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Network and Connectivity Overview

Computer networks start from very simple components but can blossom out into enormously sophisticated webs humming with huge amounts of data. That data needs to be sent to the right places needs to be prevented from interfering with itself and needs to be secured against intrusion.

Where industrial networking is concerned, the biggest division in the networking world is wireless and wired. Wired networks are still standard in most industrial settings. They’re fast, more secure than wireless networks and, with adapters, very old devices can be kept connected to the network, even though they may have been set up for a very different type of network when they were built.

Wi-Fi networks are very popular solutions for quick connectivity and mobility. In industrial settings, these networks are sometimes impaired by thick or metal walls, long distances across facilities and other issues. Hardware such as wireless access points allows companies to vastly extend the range of their wireless networks, providing service for a very large facility.

In some cases, when Wi-Fi is not an option, there are solutions available that are cutting edge, but that use very old technology. For instance, power-line networking allows computer networks to be built over power lines, by simply plugging adapters into sockets. This is one of the fastest and least expensive ways to get network connectivity between a device and a network that may be otherwise inaccessible.

While computer networks, particularly the Internet, have become vast, a simple computer network can still be understood on a very small scale. It merely requires two devices talking to one other over a medium. Expand this outward, however, and it can become very complex very quickly and requires specific types of hardware for proper performance.


What Are Considered Components of a Network?

Computer networks can become enormously complex but, at the most basic level, they only consist of a small number of parts.

The network requires that there are at least two computers communicating through one another. They require a medium through which they can communicate. In the case of a standard office/industrial network, this is usually CAT5 cable. Some networks are wireless, such as home Wi-Fi networks and cellular networks, in which case the medium is radio waves. Any computer that can connect to this shared medium can become part of the network.

The computers on the network have to have some sort of an interface device. Using the office computer example once again, this would be a NIC, or Network Interface Card. The interface cards provide the nexus between the medium and the computer.

The network has to have some sort of software that facilitates the communication. This is usually called the network OS. The usual network arrangement includes many different client computers and one or more computers that are dedicated servers, where the clients store, retrieve and interact with data. Networks are usually described using the operating system of the server on the network. A network with a Windows server might be described as a Windows network, for instance, even though there may be Mac OS and Linux machines connected to it, as well.

Within the network itself, there may be additional hardware added that controls the flow of information to and from servers and clients and that provides other functions.

Common examples include switches and hubs, which fill very similar roles but in much different ways. A hub takes traffic from the network and splits it off to many different devices. It has multiple connections. One receives network traffic and the others send the traffic to the machines plugged into the port. When hubs receive data from the network port, they broadcast it to every device plugged into one of its out ports.

Switches are smarter hardware. They get the intended destination of the information they receive and send it only to the port where the device it’s intended for is plugged in. This reduces the amount of network traffic considerably, and speeds performance. For example, if a hub receives one packet of data and four devices are plugged into it, it quadruples the number of packets when it sends out that data. A switch, however, will simply forward the data along to the right device.

Networks may have additional components, such as shared resources like printers, scanners and so forth. The basic components, however, are clients, servers, a medium and interface devices.

If you’re on an industrial or office network, there is likely a router that gives the facility its internet connection. A router is a device that forwards packets between separate networks. Modems are common on DSL lines. These are devices that allow analogue and digital networks to interface.

There’s likely a boundary between the Internet connection to an office or facility and the outside world that’s maintained by the firewall. These are software or hardware devices that decide which information is allowed into and out of the network.


What Is a Network Structure?

Network structure refers to how the devices on a network are connected. The devices are said to have a topology. The way the different network components are arranged determines how the network itself will function.

For instance, a tree network has a structured hierarchy of devices. A mesh network is set up so that the devices on it are connected in many different ways. If one path is cut off, another can likely be used. If you’re on a Wi-Fi connection, you’re usually on a type of star network structure. The Wi-Fi router is the centre of the star, which has as many points as there are connected devices.

Network structure can be chosen to isolate some devices from others on a network. For instance, one office may have a smaller network structure that allows workers to use a printer or another resource, but that prevents other offices from being able to use that same resource. This can be done by segmenting the network.

On some networks, different segments may not even be aware of one another. The accounting department in an industrial facility, for instance, may have no ability to network with any computer in the production departments, even though they share the same network medium and are, in fact, connected to the same network of wires. Network security greatly depends upon such arrangements. Some resources—such as printers—may be on the same network as many different computers, but they may be restricted in terms of which devices can access them.


