How Computer Networks Work

Introduction to interconnects

Close up of wires on computer server
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Any functional computer network requires devices to be physically connected in some fashion. Connections may be wired via cables or wireless via compatible signaling hardware on each device.

Types of Network Interconnects

For both wired and wireless networks, different interconnection methods exist, each offering their own advantages in certain scenarios.

Wired interconnects include:

  • Ethernet - the world’s most popular wired computer network technology over several decades, joins local devices together via Ethernet cables
  • Fiber optic cables transmit digital data using pulses of light. Fiber typically runs underground over long distances. It not only brings Internet connectivity to homes and businesses but also carries much of the Internet’s backbone traffic.
  • Traditional copper phone lines were designed to carry analog voice calls from telecom stations to households, but they are also capable of supporting digital network connections using DSL technology.

Wireless interconnects include:

  • Wi-Fi is synonymous with wireless networking in many people’s minds. Wi-Fi connects many people’s home computers and consumer devices and also is the main interconnect technology for wireless Internet hotspots.
  • Bluetooth technology allows smartphones and other battery-powered devices to network with each other over short distances for ad-hoc file sharing.
  • Several types of cellular network technologies enable phones to join telecommunications networks. Cellular technologies employ a grid of base stations that cover a geographic area and relay data and connections from clients to enable reliable roaming.

    Interconnects and Network Reach

    Network technologies are sometimes classified as either fixed or mobile. As the name implies, fixed interconnects require nodes to be installed in pre-determined locations; re-locating a device on a fixed work requires disconnecting from the network. Conversely, mobile interconnects allow clients to move (roam) without needing to disconnect.

    Another separate way to characterize interconnected technologies is by the physical distance or area their connections can span, also called reach.

    Wide area interconnects like cellular and satellite networks need to support many simultaneous clients and or mobile (roaming) clients. They typically run at lower speeds compared to other kinds of interconnects in return for covering the large span. They also tend to be expensive to build and maintain.

    Long distance interconnects like fiber support a large data capacity to better service the many uses whose connections share the common hardware. So-called backhaul networks are the portions of a long-distance interconnect that move data back and forth between the edges of a service provider’s span. Last mile networks, in turn, connect the service provider’s backhaul to the edges of the network (individual subscriber’s access points).

    Most short distance interconnects like Bluetooth optimize for low cost and low power consumption, making them most suitable for mobile devices.

    Network Adapter Support for Interconnects

    Devices that communicate over a given type of interconnect must possess the right technology to interface with that network’s physical communication links.

    Multiple forms of this so-called network adapter technology exist. Wireless adapters that communicate on Wi-Fi or Bluetooth networks feature small radio transmitters and receiving antennas. Wired adapters normally include hardware circuitry connecting to physical ports that network cables plug into.

    Modems are special network adapters that function as translators, converting the communication data from one network (such as a home network) into different forms that outside networks (such as those of Internet service providers) can recognize.

    Network Topologies vs. Interconnects

    Computer network topologies represent the logical structure of a network while an interconnect supports its physical structure.

    Grid networks, for example, are popular topologies in wireless networking, but the specific type of wireless interconnect used can vary. Similarly, mesh networks are a traditionally a wired topology but can be built using wireless interconnects instead.