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How Routers Work

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How Routers Work

The Internet is one of the 20th century's greatest communications developments. It allows people around the world to send e-mail to one another in a matter of seconds, and it lets you read, among other things, the articles on HowStuffWorks.com. We're all used to seeing the various parts of the Internet that come into our homes and offices -- the Web pages, e-mail messages and downloaded files that make the Internet a dynamic and valuable medium. But none of these parts would ever make it to your computer without a piece of the Internet that you've probably never seen. In fact, most people have never stood "face to machine" with the technology most responsible for allowing the Internet to exist at all: the router.

Routers are specialized computers that send your messages and those of every other Internet user speeding to their destinations along thousands of pathways. In this article, we'll look at how these behind-the-scenes machines make the Internet work.

Keeping the Messages Moving

When you send e-mail to a friend on the other side of the country, how does the message know to end up on your friend's computer, rather than on one of the millions of other computers in the world? Much of the work to get a message from one computer to another is done by routers, because they're the crucial devices that let messages flow between networks, rather than within networks.

Let's look at what a very simple router might do. Imagine a small company that makes animated 3-D graphics for local television stations. There are 10 employees of the company, each with a computer. Four of the employees are animators, while the rest are in sales, accounting and management. The animators will need to send lots of very large files back and forth to one another as they work on projects. To do this, they'll use a network.

When one animator sends a file to another, the very large file will use up most of the network's capacity, making the network run very slowly for other users. One of the reasons that a single intensive user can affect the entire network stems from the way that Ethernet works. Each information packet sent from a computer is seen by all the other computers on the local network. Each computer then examines the packet and decides whether it was meant for its address. This keeps the basic plan of the network simple, but has performance consequences as the size of the network or level of network activity increases. To keep the animators' work from interfering with that of the folks in the front office, the company sets up two separate networks, one for the animators and one for the rest of the company. A router links the two networks and connects both networks to the Internet.

The router is the only device that sees every message sent by any computer on either of the company's networks. When an animator sends a huge file to another animator, the router looks at the recipient's address and keeps the traffic on the animator's network. When an animator, on the other hand, sends a message to the bookkeeper asking about an expense-account check, then the router sees the recipient's address and forwards the message between the two networks.

One of the tools a router uses to decide where a packet should go is a configuration table. A configuration table is a collection of information, including:

Information on which connections lead to particular groups of addresses

Priorities for connections to be used

Rules for handling both routine and special cases of traffic

A configuration table can be as simple as a half-dozen lines in the smallest routers, but can grow to massive size and complexity in the very large routers that handle the bulk of Internet messages.

A router, then, has two separate but related jobs:

The router ensures that information doesn't go where it's not needed. This is crucial for keeping large volumes of data from clogging the connections of "innocent bystanders."

The router makes sure that information does make it to the intended destination.

In performing these two jobs, a router is extremely useful in dealing with two separate computer networks. It joins the two networks, passing information from one to the other and, in some cases, performing translations of various protocols between the two networks. It also protects the networks from one another,

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