Network Architecture

To understand networking protocols, it is useful to know a little about networks. A quick look at the most common network architectures will help later in this book when you read about network operations and routing. The term network usually means a set of computers and peripherals (printers, modems, plotters, scanners, and so on) that are connected together by some medium. The connection can be direct (through a cable) or indirect (through a modem). The different devices on the network communicate with each other through a predefined set of rules (the protocol).
The devices on a network can be in the same room or scattered through a building. They can be separated by many miles through the use of dedicated telephone lines, microwave, or a similar system. They can even be scattered around the world, again connected by a long-distance communications medium. The layout of the network (the actual devices and the manner in which they are connected to each other) is called the network topology.
Usually, if the devices on a network are in a single location such as a building or a group of rooms, they are called a local area network, or LAN. LANs usually have all the devices on the network connected by a single type of network cable. If the devices are scattered widely, such as in different buildings or different cities, they are usually set up into several LANs that are joined together into a larger structure called a wide area network, or WAN. A WAN is composed of two or more LANs. Each LAN has its own network cable connecting all the devices in that LAN. The LANs are joined together by another connection method, often high-speed telephone lines or very fast dedicated network cables called backbones, which I discuss in a moment.
One last point about WANs: they are often treated as a single entity for organizational purposes. For example, the ABC Software company might have branches in four different cities, with a LAN in each city. All four LANs are joined together by high-speed telephone lines. However, as far as the Internet and anyone outside the ABC Software company are concerned, the ABC Software WAN is a single entity. (It has a single domain name for the Internet. Don’t worry if you don’t known what a domain is at this point in time; it refers to a single entity for organizational purposes on the Internet, as you will see later.)
Local Area Networks
TCP/IP works across LANs and WANs, and there are several important aspects of LAN and WAN topologies you should know about. You can start with LANs and look at their topologies. Although there are many topologies for LANs, three topologies are dominant: bus, ring, and hub.
The Bus Network
The bus network is the simplest, comprising a single main communications pathway with each device attached to the main cable (bus) through a device called a transceiver or junction box. The bus is also called a backbone because it resembles a human spine with ribs emanating from it. From each transceiver on the bus, another cable (often very short) runs to the device's network adapter. An example of a bus network is shown in Figure 1.1.
Figure 1.1. A schematic of a bus network showing the backbone with transceivers leading to network devices.
The primary advantage of a bus network is that it allows for a high-speed bus. Another advantage of the bus network is that it is usually immune to problems with any single network card within a device on the network. This is because the transceiver allows traffic through the backbone whether a device is attached to the junction box or not. Each end of the bus is terminated with a block of resistors or a similar electrical device to mark the end of the cable electrically. Each device on the pathway has a special identifying number, or address, that lets the device know that incoming information is for that device.
A bus network is seldom a straight cable. Instead, it is usually twisted around walls and buildings as needed. It does have a single pathway from one end to the other, with each end terminated in some way (usually with a resistor). Figure 1.1 shows a logical representation of the network, meaning it has simplified the actual physical appearance of the network into a schematic with straight lines and no real scale to the connections. A physical representation of the network would show how it goes through walls, around desks, and so on. Most devices on the bus network can send or receive data along the bus by packaging a message with the intended recipient's address.
A variation of the bus network topology is found in many small LANs that use Thin Ethernet cable (which looks like television coaxial cable) or twisted-pair cable (which resembles telephone cables). This type of network consists of a length of coaxial cable that snakes from machine to machine. Unlike the bus network in Figure 1.1, there are no transceivers on the bus. Instead, each device is connected into the bus directly using a T-shaped connector on the network interface card, often using a connector called a BNC. The connector connects the machine to the two neighbors through two cables, one to each neighbor. At the ends of the network, a simple resistor is added to one side of the T-connector to terminate the network electrically.
A schematic of this type of network is shown in Figure 1.2. Each network device has a T-connector attached to the network interface card, leading to its two neighbors. The two ends of the bus are terminated with resistors.
Figure 1.2. A schematic of a machine-to-machine bus network.
This machine-to-machine (also called peer-to-peer) network is not capable of sustaining the higher speeds of the backbone-based bus network, primarily because of the medium of the network cable. A backbone network can use very high-speed cables such as fiber optics, with smaller (and slower) cables from each transceiver to the device. A machine-to-machine network is usually built using twisted-pair or coaxial cable because these cables are much cheaper and easier to work with. Until recently, machine-to-machine networks were limited to a throughput of about 10 Mbps (megabits per second), although recent developments called 100VG AnyLAN and Fast Ethernet allow 100 Mbps on this type of network.
