Bridges and Gateways and Switches, Oh My!

In the world of industrial networking, there are a variety of devices that can be used to connect different types of networks, manage traffic and facilitate communication between devices. Some common examples include bridges, switches and gateways. While these devices are described here as Ethernet-based utilities, they can also apply to other, non-ethernet applications as well, such as USB or Serial. While the terms bridges, gateways and switches are often used interchangeably, they each describe devices with distinct functions.

  • A bridge is a device that connects two or more network segments together and allows them to communicate with each other. Bridges typically help to reduce network traffic by only forwarding packets to the segments that need them. They do this by examining the destination address of each packet and forwarding it only to the appropriate segment. This helps to reduce the amount of unnecessary traffic on the network, which can improve performance and reduce congestion. There are several types of bridges used in industrial automation, including these.
    • Local bridges – These connect two LANs together and are often used to extend the range of a network.
    • Remote bridges – These connect LANs that are geographically distant from each other, such as two factories in different cities.
  • A switch is a device that connects multiple devices on a local area network (LAN) and enables communication between them. Switches help to improve network performance by reducing collisions and optimizing data flow. This is done by using a process called switching, where the switch examines the destination address of each packet and forwards it only to the appropriate device. This helps to reduce network congestion and improve performance, making switches an essential part of most modern networks. Some common types of switches used in industrial automation are below.
    • Managed switches – These allow for more control over the network and can provide advanced features like Quality of Service (QoS) and Virtual LAN (VLAN) support.
    • Unmanaged switches – These are simpler and less expensive but provide less control over the network.
  • A gateway is a device that translates between two different network protocols or architectures. They are often used in situations where two devices need to communicate with each other but use different protocols that are not compatible. By translating between the two, gateways allow devices on different networks to communicate seamlessly. They may have bridge or switch functions in them when they are connecting two like physical layer networks, but unlike switches and bridges, gateways can manipulate the application layer protocols. What’s more, gateways can function across different physical layer networks: Serial to Ethernet, USB to Ethernet, USB to Serial, etc.

As stated above, while these devices each have distinct functions, there is a lot of overlap leading to these terms being used interchangeably. For example, what do you call a bridge that bridges two different protocols? Or a switch that switches data from one protocol to another? In these instances, the bridge and the switch are being used exactly like a gateway because they “bridge” or “switch” data between protocols, and that’s where a lot of confusion arises.

And then there’s the term “converter.” While there are small technical differences between a protocol converter and a protocol gateway, the line between them is blurred even further than the other two terms because both devices perform similar functions: enabling communication between systems or devices that use different communication protocols.

Some manufacturers and vendors may use the term “protocol converter” to describe a device that simply converts one protocol to another. Others only use the term “protocol gateway” to describe a converter that performs additional data processing or manipulation. However, in practice, all of these terms may be used interchangeably to refer to any device that facilitates communication between systems or devices that use different protocols. Your goal is to identify the device(s) you need to achieve a specific outcome regardless of what they’re called.

So, why all the concern about what things are named? RTA dabbles in all aspects of industrial network connectivity, but the product side of the business focuses a great deal on gateways, and RTA wants to make sure you know exactly what gateways are and what they are not.

Gateways perform protocol conversion, data translation and data filtering, making it possible to exchange data between devices that have different data formats or communication requirements. They can also provide additional functionality, such as security features, data storage or protocol analysis, to enhance the overall performance and reliability of the communication network. Gateways can help optimize processes, improve efficiency and reduce costs.

And since you’ve read this far, you might as well know why Real Time Automation is widely regarded as one of the best industrial gateway providers around.

RTA offers nearly 4,000 different gateway configurations supporting more than 20 industrial protocols.

Their products are built to withstand harsh industrial environments, so much so that they come with a five-year warranty.

RTA’s Enginerds® are highly knowledgeable and responsive, providing excellent technical assistance to customers in need.

Continual improvements ensure RTA’s products stay current (and sometimes ahead-of-the-curve) with technological advancements.

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RTA gateways are made in America, meaning when other providers’ supply chains get disrupted, ours don’t.

If you need a protocol gateway (or switch, or bridge, or converter) to help move data around your factory floor, contact RTA at 800-249-1612, via email at or via the contact form on our website.