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A computer network, often simply referred to as a network, is a collection of computers and devices interconnected by communications channels that facilitate communications and allows sharing of resources and information among interconnected devices.

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Purpose

Computer networks can be used for a variety of purposes:

Facilitating communications  - Using a network, people can communicate efficiently and easily via email, instant messaging, chat rooms, telephone, video telephone calls, and video conferencing.

Sharing hardware  - In a networked environment, each computer on a network may access and use hardware resources on the network, such as printing a document on a shared network printer.

Sharing files, data, and information In a network environment, authorized user may access data and information stored on other computers on the network. The capability of providing access to data and information on shared storage devices is an important feature of many networks.

Sharing software  - Users connected to a network may run application programs on remote computers.

Basic hardware components

All networks are made up of basic hardware building blocks to interconnect network nodes, such as Network Interface Cards (NICs), Bridges, Hubs, Switches, and Routers. In addition, some method of connecting these building blocks is required, usually in the form of galvanic cable (most commonly Category 5 cable). Less common are microwave links (as in IEEE 802.12) or optical cable ("optical fiber").

Network interface cards

A network card, network adapter, or NIC (network interface card) is a piece of computer hardware designed to allow computers to communicate over a computer network. It provides physical access to a networking medium and often provides a low-level addressing system through the use of MAC addresses.

Each network interface card has its unique id. This is written on a chip which is mounted on the card.

Repeaters

A repeater is an electronic device that receives a signal, cleans it of unnecessary noise, regenerates it, and retransmits it at a higher power level, or to the other side of an obstruction, so that the signal can cover longer distances without degradation. In most twisted pair Ethernet configurations, repeaters are required for cable that runs longer than 100 meters. A repeater with multiple ports is known as a hub. Repeaters work on the Physical Layer of the OSI model. Repeaters require a small amount of time to regenerate the signal. This can cause a propagation delay which can affect network communication when there are several repeaters in a row. Many network architectures limit the number of repeaters that can be used in a row (e.g. Ethernet's 5-4-3 rule).

Bridges

A network bridge connects multiple network segments at the data link layer (layer 2) of the OSI model. Bridges broadcast to all ports except the port on which the broadcast was received. However, bridges do not promiscuously copy traffic to all ports, as hubs do, but learn which MAC addresses are reachable through specific ports. Once the bridge associates a port and an address, it will send traffic for that address to that port only.

Bridges learn the association of ports and addresses by examining the source address of frames that it sees on various ports. Once a frame arrives through a port, its source address is stored and the bridge assumes that MAC address is associated with that port. The first time that a previously unknown destination address is seen, the bridge will forward the frame to all ports other than the one on which the frame arrived.

Bridges come in three basic types:

Local bridges - Directly connect local area networks (LANs)
Remote bridges - Can be used to create a wide area network (WAN) link between LANs, where the connecting link is slower than the end networks. They have largely have been replaced with routers.
Wireless bridges - Can be used to join LANs or connect remote stations to LANs.

Switches

A network switch is a device that forwards and filters OSI layer 2 datagrams (chunks of data communication) between ports (connected cables) based on the MAC addresses in the packets. A switch is distinct from a hub in that it only forwards the frames to the ports involved in the communication rather than all ports connected. A switch breaks the collision domain but represents itself as a broadcast domain. Switches make forwarding decisions of frames on the basis of MAC addresses. A switch normally has numerous ports, facilitating a star topology for devices, and cascading additional switches. Some switches are capable of routing based on Layer 3 addressing or additional logical levels; these are called multi-layer switches. The term switch is used loosely in marketing to encompass devices including routers and bridges, as well as devices that may distribute traffic on load or by application content (e.g., a Web URL identifier).

Routers

A router is an internetworking device that forwards packets between networks by processing information found in the datagram or packet (Internet protocol information from Layer 3 of the OSI Model). In many situations, this information is processed in conjunction with the routing table (also known as forwarding table). Routers use routing tables to determine what interface to forward packets (this can include the "null" also known as the "black hole" interface because data can go into it, however, no further processing is done for said data).

