Seven Essential Laws of Computer Networking

As the world’s electronic communications systems were being developed, some industry and academic leaders studied the principles behind them and proposed various theories for how they work. Several of these ideas stood the test of time (some much longer than others) and evolved into formal “laws” that later researchers adopted into their work. The below Laws have emerged as most relevant to the field of computer networking.

Sarnoff’s Law

David Sarnoff
David Sarnoff. Archive Photos / Getty Images

David Sarnoff immigrated to the United States in 1900 and became a prominent American businessman in radio and television. Sarnoff’s Law states that financial value of a broadcast network is directly proportional to the number of people who use it. The idea was novel 100 years ago when telegraphs and early radios were used to send messages from one person to another. While this law does not generally apply to modern computer networks, it was one of the early foundational breakthroughs in thinking that other advances built upon.

Shannon’s Law

Claude Shannon was a mathematician who completed groundbreaking work in the field of cryptography and founded the field of information theory on which much of modern digital communication technology is based. Developed in the 1940s, Shannon’s Law is a mathematical formula describing the relationship among (a) the maximum error-free data rate of a communications link, (b) bandwidth and (c) SNR (signal-to-noise ratio): 

a = b * log2(1 + c)

Metcalfe's Law

Robert Metcalfe
Robert Metcalfe - National Medals of Science and Technology. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Robert Metcalfe was the co-inventor of Ethernet. Metcalfe’s Law states that “the value of a network increases exponentially with the number of nodes.”  First conceived around 1980 in the context of Ethernet's early development, Metcalfe's Law became widely known and used during the Internet boom of the 1990s.

This law tends to overstate the value of a larger business or public network (particularly the Internet) because it does not take into consideration the typical usage patterns of a large population. In large networks, relatively fewer users and locations tend to generate most of the traffic (and corresponding value). Many have proposed modifications to Metcalfe's Law to help compensate for this natural effect.

Gilder’s Law

Author George Gilder published his book Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World in the year 2000.  In the book, Gilder’s Law states “bandwidth grows at least three times faster than computer power.” Gilder is also credited with being the person who named Metcalfe's Law in 1993 and helped expand its usage.

Reed’s Law

David P. Reed is an accomplished computer scientist involved in the development of both TCP/IP and UDP. Published in 2001, Reed’s Law states that the utility of large networks can scale exponentially with the network’s size. Reed claims here that Metcalfe’s law understates a network’s value as it grows.

Beckstrom’s Law

Rod Beckstrom is a tech entrepreneur. Beckstrom’s Law was presented at network security professional conferences in 2009. It states “the value of a network equals the net value added to each user’s transactions conducted through that network, valued from the perspective of each user, and summed for all.” This law attempts to better model social networks where the usefulness depends not only on size as in Metcalfe’s Law but also on the utility of time spent using the network.

Nacchio’s Law

Joseph Nacchio is a former telecommunications industry executive. Nacchio’s Law states “the number of ports and price per port of an IP gateway improve by two orders of magnitude every 18 months.”