What is Computer Networking? – Learn the Fundamentals in 11 Mins Or Less!

Unless you have been living under a cave, you’ve surely heard the term – Computer networks. In this quick read, I will explain in-depth what computer networking is, while keeping it as simple as humanly possible!

If you are someone starting out in the field of IT Hardware and Computer Networks, and looking an easy introduction to Computer Networks this post is written with just you in mind.

Standalone Computing vs Networked Computing

As the like the name implies, Standalone computing refers to computers or computing devices that are NOT connected to any other computers or networks.

Man with Standalone Laptop
Fig. Standalone Computing

As a matter of fact, before the invention of computer networking, we had bulky personal computers that were very good at processing and crunching data.

Imagine being able to work your Excel sheets or edit graphics or video – this is completely just fine …..

Except for one problem!

One massive catch ….

Your system is unable to communicate with other computers.

So any information you want to exchange with a friend, will have to be physically copied onto some storage media like a floppy disk or USB drive and then handed over manually.

Doesn’t sound like they must have had a lot of fun before computer networking, does it?

Computer Networks were designed to solve this exact problem – of sharing and exchange of information and communication.

What is the Most Basic Form of a Computer Network?

The simplest form of a computer network is 2 computers connected right next to each other using what we call, an Ethernet cable.

two computers connected back to back using an ethernet cable
Fig – Basic Computer Network Example – Two Computers connected to Each Other with Ethernet Cable

Of course, technically it is not enough that you simply connect them.

They need names (called IP Address) to be able to communicate.

However, let’s save up the details for later.

One thing to note is that you will never see such a setup in real life …..

It is the perfect example of a basic computer network in action BUT …..

Why just connect 2 computers together, when you can just as easily connect a bunch of them together?

Example of a Real World Computer Network

Typical SOHO or Small Office Network Setup
Fig. Small Office Network – Example of a Computer Network

Consider above illustration.

A small office employing 100 staff does not need 100 printers – one for each employee! A single shared printer is enough!

Also this office does not need 100 different internet connections – one for each employee.

A single internet connection from an ISP is shared using a broadband router to 100+ client PCs is more than enough to keep everyone connected online.

Most practical computer networks you will ever use will look very similar to above setup.

Definition of Computer Network? What is Computer Networking?

There are a hundred thousand elaborate definitions laid out all over the internet.

Whenever I learn something new, I find it easier to retain information that is simpler to understand and repeat back to myself.

I am sure you will find it helpful too.

A Computer Network is defined as a set of computing devices interconnected to share resources and data.

Well, that describes computer networks.

What is Computer Networking then?

Computer networking refers to any activities involving planning, installing, configuring, maintaining and troubleshooting computer networks of all sizes and types.

Simple.

Computer networking is about planning the resources you need to build a computer network, installing the hardware components and configuring the software components.

It also involves maintaining these networks in working order and troubleshooting them when they are not.

Is Computer Networking Still Useful?

Whether you are communicating with family and friends using Whatsapp and Facebook or sending out a job application hoping for a lucky break – you use computer networks all the time!

Young students standing and browsing their smartphones using the internet for daily tasks
Fig. Internet Applications are Limitless

Today you can game online, stream movies and soaps, communicate instantly and exchange files, folders, information etc through a wide variety of applications.

All of which depends solely upon computer networking.

The entire internet as we know it, runs on the underlying infrastructure provided by computer networks.

Why is Computer Networking important?

Today’s computer networks help you with:

  • Real Time banking – Sending and Receiving money online
  • Instant e-Commerce – Buying and Selling stuff from Amazon
  • Live Webinars and Online Classes
  • Instant Communication using Skype, Whatsapp, Facebook etc.
  • Using Google to find out detailed info about any person, place or thing.
Mind map showing typical applications and uses of computer nnetworking
Fig. Applications of Computer Networking

In fact you would not be reading this blog right now, if not for the internet.

What is the Internet? Who invented it?

World map showing communication and information transfer happening across the globe
Fig. The Internet is Pervasive and Globally Enabling

The internet is nothing but a vast interconnection of tens of millions of computers (laptops, desktops, servers) and computing devices (smartphones, smart wearables etc) with the user of communication devices (e.g. routers, switches, modems, ethernet cables).

The ultimate purpose of internet is instant sharing and real-time communication.

The entire credit for inventing the internet as we know it, goes to the Department of Defence (DoD, Premier US Military Agency). They had developed a way to get their military sites to communicate with each other.