Firewalls

Firewalls are the most important aspect of a network with respect to security. A firewalled system does not need every interaction or data transfer monitored by a human, as automated processes can be set up to assist in rejecting access requests from unsafe sources, and allowing actions from recognized ones. The vital role firewalls play in network security grows in parallel with the constant increase in 'cyber' attacks for the purpose of stealing/corrupting data, planting viruses, etc.

Connection method

Computer networks can be classified according to the hardware and software technology that is used to interconnect the individual devices in the network, such as optical fiber, Ethernet, wireless LAN, HomePNA, power line communication or G.hn.

Ethernet as it is defined by IEEE 802 utilizes various standards and mediums that enable communication between devices. Frequently deployed devices include hubs, switches, bridges, or routers. Wireless LAN technology is designed to connect devices without wiring. These devices use radio waves or infrared signals as a transmission medium. ITU-T G.hn technology uses existing home wiring (coaxial cable, phone lines and power lines) to create a high-speed (up to 1 Gigabit/s) local area network.

Wired technologies

Twisted pair wire is the most widely used medium for telecommunication. Twisted-pair cabling consist of copper wires that are twisted into pairs. Ordinary telephone wires consist of two insulated copper wires twisted into pairs. Computer networking cabling consist of 4 pairs of copper cabling that can be utilized for both voice and data transmission. The use of two wires twisted together helps to reduce crosstalk and electromagnetic induction. The transmission speed ranges from 2 million bits per second to 100 million bits per second. Twisted pair cabling comes in two forms which are Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) and Shielded twisted-pair (STP) which are rated in categories which are manufactured in different increments for various scenarios.

Coaxial cable is widely used for cable television systems, office buildings, and other work-sites for local area networks. The cables consist of copper or aluminum wire wrapped with insulating layer typically of a flexible material with a high dielectric constant, all of which are surrounded by a conductive layer. The layers of insulation help minimize interference and distortion. Transmission speed range from 200 million to more than 500 million bits per second.

Optical fiber cable consists of one or more filaments of glass fiber wrapped in protective layers that carries a data by means of pulses of light. It transmits light which can travel over extended distances. Fiber-optic cables are not affected by electromagnetic radiation. Transmission speed may reach trillions of bits per second. The transmission speed of fiber optics is hundreds of times faster than for coaxial cables and thousands of times faster than a twisted-pair wire. A recent innovation in fiber-optic cable is the use of colored light. Instead of carrying one message in a stream of white light impulses, this technology can carry multiple signals in a single strand.

Wireless technologies

Terrestrialmicrowave – Terrestrial microwaves use Earth-based transmitter and receiver. The equipment looks similar to satellite dishes. Terrestrial microwaves use low-gigahertz range, which limits all communications to line-of-sight. Path between relay stations spaced approx, 48 km (30 miles) apart. Microwave antennas are usually placed on top of buildings, towers, hills, and mountain peaks.

Communications satellites – The satellites use microwave radio as their telecommunications medium which are not deflected by the Earth's atmosphere. The satellites are stationed in space, typically 35,400 km (22,200 miles) (for geosynchronous satellites) above the equator. These Earth-orbiting systems are capable of receiving and relaying voice, data, and TV signals.

Cellular and PCS systems – Use several radio communications technologies. The systems are divided to different geographic areas. Each area has a low-power transmitter or radio relay antenna device to relay calls from one area to the next area.

Wireless LANs – Wireless local area network use a high-frequency radio technology similar to digital cellular and a low-frequency radio technology. Wireless LANs use spread spectrum technology to enable communication between multiple devices in a limited area. An example of open-standards wireless radio-wave technology is IEEE.

Infrared communication, which can transmit signals between devices within small distances not more than 10 meters peer to peer or ( face to face ) without any body in the line of transmitting.

