What Is a Bit in Computer Networking?

Computer Technology Is Based on the Concept of the Bit

Binary code, illustration
 SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI/Getty Images

A binary digit, or bit, is the smallest unit of data in computing. A bit represents one of two binary values, either 0 or a 1. These values can also represent logic values such as On and Off or True and False.

The unit of a bit is represented by a lowercase b. 

Bits in Networking

In networking, bits are encoded using electrical signals and pulses of light that are transferred through a computer network. Some network protocols send and receive data in the form of bit sequences. These are called bit-oriented protocols. Examples of bit-oriented protocols include the point-to-point protocol.

Networking speeds are usually quoted in bits-per-second, For example, a speed of 100 megabits represents a data transfer rate of 100 million bits per second, which can be expressed as 100 Mbps. 

Bits and Bytes

A byte is made up of eight bits in a sequence. You are probably familiar with a byte as a measure of file size or the amount of RAM in a computer. A byte can represent a letter, a number, a symbol, or other information a computer or program can use.

Bytes are represented by an uppercase B.

Uses of Bits

Although they are sometimes written in decimal or byte form, network addresses like IP addresses and MAC addresses are ultimately represented as bits in network communications.

The color depth in display graphics is often measured in terms of bits. For example, monochrome images are one-bit images, while 8-bit images can represent 256 colors or gradients in grayscale. True color graphics are presented in 24-bit, 32-bit, and higher graphics.

Special digital numbers called keys are often used to encrypt data on computer networks. The length of these keys is expressed in terms of the number of bits. The greater the number of bits, the more effective that key is in protecting data. In wireless network security, for example, 40-bit WEP keys proved to be relatively insecure, but the 128-bit or larger WEP keys are much more effective.