Hub vs. Switch: What’s the Difference?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn about the differences between two common network devices.

[Featured Image] An IT worker looks at his laptop, studying the differences between a hub vs switch.

Network hubs and switches are hardware devices that help build stronger, more robust networks. While they both expand networks, network switches and hubs have some differences that set them apart. 

The basic difference between the two is when they receive information, network hubs broadcast the data to all connected devices, while switches identify the media access control (MAC) address in the data packet header to transmit the data only to the device that requested it. While both devices are used in larger networks, switches are slowly replacing hubs in many use cases. 

This article takes a closer look at the specific differences between a hub and a network switch, how each one functions, when to use each, and how they compare to network routers. 

Read more: Information Technology (IT) Terms: A to Z Glossary

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What is a hub?

Hubs are simple devices with an input Ethernet port that connects to a router and multiple output ports for devices to connect to. When it receives data, it transmits it to all connected devices, leaving the intended device to recognize the data. Network hubs also only operate in half-duplex, so they cannot send and receive data simultaneously, slowing down speeds. Hubs typically operate on layer 1—the physical layer—of the open systems interconnection (OSI) model with other hardware devices. 

Two common types of hubs are:

  • Active hubs: Powered devices that amplify incoming signals to connected devices, extending the distance they can travel 

  • Passive hubs: Bring multiple devices into one network through its Ethernet ports, it does not amplify signals or require a power supply

Uses for a hub

With limited capabilities, hubs only have one basic function in a modern networking environment: connecting multiple Ethernet ports into one place. Hubs are a useful, inexpensive solution for small LAN environments that need to connect multiple devices together when the router doesn't have enough Ethernet ports. Hubs are a cheap cabling option in small environments with low network traffic. 

What is a switch?

A network switch is a hardware connection device that is smarter than a hub. Once a switch knows the routes and ports, it reads data packet headers to determine which device it is supposed to transmit information to via its unique MAC address. Switches operate on the OSI framework's data link layer or layer 2. Unlike hubs, network switches offer a full-duplex function, meaning information being sent and received gets access to the full bandwidth of the network connection. Network switches have three core functions:

  • Edge switches: Direct network traffic flows in and out of the network from devices and access points

  • Distribution switches: Found in the middle of a network topology and connect to switches closer to the edge of the network

  • Core switches: The core parts of a network that connect various edge and distribution switches and user devices to a data center or enterprise network 

Uses for a switch

Switches are a core part of a modern enterprise network. Network switches have varying degrees of functionality based on the needs of the network; however, most switches do these core functions:

  • Control over which Ethernet ports are active on the switch 

  • Manage whether a port will run at half or full duplex 

  • Monitor network traffic and the status of the connection

  • Configure quality of service (QoS) for connected devices, which gives priority to high-performance network activity 

Network switches also create a table of MAC address values to efficiently route traffic to the device that requested service. Switches are smarter and more efficient hardware devices than network hubs because of their ability to record information and learn MAC addresses. 

Network hub vs. switch

Although modern network switches are replacing hubs, each network device has use cases. Let’s take a closer look at the technical differences between a switch and a hub. 

Switches function on layer 2 of the OSI framework.Hubs function on layer 1 of the OSI framework.
Switches record MAC addresses in a table to learn which devices to transmit information to.Hubs are less intelligent devices and always send all information to all connected devices.
Switches connect devices to a singular LAN to transmit data from one device to another.Hubs group Ethernet devices on a LAN, broadcasting all data to all devices.
Switches can operate at full duplex or half duplex, using all available bandwidth, creating faster and more efficient networks.Hubs operate at half duplex, making them slower and forcing devices to share bandwidth equally.
Switches send information using data packets.Hubs send information using bits.

Getting started with Coursera

If you’re looking to start a career in IT and networking, explore the Google IT Support Professional Certificate on Coursera to gain in-demand skills essential to an entry-level job in IT. For a more advanced challenge, the Google IT Automation with Python Professional Certificate covers how to automate systems administration tasks using Python. In this course learn how to use Git and GitHub to troubleshoot, scale, manage, and automate the cloud, helping you gain the skills to solve problems in IT at the root. 

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