Network classifications

Networks can be classified and named by their physical extent, and intended purpose. Common types of computer networks are outlined below.

Local area network

A local area network (LAN) is a network that connects computers and devices in a limited geographical area such as home, school, computer laboratory, office building, or closely positioned group of buildings. Each computer or device on the network is a node. Current wired LANs are most likely to be based on Ethernet technology, although new standards like ITU-TG.hn also provide a way to create a wired LAN using existing home wires (coaxial cables, phone lines and power lines).

All interconnected devices must understand the network layer (layer 3), because they are handling multiple subnets (the different colors). Those inside the library, which have only 10/100 Mbit/s Ethernet connections to the user device and a Gigabit Ethernet connection to the central router, could be called "layer 3 switches" because they only have Ethernet interfaces and must understand IP. It would be more correct to call them access routers, where the router at the top is a distribution router that connects to the Internet and academic networks' customer access routers.

The defining characteristics of LANs, in contrast to WANs (Wide Area Networks), include their higher data transfer rates, smaller geographic range, and no need for leased telecommunication lines. Current Ethernet or other IEEE 802.3 LAN technologies operate at speeds up to 10 Gbit/s. This is the data transfer rate. IEEE has projects investigating the standardization of 40 and 100 Gbit/s.

Personal area network

A personal area network (PAN) is a computer network used for communication among computer and different information technological devices close to one person. Some examples of devices that are used in a PAN are personal computers, printers, fax machines, telephones, PDAs, scanners, and even video game consoles. A PAN may include wired and wireless devices. The reach of a PAN typically extends to 10 meters. A wired PAN is usually constructed with USB and Firewire connections while technologies such as Bluetooth and infrared communication typically form a wireless PAN.

Home area network

A home area network (HAN) is a residential LAN which is used for communication between digital devices typically deployed in the home, usually a small number of personal computers and accessories, such as printers and mobile computing devices. An important function is the sharing of Internet access, often a broadband service through a CATV or Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) provider. It can also be referred to as an office area network (OAN).

Wide area network

A wide area network (WAN) is a computer network that covers a large geographic area such as a city, country, or spans even intercontinental distances, using a communications channel that combines many types of media such as telephone lines, cables, and air waves. A WAN often uses transmission facilities provided by common carriers, such as telephone companies. WAN technologies generally function at the lower three layers of the OSI reference model: the physical layer, the data link layer, and the network layer.

Campus network

A campus network is a computer network made up of an interconnection of local area networks (LANs) within a limited geographical area. The networking equipment (switches, routers) and transmission media (optical fiber, copper plant, Cat5 cabling etc.) are almost entirely owned (by the campus tenant / owner: an enterprise, university, government etc.).

In the case of a university campus-based campus network, the network is likely to link a variety of campus buildings including, for example, academic colleges or departments, the university library, and student residence halls.

Metropolitan area network

A Metropolitan area network (MAN) is a large computer network that usually spans a city or a large campus.

Enterprise private network

An enterprise private network is a network build by an enterprise to interconnect various company sites, e.g., production sites, head offices, remote offices, shops, in order to share computer resources.

Virtual private network

A virtual private network (VPN) is a computer network in which some of the links between nodes are carried by open connections or virtual circuits in some larger network (e.g., the Internet) instead of by physical wires. The data link layer protocols of the virtual network are said to be tunneled through the larger network when this is the case. One common application is secure communications through the public Internet, but a VPN need not have explicit security features, such as authentication or content encryption. VPNs, for example, can be used to separate the traffic of different user communities over an underlying network with strong security features.

VPN may have best-effort performance, or may have a defined service level agreement (SLA) between the VPN customer and the VPN service provider. Generally, a VPN has a topology more complex than point-to-point.

Internetwork

An internetwork is the connection of two or more private computer networks via a common routing technology (OSI Layer 3) using routers. The Internet is an aggregation of many internetworks, hence its name was shortened to Internet.

