IT at the Loomis Chaffee School. Dean Ellerton, MS, is the CIO at Suffield Academy. Write to them at [email protected].

If your hardware infrastructure isn't strictly single- vendor and you don't have too many enterprise-oriented management needs, inexpensive Ethernet switches have more to offer than you might think. In this installment of Affordable IT, we explore budget-friendly switches from Allied Telesyn, Netgear, ProCurve Networking by Hewlett-Packard and SMC Networks, each with a retail price of less than $750.

We tested these switches for ease of setup and manageability, and determined which features meet enterprise needs. We also evaluated SNMP support and even found an inexpensive model that supports QoS. Finally, we discovered which have user-friendly interfaces and which require a little more administrative finesse. HP's ProCurve 2626 earned our Editor's Choice award for its superior management interface, reasonable pricing and lifetime warranty.

Read all our Affordable IT articles.


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We mistakenly provided street, as opposed to list, prices for the Adtran and Netgear switches tested when this story first appeared in print. Adtran's NetVanta 1224ST lists for $895; Netgear's FS526T and FSM726S list for $280 and $575, respectively. Because Adtran's pricing exceeds our $750 cutoff, we must disqualify the NetVanta switch from consideration in this review. We have removed it from the online version of this story.We also revised our online report card and features chart to reflect these changes. In addition, we adjusted our numerical grades for Hewlett-Packard's ProCurve 2626 to account for that product's relatively high price tag. And contrary to what we reported earlier, SMC Networks' TigerSwitch SMC6724AL2 does come with a lifetime warranty—to qualify, you must send in product registration information within 90 days.

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