What Types of Products Exist to Build a Network? How Does Each of them Work and what Purpose Does it Serve?

Below are listed some of the most common network components. Some of them are found in many different settings—home, office, industry, etc.—and others are specifically industrial grade components.

Some of these products allow devices that were built for older types of networks to connect to modern networks. There are also devices that convert devices without wireless connections to ones that can accommodate wireless connectivity.


Bluetooth Adapters

Bluetooth adapters allow a device without Bluetooth built into it to connect to other Bluetooth enabled devices. They are generally designed to provide connectivity via an existing port. These can be used to quickly and inexpensively add devices to a network.


Industrial Hubs and Switches

Industrial hubs and switches provide the same traffic forwarding functionalities as other hubs and switches, but are built to tougher standards, allowing them to stand up to rough usage in industry.


Industrial Interface Converters

These are interface converters built for common industrial standards, such as converters that allow RS232 connected devices to interface with R485 devices. These come in a range of options. Many require no external power source.


Industrial Modems

Some industrial equipment still uses modems for communications. Industrial modems are designed to work with such equipment and are built to high standards regarding their durability.


Industrial Networking Accessories

These include Ethernet extenders and other supplies that are usually less common than others. They may not be vital to network structure, but provide some needed functions under certain circumstances.


Interface Adapters

Interface adapters are common components that are used to link devices with different types of data ports. They can extend the lifespan of some legacy equipment by allowing it to be connected to newer computers and other devices.


Network Hubs and Switches

Network hubs and switches are data forwarding devices described above. They allow a network connection to be split into many separate network connections. A switch takes data from the network in and forwards it to the appropriate port where the destination device is located. A hub takes data from the network in and forwards it to all connected devices. Switches are preferable in almost all cases, but usually cost more.


Network Interface Cards

Network interface cards (NICs) provide the interface between the medium over which the network transmits data and the devices which send and receive that data. They are usually plugged into sockets on the motherboard of a device, though some are intended to be connected otherwise. CAT5 compliant connectors with RJ45 jacks are the most common, but NICs for other connections are also available. Some provide converters, such as NICs that allow an RJ45 input and a USB output to the destination device.


Power-Line Networking

Power-Line networking uses the existing power lines in a building to provide computer network connectivity. The devices consist of two parts. One of the connectors is plugged into the router for the network and then into an electrical socket. Other devices can be plugged into another adaptor, which is plugged into the nearest electrical socket to them. The data is streamed over the power lines for the building. This is a fast and easy way to get connectivity between devices that are separated by a great deal of distance. In cases where Wi-Fi cannot reach, this is a good option with good data transmission speeds.


Print Servers

A print server is a network device that takes print jobs from network users and sends them to a shared printer. When a printer is being used by many different machines, these servers help to ensure that the jobs are queued correctly and that they aren’t lost.


Serial Boards

Serial boards allow computers to communicate with devices that are connected over serial ports, providing network functionality. They are frequently plugged directly into the motherboard of the computer they’re being used on. They are used with devices such as barcode readers.


Wired Modems

Wired modems can be installed on devices without installing them internally. They are commonly used on DSL connections, but they can be used on any device that needs to have a modem interface with a network.


Wireless Access Points

Wireless access points are plugged into networks to add Wi-Fi capabilities. They are not routers, however, and are usually plugged into a router themselves, or hub or switch. They can quickly and easily add Wi-Fi connectivity to an area where it might not be otherwise accessible, such as in a thick-walled room or an office a long way from the main Wi-Fi router.


Wireless Adapters

Wireless adapters allow devices that do not have wireless cards to get connected to Wi-Fi networks. Some of them are installed on the motherboard. Others are plugged in via external ports, such as USB ports or the accessory card ports in laptops. These cards can be added to older devices to bring them onto a Wi-Fi network.


Wireless Routers

Wireless routers provide a router and a wireless access point in one. The big advantage over wireless access points with these devices is that they allow a piece of equipment to be eliminated. Wireless access points, however, may be less expensive.

Wireless routers are so common now that most Internet providers send them out as standard equipment with their services. For offices that are large or that have very thick walls, however, a wireless access point may need to be added to the network to extend the range of the Wi-Fi option, or just to provide a better level of service.