The advantage of this machine-to-machine bus network is its simplicity. Adding new machines to the network means installing a network card and connecting the new machine into a logical place on the backbone. One major advantage of the machine-to-machine bus network is also its cost: it is probably the lowest cost LAN topology available. The problem with this type of bus network is that if one machine is taken off the network cable, or the network interface card malfunctions, the backbone is broken and must be tied together again with a jumper of some sort or the network might cease to function properly.
The Ring Network
A ring network topology is often drawn as its name suggests, shaped like a ring. A typical ring network schematic is shown in Figure 1.3. You might have heard of a token ring network before, which is a ring topology network. You might be disappointed to find no physical ring architecture in a ring network, though.
Figure 1.3. A schematic of a ring network.
Despite the almost automatic assumption that a ring network has a backbone with the ends of the cable joined to form a loop, there is no real cabling ring at all. The ring name derives from the construction of the central control unit.
The term ring is a misnomer because ring networks don't have an unending cable like a bus network with the two terminators joined together. Instead, the ring refers to the design of the central unit that handles the network's message passing. In a token ring network, the central control unit is called a Media Access Unit, or MAU. The MAU has a ring circuit inside it (for which the network topology is named). The ring inside the MAU serves as the bus for devices to obtain messages.
The Hub Network
A hub network uses a main cable much like the bus network, which is called the backplane. The hub topology is shown in Figure 1.4. From the backplane, a set of cables leads to a hub, which is a box containing several ports into which devices are plugged. The cables to a connection point are often called drops, because they drop from the backplane to the ports.
Figure 1.4. A schematic of a hub network.
Hub networks can be very large, using a high-speed fiber optic backplane and slightly slower Ethernet drops to hubs from which a workgroup can be supported. The hub network can also be small, with a couple of hubs supporting a few devices connected together by standard Ethernet cables. The hub network is scaleable (meaning you can start small and expand as you need to), which is part of its attraction.
Hub networks have become popular for large installations, in part because they are easy to set up and maintain. They also can be the least expensive system in many larger installations, which adds to their attraction. The backplane can extend across a considerable distance just like a bus network, whereas the ports, or connection points, are usually grouped in a set placed in a box or panel. There can be many panels or connection boxes attached to the backplane.
Wide Area Networks
As I mentioned earlier, LANs can be combined into a large entity called a WAN. WANs are usually composed of LANs joined together by a high-speed link (such as a telephone line or dedicated cable). At the entrance to each LAN, one or more machines act as the link between the LAN and WAN: these are called gateways. I talk about gateways and the types of gateways used in a WAN in more detail on many of the following days, but for now you need to know only that a gateway is the interface between a LAN and a WAN. The same applies for any LAN that accesses the Internet: one machine usually acts as the gateway from the LAN to the Internet (which is really just a very large WAN).
Many terms other than gateway are also used. You will hear terms like router and bridge. They are all gateways, but they perform slightly different tasks. To understand their roles (which I mention many times in the next week's material), you need to take a quick look at how WANs are laid out.
LANs can be tied to a WAN through a gateway that handles the passage of data between the LAN and WAN backbone. In a simple layout, a router is used to perform this function. This is shown in Figure 1.5.
Figure 1.5. A router connects a LAN to the backbone.
Another gateway device, called a bridge, is used to connect LANs using the same network protocol. Bridges are used only when the same network protocol (such as TCP/IP) is on both LANs. The bridge does not care which physical media is used. Bridges can connect twisted-pair LANs to coaxial LANs, for example, or act as an interface to a fiber optic network. As long as the network protocol is the same, the bridge functions properly.
If two or more LANs are involved in one organization and there is the possibility of a lot of traffic between them, it is better to connect the two LANs directly with a bridge instead of loading the backbone with the cross-traffic. This is shown in Figure 1.6.
Figure 1.6. Using a bridge to connect two LANs.
In a configuration using bridges between LANs, traffic from one LAN to another can be sent through the bridge instead of onto the backbone, providing better performance. For services such as Telnet and FTP, the speed difference between using a bridge and going through a router onto a heavily used backbone can be significant.
WANs are an important subject, and I look at them again in more detail on Day 13, "Managing and Troubleshooting TCP/IP."
Layers
Suppose you have to write a program that provides networking functions to every machine on your LAN. Writing a single software package that accomplishes every task required for communications between different computers would be a nightmarish task. Apart from having to cope with the different hardware architectures, simply writing the code for all the applications you desire would result in a program that was far too large to execute or maintain.
Dividing all the requirements into similar-purpose groups is a sensible approach, much as a programmer breaks code into logical chunks. With open systems communications, groups are quite obvious. One group deals with the transport of data, another with the packaging of messages, another with end-user applications, and so on. Each group of related tasks is called a layer.
