A Comprehensive Guide on Network Architecture and Its Key Elements
In this digitally advanced era, an ocean of data is at our fingertips. Just a few clicks and we can access information anytime we want through the web. In fact, we take such services for granted that we don’t even care to know the complex framework of servers, cables, and wires that make this all possible. This is where network architecture comes into action. In this course module, we will explore network architecture and cover all the key elements associated with it. Computer networking is a major skillset of an imaging informatics professional. PACS administrators, PACS analysts and other imaging professionals will need to have a thorough understanding of network concepts in order to be successful.
Network Architecture – Brief Overview
Network architecture is the structural and logical layout of a network. It dictates how all network devices connect, how data flows from one computer to another, and what rules manage the data transfer process.
The network architecture consists of hardware equipment (used for transmission), software, infrastructure (wireless or wired), communication protocols, etc. In short, the network architecture provides a comprehensive overview of the network.
Key Elements of Network Architecture
Since network architecture classifies all the network layers and provides a complete network overview, there are lots of elements associated. Some of the key ones you should be aware of are listed below:
Network Components and Hardware
There are many network components and hardware that make a network fully operational. Some of the key components are listed below:
- Hub: Hub is used to make multiple computers communicate with each other over a network. All the computers are connected via ethernet ports that are offered by the network hub.
- Switch: Switch connects multiple devices, such as computers, servers, printers, and similar others. The devices can talk with each other by exchanging data packets.
- Routers: Routers are used to forward and receive data packets between computer networks. The router analyzes the destination IP address of the data packet, finds the best way to transfer it, and then forwards it to the targeted destination.
- Gateway: Gateway is a device used to accommodate data transfer from one discrete network to another. It translates the communication from one protocol to another in order to make the two discrete networks exchange data.
- Trunks: Trunks are communication lines that are meant to simultaneously carry multiple signals in order to provide network access at two points. It can carry traffic from multiple VLANs over a point-to-point link.
- Cat5: Cat5 also known as LAN cable or ethernet cable is a twisted pair cable meant to carry signals. It comes with four twisted pairs of copper wire that can transmit data at a speed of up to 100 Mbps.
- Cat6: Cat6 is also a twisted pair cable used for carrying signals but it is designed specifically for gigabit ethernet-based computer networks. It provides a bandwidth of 250 MHz and a speed of 10 Gbps.
Just assembling the hardware parts of a computer network is not sufficient to make them function. Those components need a well-defined method of communication. These communication languages are known as network protocols.
In simple words, network protocols make it possible for devices to interpret the electronic signals they receive from each other via network connections. They are the reason we can communicate with others across the globe. Some of the common network protocols used today include:
- Ethernet: Ethernet is one of the commonly used network protocols used to create local area networks (LANs) and connect different computing devices, such as scanners, printers, etc. It makes communication possible through network cables, such as fiber optic, copper, etc. The standard ethernet LANs can transfer data with a speed of up to 10 Mbps. However, the new ethernet cards, such as Fast Ethernet, can transfer data at even 100 Mbps.
- Wireless: Wireless or WLAN protocols imply wireless local area network protocols used for wireless connectivity. The 802.11 family is considered the standard wireless networking protocol for wireless networks. The latest release to this family is s802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6), which offers more network efficiency and security than its predecessor protocol versions.
- Bluetooth: Bluetooth is a short-range wireless communication technology that uses radio waves to interact with other devices. It is a standard protocol to send and receive data through a 2.4GHz wireless link.
- TCP/IP: Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) is a set of communication protocols that empowers a computer to communicate with networks, such as the internet. TCP and IP are separate network protocols. IP obtains the address to where data is meant to be transferred, while TCP is meant to transfer data on the provided IP address.
Transmission protocols imply those protocols that are meant to assist in transmitting data/messages between computing devices linked with the network. Some of the common transmission protocols are as follow:
- FTP: File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a protocol meant to transmit files among two computers through TCP/IP connections. For FTP to work, both computers must be connected to the network and configured properly. You can consider FTP as a client-server protocol where a command channel is required to control the conversation, while a data channel is required to transfer content.
- HTTP: Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is a set of rules meant for transferring data, such as text, audio, pictures, videos, and other files to the web. When you use a web browser, you are actually using HTTP. Through HTTP, the client device sends the request to the web server for the resources required to load a web page. In response, the server responds back and fulfills the client's request.
- SSH: Secure Shell (SSH) protocol facilitates communication and data sharing between two computers. In this protocol, the communication is encrypted, which makes communication a lot more secure in insecure networks. It is often used to login and carry out operations on remote computers.
- SFTP: Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) is a secure protocol to transfer files. It uses AES and other strong algorithms to secure data while it is being transferred between different systems.
Network configuration is a process of configuring network controls, settings, flows, and policies. During network configuration, both hardware and software are set up in a way that allows the maximum and efficient performance of the network. Some of the key elements around network configuration are as follow:
- IP Address: Internet Protocol address (IP address) is a unique number that is used to identify a device on a local network or internet. Each address contains a string of numbers separated by four periods, such as 192.457.12.431. The IP address is used to connect devices with each other and transfer data via the internet or local network.
- LAN: Local Area Network (LAN) is a group of devices that are connected to each other within one physical location and share a centralized communication line or internet connection. It can be just 2-3 users in a house or thousands of users in a corporate office.
- WAN: Wide Area Network (WAN) is a large network that connects a large number of computers and extends to a large geographic area. WAN is more like an amalgam of LANs and other networks that are somehow communicating with each other.
- VLAN: Virtual Local Area Network (VLAN) is a subnetwork that groups multiple devices or network nodes that communicate in a way that they are made from a single LAN, although they exist in one or different LAN segments.
- DNS: Domain Name System (DNS) is a system that lets users connect to any website on the internet by translating a human-readable domain name (like facebook.com) to its machine-readable IP address.
As the name implies, network metrics are measurable outputs that reflect the performance and behavior of a network. Following are some of the important network metrics worth knowing:
- Capacity: Network capacity is the indicator of how much traffic a network can handle at one particular time.
- Bandwidth: Network bandwidth is the indicator of the maximum rate of data that can be transferred from one particular path to another within a network.
- Performance: Network performance is the indicator of network service quality, involving analysis and review of network statistics as experienced by the customers.
- Cost: Network cost is the indicator of all the costs associated with running and maintaining the network.
Other Common Terms
Other than discussing key components, protocols, and other elements of network architecture, it is also important that you get familiar with other common terms you might hear when talking about network architecture. Some of them are as follow:
- Load Balancing: Load balancing implies distributing incoming network traffic across different servers so that no single server has to handle excessive traffic. It increases the responsiveness of the application so that more users can access the application at one single time.
- Fault Tolerance: Fault tolerance implies the capability of the network to continue its operations even when a few of its components have failed. In such network systems, the backup components start doing the job of failed ones to ensure zero interruption in services.
- Redundancy: Redundancy implies installing alternate or additional network equipment to provide protection from both failure of some components or the whole system, thereby ensuring continuous availability of the network system.
Network architecture is a complex topic and involves plenty of points of discussion. Above we have discussed some of the key elements that are associated with network architecture. However, there are plenty of other elements that you can explore around network architecture to get more exposure to how the whole network infrastructure works.