So, you’re putting together your next AV project and the need for a network switch comes up. This could be due to many factors, most commonly for Audio-Visual over Internet Protocol (AVoIP) applications, control, monitoring, or Internet connectivity. But if you’re not an experienced IT person, or you’re not very knowledgeable about this, what’s the best way to choose the right switch for your project?
Many current and future AV systems will involve some aspect of networking; this is the future of our industry. The main component within these systems is the network switch (or Ethernet switch), which connects devices to a Local Area Network (LAN) and allows the devices to communicate with each other. All of those audio-visual packets of information traverse the network and go to their destinations through the switch.
The difficulty arises when we realize that switches come in many different flavors for many different applications. Managed, or unmanaged? PoE (Power over Ethernet), or PoE+, or PoE++? How many ports, and what speeds per port (1 Gbps, 2.5 Gbps, 5 Gbps, 10 Gbps, etc.)? Will the switch be front or rear-facing in the rack? This can get very confusing, especially if you don’t do it every day.
Let’s break it down so that it is more digestible in a series of questions that I use to help specify the correct network switch. Take a look below:
Does the information being sent across this network require a managed, or unmanaged switch? Layer 2 (MAC addresses), or 3 (IP addresses)? If your application involves controlling network traffic, you will need the features of a layer 3 managed switch. The following examples require a managed switch, like having concurrent bandwidth-intensive applications running, prioritizing important data in your LAN, improving the performance of a network, and implementing other advanced services.
What type of AV equipment will be connected to the network? Audio (i.e., Dante, AVB, AES67)? Video (i.e., H.264, JPEG2000, IPMX, NDI, SDVoE)? Control? Or all of them? If you’re multicasting audio & video, you will need a managed layer 3 switch – there’s no way around it. If you are implementing IP-based control in a system, you can use an unmanaged Gigabit switch, as there are few network protocols required to allow control commands to work, unless you need Virtual Local Area Network (VLAN). Then, you will have to dive right back into the managed switch realm.
But which network protocols does the managed switch have to be capable of? Multicast? Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP)? VLANs? Multicasting, IGMP, and VLANs are all necessary features that are only available on managed switches. If these terms are not familiar and you plan on putting an AV over IP (AVoIP) system together, you should consider purpose-built gear. Some manufacturers are even offering preconfigured switches that have all of these network protocols enabled by default to work right away…without having to be an IT professional and spending tons of time programming and testing.
How many ports are needed? Count the total number of devices that require a LAN connection…and then add a few more. Leave room for expansion and for devices that are often forgotten. If you think you’ll add more devices in the future, choose a switch that will give your network room to grow. Will this AV system have any future add-ons or requirements to consider? If so, we should be thinking about a switch that is stackable, or has the ability to trunk ports and seamlessly add more switches through uplinks.
What speed per port is needed (Gigabit, 2.5 Gbps, 5 Gbps, 10 Gbps, etc.)? Every network device will have its LAN port speed listed. These speeds will typically range from 100 Mbps, Gigabit (1,000 Mbps) and 10 Gigabit (10 Gbps). Equipment that has gigabit specifications definitely necessitates the use of a gigabit switch. Remember that devices with lower port speeds (ex. Gigabit = 1,000 Mbps) will always be able to utilize switch ports with higher ports speeds (ex. 10 Gbps). Most compressed video codecs (i.e. H.264, H.265, JPEG2000, VC2) will work just fine on a managed 1 Gbps network switch. But be aware that any SDVoE (Software Defined Video over Ethernet) gear will require 10 Gbps on every port, usually accompanied by 40 Gbps or 100 Gbps uplinks to support the total bandwidth of utilized ports.
What type of PoE switch is needed? Determine which devices can be powered or require PoE (Power over Ethernet). There are different standards of PoE, so they are not all the same, and making sure that enough power is delivered to the enabled device is important. Does the PoE switch apply power on all ports, or just select ports? Always check the receiving device’s PoE class/requirement (PoE = 15.4 Watts, PoE+ = 30 Watts, PoE++ = 60 or 90 Watts depending on Type 3 or 4, respectively), and plan for a cumulative total power budget that will support all devices. When you see a switch that is rated for 300 Watts, you can connect up to ~20 PoE devices, or 10 PoE+ devices, or 3 PoE++ devices. Dividing the switch’s total power budget by the cumulative device power consumption will help figure out what you need – and always remember to leave a little room for overhead.
Last but not least, let’s not forget about the aesthetics of the amazing audio-visual system that was just built. Within the equipment rack, tidy cabling and carefully stacked black boxes of hardware are neatly aligned for a clean and organized look. Having the ports on the front side or rear-facing side of the switch is a big deal, and your cabling and rack fabrication technicians will thank you for selecting those AV switches with customizable port locations.
There are many things to consider when deciding on a specific switch from a manufacturer. It’s not just about the features, it’s about support with dedicated resources. So, don’t overlook one of the most important components of a networked AV system, because it could be the difference between a successful deployment and a problem-ridden project.
**For ALMO add-on for Manufacturer/Product specific**
NETGEAR has also taken out much of the complexity with setting up an Ethernet switch with the various protocols required for video and audio to ride over the network. Preconfiguring protocols like IGMP, Multicast and VLANs make the network switch a plug-n-play device right out of the box, saving time, money, and resources usually dedicated to this task. NETGEAR’s IGMP Plus™ is a fantastic and unique feature simplifying the deployment of multicast solutions, which especially helps people who are uncomfortable with some of the more complicated IT configurations such as Layer 3 Protocol Independent Multicast or PIM routing.
If you are still unsure of what to do or how to specify a network switch for your project, you’ll be happy to know there are resources out there to assist. In fact, NETGEAR has a dedicated ProAV design and engineering team specifically for our industry, with purpose-built products that are engineered for any AV over IP project. Give them a shout when you need some engineering assistance at [email protected]. This is a fantastic resource available to all integrators for free.