To anyone who is new to studying computer networking, they will soon come to realise that there is a lot of information to be covered. It is indeed a very wide field, and it might seem confusing to the uninitiated. The purpose of this article is to briefly cover the most important aspects of a network, and serve as a basis for studying the various networking topics in greater detail.
We will begin with a few common terms:
- A network is a group of connected devices that can communicate with each other, either though wired or wireless means. On a network, each device is called a node. Each node can be uniquely identified with an IP address.
- Computer networks are built using a combination of hardware (routers, switches, access points, and cables) and software (operating systems and business applications).
- An IP address is a unique number assigned to every device connected to a network that uses the Internet Protocol for communication. Each IP address identifies the device’s host network and the location of the device on the host network.
- A router is a physical or virtual device that sends information contained in data packets between networks. Routers can analyze data within the packets to determine the best way for the information to reach its destination.
- A switch is a device that connects other devices and manages node to node communication within a network. While a router sends information between networks, a switch sends information between nodes in a single network.
- A port identifies a specific connection between network devices, and each port is identified by a number.
It is possible to further define a computer network by the protocols it uses to communicate, the physical arrangement of its components, how it controls traffic, and its purpose.
Computer networks enable online communication for every business, entertainment, and research purposes. The internet, online search, email, audio and video sharing, online commerce and social networks all owe their existence to computer networks.
Computer Network Types
Since the first computer networks were developed for the ARPANET in the 1950s, there has been a great deal of evolution not only for the technology itself, but also scale of the networks themselves.
Here are the most common and widely used computer network types:
- LAN (Local Area Network): A LAN connects computers over a relatively short distance. For example, a LAN may connect all the computers in an office building, a residence, school, or hospital. Typically, LANs are owned and managed privately.
- WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network): A WLAN works in the same way as a LAN, the difference is that the devices connected wirelessly to each other.
- SAN (Storage Area Network): A SAN is a specialized network that provides access shared network or cloud storage that, from a typical users’ point of view, looks and works like a storage drive that is physically attached to a computer. This kind of setup is a very convenient way to ensure access of a common drive among several devices.
- VPN (Virtual Private Network): A VPN is a secure connection between two network end points. A VPN creates an encrypted channel that ensures that a user’s identity, as well as any transferred data, is inaccessible to hackers.
- WAN (wide area network): A WAN connects computers over a wide area, from city to city or even continent to continent. The internet is the largest WAN as it connects billions of computers worldwide.
Computer Networks and the Internet
The internet is actually a network of networks that connects billions of devices around the world. There are various protocols that allow for communication between these devices, such as HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) and Internet Protocol (IP addresses).
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are companies that provide the infrastructure that allows the transmission of packets of data or information over the internet. Using this infrastructure of a large network of hardware and a combination of protocols, the data packets are guided to their destination.
A computer network architecture is the physical and logical framework, and outlines how the nodes are organized on the work as well as what tasks are assigned to those nodes.
There are two main types of network architecture: peer-to-peer (P2P) and client/server.
In a P2P architecture, all of the devices are connected together as “peers” which means that they all have the same privileges on the network. Each node can act as a client or a server and each nodes makes some of its resources available on the network.
In a client/server architecture, a central server or a group of servers manage the resources for all of the client nodes on the network.
There are several ways in which the nodes on a network can be arranged, but the most commonly used when setting up a new system include the following:
- Bus Topology – every node is directly connected to a main cable, either physically or wirelessly.
- Ring Topology – All of the nodes are connected in a loop, so each device has two neighboring nodes.
- Star Topology – All nodes are connected to a single centralized hub, and each node is connected directly to that hub.
- Mesh Topology – All nodes are connected to every other node. While this can be very time consuming to implement, it can offer a high degree of redundancy in environments that require it.
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