What Is Computer Networking
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Well, what is networking in general? Have you ever heard the Hollywood phrase, "Have your people call my people?" Networking is all about sharing information with others. Social networks like membership clubs, network marketing companies (Avon for example), even your school or your circle of friends is considered a network. You use these networks every day to collaborate and share information. Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace let you connect with others in ways never before imagined even 5 years ago! Sure it's computer-based, but the "people" aspect. These connections allow people to share ideas, data, products and services, even information like this article or just to let all of your followers know that you just woke up... that you just ate breakfast... that you just got a written up for tweeting at work...

Computer networking is the same way... but with computers! Computers, phones, printers, even TV's and gaming consoles can now communicate with each other. In this article, I will give a very-high level explanation of what networks are, the different types of networks, and what components make up a network. If you are pursuing a career in I.T. and are brand new to networking, this is will be a great start. I am NOT a certified CCNA or Network+ instructor but if you are studying for these certifications, I will be following the CCNA blueprint very closely. This topic covers the following points:

  • Describe the purpouse and functions of various network devices
  • Describe the components required to for network and internet communications
  • Select the components required to meet a network specification

Purpose

The purpose if creating computer networks is to share data files or information about services and processes. What are services and processes? Computer programs can run background services and processes without you knowing they are running. If you open Task Manager on your computer, you can usually see a list of processes running. This can be good and bad. An example of a good process is Antivirus software that runs quietly "under the hood" that can catch a virus trying to damage to your computer. There is usually a service running on your computer that will automatically connect with the company's virus definition server to check for updates. An example of a bad process would be when you didn't renew your antivirus software license, so the definitions are not updated and a new virus silently starts to grab oll of your personal information you thought was safely stored on your computer.

Geopgraphy

Networks are primarily grouped into "areas" which are usually defined by how close the computers are from each other.

  • LAN - Local area network
  • WAN - Wide area network
  • CAN - Campus area network
  • MAN - Metropolitan area network
  • PAN - Personal area network
  • WLAN - Wireles local area network

The most common networks you will find are LANs. LANs cover a small amout of geographical space. For instance a building or individual floors of a large building. You usually would not need a communications company to transfer a file from one computer to another. WANs, however, can span the entire globe! Two connecting branch offices would use a WAN to connect to one another. Usually cabling for a WAN is too cost prohibitive for a company so they pay a communications company called an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to use their equipment. For instance, I pay Verizon for their FIOS service to use the Internet. You could also use dial-up modems to connect two computers, in which case you are paying the telephone company for the call.

CANs and MANs are very rare. An example would be a large university using a CAN to connect different buildings spread across a few square miles. MANs would connect different city buildings... etc

PANs are used to connect devices such as infra-red or bluetooth. The max range is very small, about 30 feet. WLANs are LANs that use wireless signals instead of cabling to communicate. The range depends on the type of signal used, how many objects obstruct the line-of-sight from the antenna to the device and how many access points joined together make up the wireless infrasture.

Components

Before I explain all of the different types of components used on a network, I want to point out an important subject. Selecting the right component to use on your network requires at least a little thought about whether the component meets your particular requirements, especially in the areas of: Cost, Security, Topology, Scalability, Reliability, Availability and Speed. I also want to add that there are hardware AND software components in any network design. (Remember those services I was talking about?)

Hardware components fall into 3 main categories:

  • Computers (Servers and desktops, and yes even phones and XBOXx)
  • Networking devices
  • Media

There are a variety of networking devices, but the most common ones are

  • Repeaters
  • Hubs
  • Switches
  • Routers
  • Firewalls
  • Intrusion Detection/Intrusion Prevention systems (IDS/IPS)

There are also different types of media:

  • Coaxial cable
  • Twisted pair
  • Fiber Optic
  • Radio waves

Networking Components

Repeaters are essentially signal boosters. They are not as common, but they take a signal coming in, clean it up, and repeat it out. Hubs are multi-port repeaters, so the signal comes in one port and is repeated out of the other ports in the same manner.

Switches are a little smarter. Each computer network card has a unique Media Access Control (MAC)adderss programmed into it by the manufacturer. Switches create an address table. When it learns what computer is plugged into a particular port, it automatically forwards any traffic going to that computer to that port instead of all ports.

