Forwarding rates define the processing capabilities of a switch by rating how much data the switch can process per second. Switch product lines are classified by forwarding rates, as shown in the figure. Entry-level switches have lower forwarding rates than enterprise-level switches. Forwarding rates are important to consider when selecting a switch. If the switch forwarding rate is too low, it cannot accommodate full wire-speed communication across all of its switch ports. Wire speed is the data rate that each Ethernet port on the switch is capable of attaining. Data rates can be 100 Mb/s, 1 Gb/s, 10 Gb/s, or 100 Gb/s.

For example, a typical 48-port gigabit switch operating at full wire speed generates 48 Gb/s of traffic. If the switch only supports a forwarding rate of 32 Gb/s, it cannot run at full wire speed across all ports simultaneously. Fortunately, access layer switches typically do not need to operate at full wire speed, because they are physically limited by their uplinks to the distribution layer. This means that less expensive, lower performing switches can be used at the access layer, and more expensive, higher performing switches can be used at the distribution and core layers, where the forwarding rate has a greater impact on network performance.