The layers of an architecture are meant to be stand-alone, independent entities. They usually cannot perform any observable task without interacting with other layers, but from a programming point of view they are self-contained.
Of course, some crossover of functionality is to be expected, and several different approaches to the same division of layers for a network protocol were proposed. One that became adopted as a standard is the Open Systems Interconnection Reference Model (which is discussed in more detail in the next section). The OSI Reference Model (OSI-RM) uses seven layers, as shown in Figure 1.7. The TCP/IP architecture is similar but involves only five layers, because it combines some of the OSI functionality in two layers into one. For now, though, consider the seven-layer OSI model.
Figure 1.7. The OSI Reference Model showing all seven layers.
The application, presentation, and session layers are all application-oriented in that they are responsible for presenting the application interface to the user. All three are independent of the layers below them and are totally oblivious to the means by which data gets to the application. These three layers are called the upper layers.
The lower four layers deal with the transmission of data, covering the packaging, routing, verification, and transmission of each data group. The lower layers don't worry about the type of data they receive or send to the application, but deal simply with the task of sending it. They don't differentiate between the different applications in any way.
The following sections explain each layer to help you understand the architecture of the OSI-RM (and later contrast it with the architecture of TCP/IP).
The Application Layer
The application layer is the end-user interface to the OSI system. It is where the applications, such as electronic mail, USENET news readers, or database display modules, reside. The application layer's task is to display received information and send the user's new data to the lower layers.
In distributed applications, such as client/server systems, the application layer is where the client application resides. It communicates through the lower layers to the server.
The Presentation Layer
The presentation layer's task is to isolate the lower layers from the application's data format. It converts the data from the application into a common format, often called the canonical representation. The presentation layer processes machine-dependent data from the application layer into a machine-independent format for the lower layers.
The presentation layer is where file formats and even character formats (ASCII and EBCDIC, for example) are lost. The conversion from the application data format takes place through a "common network programming language" (as it is called in the OSI Reference Model documents) that has a structured format.
The presentation layer does the reverse for incoming data. It is converted from the common format into application-specific formats, based on the type of application the machine has instructions for. If the data comes in without reformatting instructions, the information might not be assembled in the correct manner for the user's application.
The Session Layer
The session layer organizes and synchronizes the exchange of data between application processes. It works with the application layer to provide simple data sets called synchronization points that let an application know how the transmission and reception of data are progressing. In simplified terms, the session layer can be thought of as a timing and flow control layer.
The session layer is involved in coordinating communications between different applications, letting each know the status of the other. An error in one application (whether on the same machine or across the country) is handled by the session layer to let the receiving application know that the error has occurred. The session layer can resynchronize applications that are currently connected to each other. This can be necessary when communications are temporarily interrupted, or when an error has occurred that results in loss of data.
The Transport Layer
The transport layer, as its name suggests, is designed to provide the "transparent transfer of data from a source end open system to a destination end open system," according to the OSI Reference Model. The transport layer establishes, maintains, and terminates communications between two machines.
The transport layer is responsible for ensuring that data sent matches the data received. This verification role is important in ensuring that data is correctly sent, with a resend if an error was detected. The transport layer manages the sending of data, determining its order and its priority.
The Network Layer
The network layer provides the physical routing of the data, determining the path between the machines. The network layer handles all these routing issues, relieving the higher layers from this issue.
The network layer examines the network topology to determine the best route to send a message, as well as figuring out relay systems. It is the only network layer that sends a message from source to target machine, managing other chunks of data that pass through the system on their way to another machine.
The Data Link Layer
The data link layer, according to the OSI reference paper, "provides for the control of the physical layer, and detects and possibly corrects errors that can occur." In practicality, the data link layer is responsible for correcting transmission errors induced during transmission (as opposed to errors in the application data itself, which are handled in the transport layer).
The data link layer is usually concerned with signal interference on the physical transmission media, whether through copper wire, fiber optic cable, or microwave. Interference is common, resulting from many sources, including cosmic rays and stray magnetic interference from other sources.
The Physical Layer
The physical layer is the lowest layer of the OSI model and deals with the "mechanical, electrical, functional, and procedural means" required for transmission of data, according to the OSI definition. This is really the wiring or other transmission form.
When the OSI model was being developed, a lot of concern dealt with the lower two layers, because they are, in most cases, inseparable. The real world treats the data link layer and the physical layer as one combined layer, but the formal OSI definition stipulates different purposes for each. (TCP/IP includes the data link and physical layers as one layer, recognizing that the division is more academic than practical.)

Posted bySumedh at 7:43 AM  

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