NetworkTigers explains the essential network equipment and components of a computer network.
From small home offices to floor-spanning corporate data centers, computer systems come in various sizes and configurations, all employing multiple network equipment components to suit their demands.
A basic understanding of the backbone upon which all networks are built is the first step to demystifying the world of IT and allowing for a better comprehension of how computers communicate. Once supplemented with a further dive into why a threat actor may wish to access various parts of a network and how they may try to do so, that knowledge informs decisions related to cyber security and data safety.
The information available about network equipment, arrangements and components can be overwhelming for those new to the field. Additionally, technological advances have allowed functions previously exclusive to dedicated pieces of equipment to be undertaken by other hardware. This overlap between components, and the widespread naming discrepancies that result among the general public when one piece of hardware now does the work of two or three, can further muddy the waters.
Despite these challenges and the evolution of new and unusual network equipment, the following pieces of basic gear still form the foundation upon which even the most complex networks are built:
Even those unfamiliar with network equipment have likely heard, read, and even used the term “server” at one point.
Servers act as hosts for content or resources and deliver it to users with access. For example, a video watched on YouTube is hosted by a server owned by Google. Servers host everything from images and audio to email and video.
ServerWatch describes servers as “the engines powering organizations by providing network devices and systems with adequate resources.”
Users with access to the server’s contents are called “clients.” When most people think of servers, they imagine large devices, sometimes spanning entire rooms, depending on their demands. However, servers can also be software-based.
Network switches provide physical connections between the hardware within a network. From servers and printers to computers and phones, switches are essential to system communication and are required for sending and directing data to and from various other network components.
Switches have become more capable in recent years to perform tasks previously performed by other devices.
Bridges, for example, were commonly used to facilitate communication or movement between network segments. Switches are sometimes called “multiport bridges” because they can perform this task.
Firewalls are an integral network security component. These devices monitor and control traffic. Depending on their configuration, they can restrict access to certain parts of a network and flag traffic instances that appear to be suspicious.
Firewalls are one of the oldest types of network equipment, having first appeared in 1988. Their lasting application speaks to their utility and importance in network security.
Load balancers distribute network traffic across multiple servers to prevent single hardware components from becoming overwhelmed. Load balancers keep equipment working briskly and are critical in a server crash or DDoS attack, as they can intelligently direct traffic to accommodate potentially devastating spikes or outages. Load balancers are essential for efficiently managing system resources, but only if properly configured to suit your specific requirements and operations.
Load balancers are also important for network growth, as an increased level of demand and processing requires supreme resource distribution efficiency.
Network repeaters, sometimes called extenders, lengthen the reach of a system’s communications by amplifying network data signals. With some networks spanning entire multi-floor buildings, extenders must ensure that communication remains swift and reliable despite long cable runs or wifi connections far from the primary network infrastructure.
Hubs are repeaters with multiple ports. They send received communication and data to all ports and, like standard repeaters, do not filter traffic or provide any security.
Wireless access points (WAPs)
Wireless access points (WAPs) connect to a router with an ethernet cable and allow devices to communicate with the network via wifi. Office buildings and extensive networks may have dozens, depending on how much wireless access is needed. The coverage gained from strategically placed WAPs allows workers, guests, or customers to connect to a network anywhere within range without requiring a physical connection.
Publicly accessible WAPs, such as those in coffee shops or airports, are often referred to as “hot spots.”
Routers function as network intersections, moving data packets between connected devices and ensuring that data is transferred to the proper destination. Routers also direct data to and from the internet, giving those using the network access to websites and the ability to chat, make video calls, download data, and send emails.
Modems are sometimes confused with routers, which is understandable as they are often bundled together as two-in-one units.
However, the modem forms the connection, acting as a translator that passes data back and forth between the web and your network. The modem also has an IP address allowing it to be identified online.
Standalone modems that aren’t built into cases with other hardware will generally have an ethernet port for connecting to wireless or wired routers.
Gateways allow network communication by translating their algorithms, procedures, policies, protocols, and topologies.
Gateways used to be exclusively standalone components. However, gateways and routers have started to merge from a functionality standpoint.
It’s not uncommon for companies to offer hardware devices with a router, modem, and gateway in the same housing. This homogenization between the three devices can cause confusion when determining what label to give the device.
Network Interface Cards (NICs)
A Network Interface Card, commonly known as a NIC or network adapter, is a piece of hardware that allows a computer or device to connect to a network by providing the necessary physical interface and communication protocols, such as ethernet or wifi, to enable data transmission and communication. Succinctly, it acts as a middleman between a computer and a network. Most modern devices have built-in NICs, but older systems may require external NICs for network connectivity.