This was adopted for civilian use and the rest is history.

No one really owns the internet. There are ISP’s of all sizes which interconnect with each other providing a web of connectivity. Hence sometimes also called as the World Wide Web (WWW).

What are the Different Types of Computer Networks?

Based on size, we classify computer networks as under:

  1. Personal Area Network (PAN)
  2. Local Area Networks (LAN)
  3. Metropolitan Area Network (MAN)
  4. Wide Area Network (WAN)
Depiction of Types of Computer Networks namely LAN MAN CAN and WAN
Fig. Types of Computer Networks – LAN, MAN and WAN

What is a Personal Area Network (PAN)?

These are low range (max reach of few 10s of meters), offer low speeds (few Mbps max).

E.g. Bluetooth.

What is a LAN Network?

A network that spans a desk, room, floor or entire building.

It is usually owned by a single business.

A LAN offers higher speeds (in Gbps), and medium range (10s of meters to a few Kms).

What is a Campus Area Network (CAN)?

A Campus Area Network (CAN) is one which interconnects a bunch of LAN networks from neighbouring buildings together over a campus area.

CAN uses fiber optic cables or wireless to make this possible.

These networks are used by schools, colleges and business parks to interconnect all their LANs together. A CAN spans an entire campus area, hence the name.

What is a Metropolitan Area Network (MAN)?

A MAN interconnects multiple LANs spanning an entire city or metropolitan area.

For e.g. a business interconnecting its multiple branch offices across the same city, for communication.

What is a Wide Area Network (WAN)?

A WAN, also called as a Global Area Network (GAN), is the biggest network there is.

It spans entire states, countries and continents.

For e.g. the internet.

What is Meant by Network Topology?

Topology can be physical or logical.

Physical topology refers to the manner in which the various computing devices are connected together.

Logical topology refers to the manner in which data flows between these devices and how they communicate.

Sometimes they are different.

Some of the most Common networking topologies are listed as under:

  • Star
  • Bus
  • Ring
  • Mesh
  • Hybrid
Pictorial depiction of different Computer Networking Topologies such as Bus, Ring, Star, Tree, Mesh
Fig. Popular Computer Networking Topologies

I shall go into the details of these topologies in another post other day.

You would do well to remember that we commonly use STAR for LAN, RING for MAN and MESH / TREE topologies for WAN types of network.

Again, this is not a rule but just how we do it for real world networks.

What is a Protocol?

Any discussion related to what is computer networking, would be incomplete without a reference to Protocols.

Any systems wishing to communicate among themselves, need to speak a common language.

A protocol is this common language or set of rules followed by both sender and receiver..

Illustration of a man and woman explaining meaning of a Protocol
Fig. What is a Protocol?

Examples of Protocols are:

  • A PC uses DHCP protocol to communicate with a Server within the LAN to obtain a unique IP address.
  • PCs within a local area network (LAN) use the Ethernet protocol to communicate locally with each other.

If two or more devices speak the same language, they can exchange data. Else, not.

What is TCP/ IP?

TCP/ IP is an abbreviation for Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol.

But this can be misleading as it does not refer to just these 2 protocols alone.

It is an entire suite of protocols – each having a definite purpose and function.

Simply put, TCP/ IP is the common language spoken by all devices within your local network and also across the internet.

For e.g. your laptop, android phone, iPhone, smart AC, smart fridge etc all need to have TCP/ IP implemented inside of them to be able to communicate.

Globe
Fig. TCP/ IP – Computer Networking world’s Universally accepted Standard

Why do we need all devices to support TCP/ IP?

Because, like I said before, without a common language, communication would simply be impossible!

What are the Components of a Computer Network?

The most common devices you will see in computer networks are:

  • Network Interface Card (NIC)
  • Switch
  • Router
  • Modem
  • Access Points (AP)
  • Ethernet Cables
  • Optical Fiber Cables

A network interface card is part of your PC or laptop. You can connect to an existing network using it – wired or wireless!

A switch acts as a central point of connectivity for all the devices of your LAN.

A router acts as a gateway to move traffic from one LAN to another LAN. Say for example, if you are in Goa and are chatting up your cousin in Bangalore using any application, you need a router at your end and so do they.

Also, any traffic going out of your LAN will do so through a router only.

A Modem (acronym for MOdulator-DEModulator) acts as a signal converter. Any internet connection from an ISP (Internet Service Provider) will terminate in your premises with a modem.

