Lesson 1:Network Communications

This lesson introduces the basic building blocks of network communications and some of the structures used to construct data networks. There are many different kinds of data networks—from enterprise networks used by large corporations to a simple two-node local area network (LAN) used in a private home. However, many of the same principles apply to all networks, regardless of size or complexity.

After this lesson, you will be able to

  • List the services provided by network protocols
  • Describe how protocols enable networked computers to communicate
  • Distinguish a LAN from a wide area network (WAN)
  • Understand the difference between baseband and broadband networks
  • Identify and distinguish the characteristics of a packet-switched network and a circuit-switched network
  • Understand full-duplex and half-duplex communications
  • Describe the basic segment and backbone design of an enterprise network
  • Distinguish a server-based network from a peer-to-peer network

Estimated lesson time: 30 minutes

When you connect two or more computers so they can communicate with each other, you create a data network. This is true whether you connect the computers using a cable, a wireless technology such as infrared or radio waves, or evenmodems and telephone lines. The technology that connects the computerstogether, no matter what form it takes, is called the network medium. Copper-based cables are the most common form of network medium, and for this reason the term network cable is often used to refer to any kind of network medium.

Signals and Protocols

Computers can communicate over a network in many ways and for many reasons, but a great deal that goes on in the networking process is unconcerned with the nature of the data passing over the network medium. By the time the data generated by the transmitting computer reaches the cable or other medium, it has been reduced to signals that are native to that medium. These might be electrical voltages for a copper cable network, pulses of light for fiber optic, or infrared or radio waves. These signals form a code that the network interface in each receiving computer converts back into the binary data understood by the softwarerunning on that computer. The computer then interprets the binary code intoinformation it can use in a variety of ways. Of course there is a great deal more to this process than this description indicates, and there is a lot going on to make it possible for the e-mail you just sent to your mother to get reduced to electrical voltages, transmitted halfway across the country, and then reconstituted into text on her computer.

In some cases, a network consists of identical computers running the same version of the same operating system and using all the same applications, whereas other networks consist of many different computing platforms running entirely different software. It might seem that it would be easier for the identical computers to communicate than it would be for the different ones, and in some ways it is. But no matter what kind of computers the network uses and what software the computers are running, they must have a common language to understand each other. These common languages are called protocols, and computers use many of them during even the simplest exchanges of network data. Just as two people must speak a common language to communicate, two computers must have one or more protocols in common to exchange data.

A network protocol can be relatively simple or highly complex. In some cases, a protocol is simply a code—such as a pattern of electrical voltages—that defines the binary value of a bit of data: 0 or 1. The concept is the same as that of Morse code, in which a pattern of dots and dashes represents a letter of the alphabet. More complicated networking protocols can provide a variety of services, including the following:

  • Packet acknowledgment.  This is the transmission of a return message by the recipient to verify the receipt of a packet or packets. A packet is the fundamental unit of data transmitted over a LAN.
  • Segmentation.  This is the division of a lengthy data stream into segments sufficiently small for transmission over the network inside packets.
  • Flow control.  This is the generation by a receiving system of messages that instruct the sending system to speed up or slow down its rate of transmission.
  • Error detection.  This is the inclusion of special codes in a packet that the receiving system uses to verify that the content of the packet wasn't damaged in transit.
  • Error correction.  This is the generation by a receiving system of mess-ages that informs the sender that specific packets were damaged and must be retransmitted.
  • Data compression.  This is a mechanism for reducing the amount of data transmitted over a network by eliminating redundant information.
  • Data encryption.  This is a mechanism for protecting the data transmitted over a network by encrypting it using a key already known by the receiving system.

In most cases, protocols are based on public standards developed by an independent committee, not a single manufacturer or developer. These public standards ensure that different types of systems can use them without incurring any obligation to a particular company. There are still a few protocols, however, that are proprietary, having been developed by a single company and never released into the public domain.

One of the most important things to remember about networking is that every computer on a network uses many different protocols during the communications process. The functions provided by the various protocols are divided into the layers that make up the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) reference model, described in Lesson 2, later in this chapter. You might see references to Ethernet networks in books and articles, for example. Ethernet is a protocol running on those networks, but it is not the only protocol running on them. Ethernet is, however, the only protocol running at one particular layer (called the data-link layer). Some layers, however, can have multiple protocols running on them simultaneously.

