We are obsessed with networks. We connect to the internet, perhaps the single largest network in existence. We talk to each other through wireless networks powered by radio signals. We share files over wired and wireless connections, some of which are open and some are closed off to outside interference. Yet, we barely ever give a moment’s thought to any of the physical elements that allow these things to be possible.
What should the typical layman learn about the infrastructure and hardware that allows modern networking to function? After all, even if it doesn’t come in handy often, it could still help in figuring out where something has gone wrong in the event of failure. Or you just might be curious about what else you need to get after talking to a bulk cable supplier.
First, we have the cables. There are multiple types, but all fulfill the same core purpose. They are there to connect devices to each other, whether these are different ones or the same ones. These are what transmit the data from device to device, the basic system that allows networks to function and communicate.
There are various types of cables. Ethernet cables are used predominantly to connect a terminal to a router or switch. Fiber optics provide high-speed data transmission over great distances, replacing the older copper cables of the past. There are other types that might be used, but these two are the most predominant.
Over great distances, the signal transmitted tends to degrade. This is true for copper and still true for fiber optics. At certain distances, things called repeaters are put into place. These devices boost the signal as it comes in, allowing it to be at full strength for the next length of cable it goes through. Fiber optics require fewer repeaters along the line than older cables, reducing the need for this type of infrastructure.
Optical amplifiers are infrastructure specific to fiber optic networks. These are designed to amplify the signal without converting it into electronic data. They are often used in the same capacity as a repeater, though not always.
Routers are devices designed to connect devices and networks. They accomplish this by forwarding and processing data traffic. These are built to use the main cable type of the connection in one port while providing an ethernet port to connect to a terminal device. Switches perform a similar function but are limited to connecting devices to only one network.
For two or more networks that need to communicate with one another, a gateway is required. These are designed to translate signals between different protocols, allowing the devices or networks to understand each other.
One term we hear somewhat often is the server. These are large devices that provide a service to other computers. The most typical one we see them do is storing the data of a website remotely, transmitting that data when a remote terminal such as phone connects with it to retrieve that information. Most server farms use load balancers to distribute the weight of the traffic, preventing any single unit from taking the brunt of access.
Wireless Access Points
Wireless access points are specialized hardware. These are designed to provide portable devices like phones a means of accessing an otherwise wired network. Usually, you’ll see these as a means of providing internet access in public areas, though they might see use in other contexts.
Domain Name System
Domain Name System or DNS is something we should all be familiar with. It is responsible for the conversion of domain names (what we type into the browser) into IP addresses (the numerical data that identifies websites to machines). This allows people to look for websites without needing to learn all the numerical designations required.
Edge computing is an intriguing new technology. This is a service that allows for multiple computers to share their hardware resources. This allows for networked systems to perform tasks such as data processing and graphical cycles with greater efficiency, as no one computer is shouldering all of the burdens.
There are also network systems in place for security purposes. One of these is the intrusion detection system, which does what the name implies. It seeks out malicious activity or transmissions. The partner is the intrusion prevention system, which is meant to prevent any such intrusions.
Related to these two, but considered more basic, is the firewall. This is a program that is meant to filter through all data traffic, filtering out anything that doesn’t adhere to a pre-set list of guidelines. This is the most basic of network security systems, keeping malicious systems from getting in or blocking their attempts to send data outwards.
Networking requires a great deal of infrastructure, both physical and digital. All of it enables the function of the network technologies that seem to be at the heart of the modern world. While not necessary for everyday life, it’s good to know at least some of what powers the modern interconnected age.