It converts the signals generated by your LAN to a suitable format for transmission to the internet through your ISP.

An Access Point acts as a simple wireless switch. It allows multiple wireless clients to connect to itself. Optionally you can connect it to a switch so as to allow communication between the wired and wireless clients of your network.

Ethernet & Optical Fibre Cables are transmission media that carry the signals from one point to another.

You must be thinking to yourself, hey I simply googled what is computer networking and ended up knowing a lot more.

This field is indeed very vast, in-demand and extremely interesting.

What are the Benefits of Computer Networking?

Some of the most common advantages of computer networking include:

  • Reduces Business Expenses – Sharing of resources such as printers, servers, and internet saves money.
  • Supports Instant Decision Making – Instant communication between users across offices and continents enables faster decision making for businesses.
  • Decreases Travel Costs – Technologies such as Zoom and Google Meet help businesses decrease travelling costs by a huge margin.
  • Reduces Travel Carbon Footprint – reduced carbon emissions leading to a greener planet!
  • Enables Anytime, Anywhere Education – Educational institutes and Schools have stepped up their teaching efforts in COVID19 times by conducting online classes that anyone can attend safely from the comfort of their homes.
  • Increases Revenue for Businesses – through e-Commerce and instant Online buying and selling.
  • Empowers Buyers and Customers – compare quality and prices from different vendors and buy the best products and services.
  • Enables Entrepreneurship – all you need to start you business today is a PC and an internet connection. You could not possibly ask for simpler times!

and many more!

What are the Disadvantages of Computer Networks?

  1. Security – When you tie down systems together and they communicate, security becomes very important. Networks are more prone to attacks than standalone systems.

    For e.g –
    • Confidentiality of data (no one else must see it).
    • Integrity of information (no one else must change what you are sending) &
    • Availability (access your data or application whenever you want it)
  2. Initial Installation Costs – It costs money to setup the Computer networking infrastructure to support an organisation’s needs.

    For e.g. Networking Equipment, Servers etc.
  3. Monthly Running Costs – Some hardware and software may have recurring/ monthly costs.

    For e.g. you do realise that the electricity costs can get high for a fully air conditioned server room. Also, you will need to buy and renew software licenses from time to time.
  4. IT Manpower needed – you need trained specialists to install, configure and maintain computer networks.

However, the good news is that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Computer networks provide businesses a huge return over investment!

What are some popular Computer Networking Courses?

Computer networks are everywhere. So are jobs related to them.

Once you know your fundamentals well, this field just opens up vast opportunities for you.

A number of courses by vendors such as Cisco, Juniper, CompTIA (Network+) and more provide ample information on the subject.

One of. the top computer networking certifications, and one that I personally recommend, is the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

Not content just knowing what is computer networking? Interested in taking a deep dive? – then this one is for you.

The CCNA is aimed at beginners with little or no practical experience.

Not only is it a vastly updated program (they update the syllabus every 2 years!), but it is also in high demand among employers who seek polished and skilled youth such as you.

The latest version of this highly specialised training program is the CCNA 200-301.

Cisco, the company promoting this CCNA network certification program, is one of the Top 3 Computer Networking manufacturers across the world.

If you still have questions, and I know you will – do not worry.

I will simplify everything about CCNA in a dedicated article soon.

Computer Networking Careers & Jobs

By now you understand that computer networking is a foundational technology.

This is good.

But simply understanding what is computer networking is not enough to get into high ticket jobs in the IT Hardware and Networking arena.

Computer networking acts as foundational learning for jobs related to any of below IT domains:

  • Computer Networking
  • Systems Administration
  • Cloud Computing
  • Cyber Security

Lets refer below graphic for instance.

Computer Networking Careers
Fig. Computer Networking related Career Options and Jobs

There are a whole lot of career possibilities stemming from a computer networking base. It would be injustice for me to cap this very important section off in 4-6 sentences.

Hence I have decided to mark a separate blogpost for computer networking careers and jobs in detail.

Please watch out for it inside of the next 2 weeks – I have you in mind as I plan it out!

Conclusion

In fact, if you are like me and do not take to software programming naturally, computer networking might be a great career alternative!

I hope I have been able to answer some burning questions in your head like what is computer networking, what are computer networks, what are the different types of computer networks and more.

P.S: I also promise to include some video content in my Youtube channel coming up soon.

P.P.S: Subscribe to this blog so you are the first to know whenever my next blog post comes out! I promise to keep it simple.

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