How Does a Computer Network Work?

Computer networks, regardless of size and ownership, exist for one main purpose: moving information from one point to another. Beyond that purpose, networks then divide by connection, topology (design), size and architecture.

Networks work by establishing a client (a computer which needs information) and a server (a computer which gives information). The client can be one computer or thousands and the server can be one machine or a collection of machines. Clients connect with the servers via network hardware and software, specially designed for connectivity. Clients use network interface cards (NICs) which are cards that, once installed, allow the client to attach a cable for connecting to a device known as a switch. A switch accepts the client’s cable and reads its requests and sends its information through to the server.

The server can then take the data request and fulfill it by either returning the data requested, sending it to the corresponding network device (printer, copier, VTC device) or storing the data as asked.

Computer networks can use the following types of hardware for fulfilling their purpose:

Network cards are expansion boards, literally circuit cards that fit into a computer, expanding its abilities for communication (e.g. joining a network). Network cards come in many variations, differentiated by speed. Most now allow for gigabit (very fast) network communication.

Category cables are lengths of wires covered in tubing which carry the signals over a network back and forth to all the involved components. Category cables (CAT) connect into the computer via a special telephone jack-like connector called an RJ-45 and then into the wall into a specially created wall port.

Hubs receive network signals and are mainly for printer network traffic. They provide traffic control for slower and less complicated network data flow. As network technology has evolved, hubs are used less today than they were five to 10 years ago.

Switches and routers are network devices which help the network get its data exactly where it needs to go and as fast and as efficiently as possible. With the much smarter switches, a computer network is able to move its data at greater speeds and use complex equations as well as connect directly to the server itself.

Networks can diversify into home networks, LANs, WANs, MANs, wired and wireless. Home networks exist within a house. LANs are local area networks and exist within a building. WANs are wide area networks and cover a geographic distance of several buildings (such as a business complex or a college campus). MANs are metropolitan area networks and span the size of a city.

Wired and wireless networks work the same in theory (getting communication where it needs to go) but they differ in the media (ways) of connectivity. Wired networks use cables and network connectors while wireless networks use radio, infrared and microwave signals.