Protocol Interaction

The protocols operating at the various OSI layers are often referred to as a protocol stack. The protocols running on a networked computer work together to provide all of the services required by a particular application. Generally speaking, the services provided by the protocols are not redundant. If, for example, a protocol at one layer provides a particular service, the protocols at the other layers do not provide exactly the same service. Protocols at adjacent layers in the stack provide services to each other, depending on the direction in which the data is flowing. As illustrated in Figure 1.1, the data on a transmitting system originates in an application at the top of the protocol stack and works its way down through the layers. Each protocol provides a service to a protocol operating at the layer below it. At the bottom of the protocol stack is the network medium itself, which carries the data to another computer on the network.

Figure 1.1  The networking protocols running on a computer form a layered stack, with each protocol providing services to the protocol operating at the layer above or below it, depending on the direction of data flow

When the data arrives at its destination, the receiving computer performs the same procedure as the transmitting computer, except in reverse. The data is passed up through the layers to the receiving application, with each protocol providing an equivalent service to the protocol in the layer above it. For example, if a protocol at layer three on the transmitting computer is responsible for encrypting data, the same protocol at layer three of the receiving system is responsible for decrypting it. In this way, protocols at the various layers in the transmitting system communicate with their equivalent protocols operating at the same layer in the receiving system, as illustrated in Figure 1.2.

Figure 1.2  Protocols operating at the same layer in the stack on different systems can be said to communicate indirectly by providing complementary services

Local Area Networks and Wide Area Networks

A LAN is a group of computers located in a relatively small area and connected by a common medium. Each of the computers and other communicating devices on the LAN is called a node. A LAN is characterized by three primary attributes: its topology, its medium, and its protocols. The topology is the pattern used to connect the computers together. With a bus topology, a network cable connects each computer to the next one, forming a chain. With a star topology, each of the computers is connected to a central nexus called a hub or switch. A ring topology is essentially a bus network with the two ends joined together. You will learn more about network topologies in Chapter 2, "Network Hardware."

The network medium, as defined earlier, is the actual physical connectionbetween the networked computers. The topology and the medium used on a particular network are specified by the protocol operating at the data-link layer of the OSI model, such as Ethernet or Token Ring. Ethernet, for example, supports several different topologies and media. When you select one combination oftopology and medium for a LAN, such as unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cable in a star topology, you must (in most cases) use the same topology and medium for all of the computers on that LAN. There are some hardware products that enable you to connect computers to the same LAN with different media, but this is only true for closely related technologies. You can't connect a bus Ethernet computer to a star Ethernet computer and have both systems be part of the same LAN.

In the same way, all of the computers on a LAN must share common protocols. You can't connect an Ethernet computer to a Token Ring computer on the same LAN, for example. The same is true for the protocols operating at the other layers of the OSI model. If the systems on the LAN don't have common protocols at every layer of the stack, communication among them is not possible.

In most cases, a LAN is confined to a room, a floor, or perhaps a building. To expand the network beyond these limits, you can connect multiple LANstogether using devices called routers. This forms an internetwork, which isessentially a network of networks. A computer on one LAN can communicate with the systems on another LAN because they are all interconnected. By connecting LANs in this way, you can build an internetwork as large as you need. Many sources use the term network when describing a LAN, but just as many use the same term when referring to an internetwork.

It is important to distinguish between an internetwork, which is any collection of interconnected LANs, and the Internet. The Internet is the ultimateexample of an internetwork, but not every internetwork involves the Internet.

In many cases, an internetwork is composed of LANs in distant locations. To connect remote LANs, you use a different type of network connection: a WAN connection. WAN connections can use telephone lines, radio waves, or any one of many other technologies. WAN connections are usually point-to-point connections, meaning that they connect only two systems. They are unlike LANs, which can connect many systems. An example of a WAN connection would be a company with two offices in distant cities, each with its own LAN and connected by a leased telephone line. This type of WAN is illustrated in Figure 1.3. Each end of the leased line is connected to a router and the routers are connected to individual LANs. Any computer on either of the LANs can communicate with any one of the other computers at the other end of the WAN link or with a computer on its own LAN.

