Networking 101: Networks within Networks

January 4, 2012, By George Lang

Last week we completed our discussion on Cloud computing. The Cloud is a collection of smaller networks existing within the greater network known as the Internet.

We begin to realize the importance and the full potential of the computer network when we fully understand the overall picture of its architectural design. Trying to understand that bigger picture is a matter of stepping outside the complex inner workings that make it possible in order to see the forest through the trees; i.e., networks within networks.

These days, almost every computer on Earth is connected to the Internet, which has not always been the case. In the beginning, each computer network was more like a single tree; the trunk, a mainframe computer serving all its branches (i.e., client computers). One by one, these isolated networks were connected to other networks until they began to form a section of the woods (i.e., a larger electronic ecosystem). As time went on, these regional collaborations wanted access to other sections of the woods until finally, all the sections were interconnected forming what we know today as the Internet.

How each individual network controls access to its own resources is the complex part of networking. But understanding the overall view of the Internet helps us more fully understand the simple concept of networks within networks, and how the flexibility and versatility of this architectural design becomes valuable to us all. Let’s take a single section of the Internet forest as a real-life example. The following map depicts the network topology at Penn State University.

The picture shows the inter-campus network whose infrastructure enables communications between all university campuses throughout the state of Pennsylvania. The various colored lines indicate the speed (i.e., bandwidth) that is possible between the various network nodes. Of course, each line connects dozens of small networks at each campus to hundreds more at all the other sites.

Additionally, there are countless other organizations within the state of Pennsylvania, each with their own interconnected networks just like Penn State. The next graphic indicates a planned, greater infrastructure for the entire  lower 48 states known as Internet2 (Codename Abilene).

Internet2 is a plan to connect member sections of the Internet forest with an even faster fiber optic infrastructure. “Penn State is now connected to the super-fast Internet2 computer network known as Abilene — the most advanced research and education network in the United States today. A backbone network, Abilene spans more than 10,000 miles and operates around 45,000 times faster than the typical modem — a speed so fast it could allow the transfer of 150,000 double-spaced, typewritten pages in one second.” (Penn State University) The name Abilene has since been dropped in favor of Internet2 Network.

The infrastructure, topology, and architectural design of the Internet all provide for superior data transfer and inter-connectivity; along with improved versatility and flexibility of the networks that populate it. Powerful networks within networks form the picture that makes the world’s Internet what it is today.

During DeviceMAG’s first Networking 101 series of articles, we covered internet connection sharing (ICS) and the use of hubs and switches within a network. We promised to discuss routers in a future article. It is routers and modems that make the concept of networks within networks possible, so we will begin to make good on that promise next week. We look forward to seeing you then!

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