Routers are like gateways between LANs. In fact, they are often referred to as gateways. Think of them as post offices. If you want to send a letter to your next door neighbor, you would probably just walk it over or maybe your mailman would just deliver it directly. But, what if you wanted to mail a letter to your best friend that moved six states away? Well, the letter would be sent to the post office, the post office would realize its not the post office for this address, so it goes on a plane and "hops" to a central hub post office. This central hub puts it on a truck which "hops" to your friend's post office. Then it goes to your friend's house. (I say "hops" because that is how we measure how many routers it passes through to get to the destination.)

Firewalls are like guards at the drawbridge to a castle. They look out to see who's coming and let them pass if they are welcome. There are many services out on the Internet and each service identifies itself with a Port number. Common practise is to allow only certain ports to come in or out. A common one is HTTP which is port 80. If you blocked this port on your firewall, no one would be allowed to view your web site.

IDS/IPS devices catch malware attacks on your network. An IDS would catch it, but not supress it, only notify you when it detects a threat. An IPS goes one step further and supresses the attack. They are different than a firewall in that Firewalls work outside the network to prevent attacks and IDS/IPS devices monitor inside the network and take action when a threat is dicovered.

Media

Coaxial cabling was in use in early network designs but you rearely see it now, except for cable TV. It is a single copper core with a plastic outer insulating core surrounded by a wire mesh and covered in a plastic sheath. Usually the connectors are BNC-type connectors that twist on. Each device would connect to the main cable using a T-splitter. The ends would have terminators.

Twisted pair is the most common type used today. It is compsed of 2-pair(CAT3) to 4-pair(CAT5, 5e, and 6). Each pair is twisted together to prevent cross-talk or ambient magnetic forces to disrupt the data. The pairs are bundled up and covered with a plastic or plenum sheath. Plenum is used because it is non-toxic when burned. Most laws require plenum be used behind walls and in ceilings. There is UTP and STP. UTP or unshielded twisted-pair does not have a wire mesh shielding so it is more suceptible to magnetic interference. STP or shielded twisted-pair has the shielding which does cut back interference.

Fiber optic cabling can be plastic or glass. Glass is used for very long distances. There are lasers or LEDs that emmit light pulses through one end of the fiber which are read at the other end of the fiber. Lasers are,again, used with the glass fibers for long distance. Fiber is extremely fast, the signal can travel much further between points, and is not affected by magnetic interference. The downside is that it is expensive to implement and are very fragile. This is the reason most companies only use fiber as the core or backbone of the network.

Wireless devices use the air as the medium for transmitting radio signals. The distance varies depending on the type of signal used B/G/N and what is blocking the line-of-sight between the device and the antennas of the wireless access point (WAP). Two devices in the same area as the WAP will get excellent signal quality, but that quality will diminish the further they are separated. Try getting signal through a solid concrete wall! Most companies will have multiple WAPs working together to spread out a signal throughout a larger area.

Topology

Network topology is mostly about how your network looks on a diagram. There are 3 common topologies:

  • Star
  • Bus
  • Ring

The vast ast majority in use today is the Star topology. Star configuration is when a group of computers connect directly to a central hub. The hubs are connected to other hubs with their groups of computers. The advantage is if there is a break in one of the links, only that device is affected. If there is a break between hubs, only those hubs are affected. It is more cabling, therefore slightly more expensive than bus.

Bus configuration looks like a long cable terminated at both ends. Each computer would connect to the cable using T-connectors or vampire taps. Vampire taps are special connectors that pierce the cable to make connection. The advantage is that is the least complex and less cabling, and therefore cost. However, if there is a break at any point, the whole network goes down.

Ring topology is similar to bus except, instead of terminating at both ends, the last computer is connected to the first computer. This makes a ring. There is a dual-ring topology which has an inner ring and an outer ring. When there is a break, the computers on either side of the break loop the inner and outer loops at each end, thus fixing the ring.

Logical vs. Physical Topology

Physical topology is how a diagram looks on paper. Logical topology is how the network actually flows. It is important that you recognize that a network can have physical topology and a different logical topology. For instance, A physical star topology but a logical buss topology is what is most common. Also, a logical ring topology can be connected in a star topology.

Wrap Up

That is it for this intro to networking article. Check back for further information about networking concepts. I will try to inject a little more humor in my upcoming articles. If you want to study for your CCNA or network+ exams, I encourage you to register with Cisco on their website. They have a wealth of information for their exams, some free, some not. I want you to print out the Blueprint as I will be covering topics within this as I add more articles. Again, I am not a Cisco trainer, but I have been working in this field for over 10 years and I can teach you real-world techniques that I have used a the companies I worked at.


Street Talk

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