Figure 1.3  WAN connections create internetworks by connecting LANs in distant locations

Broadband and Baseband

In most cases, LANs use a shared network medium. The cable connecting the computers can carry one signal at a time, and all of the systems take turns using it. This type of network is called a baseband network. To make a baseband network practical for many computers to share, the data transmitted by each system is broken into separate units called packets. If you were to tap into the cable of a baseband network and examine the signals as they flow by, you would see a succession of packets generated by various systems and destined for various systems, as shown in Figure 1.4. When your computer transmits an e-mail message, for example, it might be broken into many packets, and the computer transmits each packet separately. If another computer on the network also wants to transmit, it would also send one packet at a time. When all of the packets constituting a particular transmission reach their destination, the receiving computer reassembles them back into your original e-mail. This is the basis for a packet-switching network.

Figure 1.4  In a packet-switching network, the medium carries a seemingly random stream of packets generated by various computers on the network

The alternative to a packet-switching network is a circuit-switching network, in which the two systems wanting to communicate establish a path through the network that connects them (called a circuit) before they transmit any information. That circuit remains open throughout the life of the exchange and is broken only when the two systems are finished communicating. This is an impractical solution for computers on a baseband network, because two systems connected by a circuit could conceivably monopolize the network medium for long periods of time, preventing other systems from communicating. Circuit switching is more common in environments like the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), in which the connection between your telephone and that of the person you're calling remains open for the entire duration of the call.

To make circuit switching practical, telephone companies use broadband networks. A broadband network is the opposite of a baseband network, in that it carries multiple signals in a single cable at the same time. One broadband network that you probably use every day is the one operated by your local cable television company. A cable TV service runs a single cable into a user's home, but that one cable carries the signals for dozens of TV channels simultaneously, and often provides Internet access as well. If you have more than one TV in your home, the fact that you can watch a different program on each proves that the one cable carries multiple signals at the same time. Broadband technologies arealmost never used for local area networking, but they are becoming an increasingly popular solution for wide area networking.

Half-Duplex and Full-Duplex Communications

When two computers communicate over a LAN, data typically travels in only one direction at a time, because the baseband network used for most LANs supports only a single signal. This is called half-duplex communication. By contrast, two systems that can communicate in both directions simultaneously are operating in full-duplex mode. These two kinds of communication are illustrated inFigure 1.5. The most common example of a full-duplex network is, once again, the telephone system. Both parties can speak simultaneously during a telephone call and each party can also hear the other at the same time. An example of a half-duplex communication system is a two-way radio like a CB radio, in which only one party can transmit at any one time, and each party must say "over" to signal that he or she has finished talking and is switching from transmit to receive mode.

Figure 1.5  Most LANs use half-duplex communications, meaning that only one side of a connection can transmit at a time

With the right equipment, full-duplex communication is possible on certain types of LANs. The first requirement is a separate channel for traffic running in each direction. Whether this is possible depends on the network medium. Coaxial cable, for example, contains a single conductor and a ground, so there is no physical way that traffic could run in both directions, unless you were to install two cable runs for each connection. Twisted pair cable, on the other hand, contains four separate wire pairs within a single sheath, one of which is dedicated to incoming traffic and one to outgoing traffic. Networks that use this type of cable can therefore theoretically operate in full-duplex mode, and some manufacturers are making Ethernet equipment that makes this possible. Full-duplex Ethernet essentially doubles the throughput of the existing network.

Segments and Backbones

When a small network begins to grow, it is possible to connect LANs together in a haphazard manner for a while. However, building a large enterprise network by connecting many LANs is a complex undertaking that requires careful planning. One of the most common designs for a network of this type is a series of segment LANs connected by a backbone LAN.

The term segment is sometimes used synonymously with LAN or network torefer to any collection of networked computers, but in this context it refers to a LAN composed of user workstations and other end-user devices, such as printers. An enterprise network would consist of many such LANs, all of which are connected to another LAN called a backbone. The backbone exists primarily as a conduit that enables the segments to communicate with each other. One common configuration for an office building with multiple floors calls for a horizontal segment connecting all of the workstations on each floor and a backbone running vertically from the top of the building to the bottom, connecting all of the segments. Such a configuration is illustrated in Figure 1.6.

This type of configuration increases the efficiency of the network by using the backbone to carry all of the traffic going from one network to another. No packet has to traverse more than three LANs using this model. By contrast, if you were to connect each of the horizontal segments to the adjacent segment, daisy chain fashion, most of the internetwork packets would have to travel through many more segments to reach their destinations, burdening the intermediate segments with through traffic for no good reason.