Backbone network

A Backbone network or network backbone is part of a computer network infrastructure that interconnects various pieces of network, providing a path for the exchange of information between different LANs or subnetworks. A backbone can tie together diverse networks in the same building, in different buildings in a campus environment, or over wide areas. Normally, the backbone's capacity is greater than the networks connected to it.

A large corporation that has many locations may have a backbone network that ties all of the locations together, for example, if a server cluster needs to be accessed by different departments of a company that are located at different geographical locations. The pieces of the network connections (for example: ethernet, wireless) that bring these departments together is often mentioned as network backbone. Network congestion is often taken into consideration while designing backbones.

Backbone networks should not be confused with the Internet backbone.

Global area network

A global area network (GAN) is a network used for supporting mobile communications across an arbitrary number of wireless LANs, satellite coverage areas, etc. The key challenge in mobile communications is handing off the user communications from one local coverage area to the next. In IEEE Project 802, this involves a succession of terrestrial wireless LANs.

Internet

The Internet is a global system of interconnected governmental, academic, corporate, public, and private computer networks. It is based on the networking technologies of the Internet Protocol Suite. It is the successor of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) developed by DARPA of the United States Department of Defense. The Internet is also the communications backbone underlying the World Wide Web (WWW).

Participants in the Internet use a diverse array of methods of several hundred documented, and often standardized, protocols compatible with the Internet Protocol Suite and an addressing system (IP addresses) administered by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority and address registries. Service providers and large enterprises exchange information about the reachability of their address spaces through the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), forming a redundant worldwide mesh of transmission paths.

Intranets and extranets

Intranets and extranets are parts or extensions of a computer network, usually a local area network.

An intranet is a set of networks, using the Internet Protocol and IP-based tools such as web browsers and file transfer applications, that is under the control of a single administrative entity. That administrative entity closes the intranet to all but specific, authorized users. Most commonly, an intranet is the internal network of an organization. A large intranet will typically have at least one web server to provide users with organizational information.

An extranet is a network that is limited in scope to a single organization or entity and also has limited connections to the networks of one or more other usually, but not necessarily, trusted organizations or entities—a company's customers may be given access to some part of its intranet—while at the same time the customers may not be considered trusted from a security standpoint. Technically, an extranet may also be categorized as a CAN, MAN, WAN, or other type of network, although an extranet cannot consist of a single LAN; it must have at least one connection with an external network.

Overlay network

An overlay network is a virtual computer network that is built on top of another network. Nodes in the overlay are connected by virtual or logical links, each of which corresponds to a path, perhaps through many physical links, in the underlying network.

For example, many peer-to-peer networks are overlay networks because they are organized as nodes of a virtual system of links run on top of the Internet. The Internet was initially built as an overlay on the telephone network .

Overlay networks have been around since the invention of networking when computer systems were connected over telephone lines using modem, before any data network existed.

Nowadays the Internet is the basis for many overlaid networks that can be constructed to permit routing of messages to destinations specified by an IP address. For example, distributed hash tables can be used to route messages to a node having a specific logical address, whose IP address is known in advance.

Overlay networks have also been proposed as a way to improve Internet routing, such as through quality of service guarantees to achieve higher-quality streaming media. Previous proposals such as IntServ, DiffServ, and IP Multicast have not seen wide acceptance largely because they require modification of all routers in the network. On the other hand, an overlay network can be incrementally deployed on end-hosts running the overlay protocol software, without cooperation from Internet service providers. The overlay has no control over how packets are routed in the underlying network between two overlay nodes, but it can control, for example, the sequence of overlay nodes a message traverses before reaching its destination.

For example, Akamai Technologies manages an overlay network that provides reliable, efficient content delivery (a kind of multicast). Academic research includes End System Multicast and Overcast for multicast; RON (Resilient Overlay Network) for resilient routing; and OverQoS for quality of service guarantees, among others.