In many cases, the backbone network runs at a higher speed than the segments and may also use a different type of network medium. For example, a typical network might use 10Base-T Ethernet, running at 10 megabits per second (Mbps) over copper UTP cable, for the segments, and it might use 100Base-FX Ethernet, running at 100 Mbps over fiber optic cable, for the backbone. There are two reasons for using a different type of network for the backbone. First, the backbone by definition must carry all of the internetwork traffic generated by all of the segments, and a faster protocol can prevent the backbone from becoming a bottleneck. Second, the backbone may have to span a much longer distance than the segments, and a network that uses fiber optic cable can handle long distances better.

Figure 1.6  An enterprise network spanning an entire building can consist of an individual segment on each floor and a backbone connecting the segments on all of the floors

Client/Server and Peer-to-Peer Networking

Computers can interact with each other on a network in different ways and fulfill different roles. There are two primary networking models used to define thisinteraction, called client/server and peer-to-peer. On a client/server network, certain computers act as servers and others act as clients. A server is simply a computer (or more precisely, an application running on a computer) that provides a service to other computers. The most basic network functions are the sharing of files and the sharing of printers; the machines that do this are called file servers and print servers. There are many other types of servers as well: application servers, e-mail servers, Web servers, database servers, and so on. A client is a computer that avails itself of the services provided by servers.

Although servers are often thought of as computers, they are actuallyapplications. A single computer can conceivably run several different serverapplications at the same time and, in most cases, perform client operations as well.

At one time, it was common for computers to be limited to either client or server roles. Novell NetWare, which was the most popular network operating system for many years, consists of a separate server operating system and clients that run on DOS and Microsoft Windows workstations. The server computer functions only as a server and the clients only as clients. The most popular network operating systems today, however, include both client and server functions. All of the current versions of Windows (Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows Me, Windows NT, and Windows 2000), for example, can function as both clients and servers. How to utilize each system is up to the network administrator. You will learn more about the networking capabilities of various operating systems in Chapter 4, "Networking Software."

You can construct a client/server network by designating one or more of the networked computers as a server and the rest as clients, even when all of the computers can perform both functions. In most cases, servers are better equipped systems, and on a large network many administrators connect them to the backbone so that all of the segments have equal access to them. A client/server network typically uses a directory service to store information about the network and its users. Users log on to the directory service instead of logging on to individual computers, and administrators can control access to the entire networkusing the directory service as a central resource.

On a peer-to-peer network, every computer is an equal and functions as both a client and a server. This means that any computer can share its resources with the network and access the shared resources on other computers. You can therefore use any of the Windows versions mentioned earlier for this type of network, but you cannot use a dedicated client/server operating system like NetWare. Peer-to-peer networks should be generally limited to 10 or 15 nodes or fewer on a single LAN, because each system has to maintain its own user accounts and other security settings.

Exercise 1: Networking Definitions

Match the concepts in the numbered list with the definitions that follow it.


  1. Full-duplex
  2. Broadband
  3. Circuit switching
  4. Client/server network
  5. Baseband


  1. A medium that carries multiple signals simultaneously
  2. A network in which a connection is established before any data is transmitted
  3. A network on which systems perform designated roles
  4. A medium that carries traffic in both directions simultaneously
  5. A medium that carries only one signal

Lesson Review

  1. On which type of network does each computer maintain its own permissions and security settings?
  2. A language that two computers "speak" while communicating over a network is called __________.
  3. A series of LANs connected together by any means is called __________.
  4. What kind of network is often used to connect horizontal segments on a large enterprise internetwork?
  5. A network in which the medium carries only one signal is called __________.
  6. An example of full-duplex communications is __________.
  7. A technology used to connect LANs at distant locations is called __________.
  8. The type of network in which data is split into discrete units that are transmitted over the network individually is called __________.

Lesson Summary

  • Computer networks use signals to transmit data, and protocols are thelanguages computers use to communicate.
  • Protocols provide a variety of communications services to computers on a network.
  • Local area networks usually connect computers using a shared, half-duplex, baseband medium, and wide area networks link distant networks.
  • Enterprise networks often consist of clients and servers on horizontal segments connected by a common backbone, whereas peer-to-peer networksconsist of a small number of computers on a single local area network.

Network+ Certification Training Kit
Self-Paced Training Kit Exam 70-642: Configuring Windows Server 2008 Network Infrastructure
ISBN: 0735651604
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2001
Pages: 105

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