What Is This Thing Called a Network?

Ask a hundred people, and you’ll get close to that many different answers. Most answers come from the person’s experience with networks at work, at home, or both. In spite of those variations in experience, there are some common themes to those answers that let most people find a basic answer to the question.

First, there are at least two devices that talk on the network. The devices may be desktop or laptop computers, tablets, mainframe computers, printers, servers, smart-phones, terminals, fax machines, relay systems, and any system a person may use for communications. To do that, each device must have a separate identifier or address, so they can recognize the other device(s) as different.

Second, the network media connects these devices to each other. It may be copper carrying electrical signals, fiber (plastic or glass) sending and receiving signals of light, or wireless radio signals. Some older networks even used infrared light. Many of today’s networks combine copper, fiber, and wireless to offer the networking experience both users and managers want.

Third, the functions a device must find outside itself. These can also be used as some of the reasons for networking. A definition may refer to them as external services. There are two main groups of these services: Information Sharing aka Collaboration and Resource Sharing.

Collaboration raises the knowledge level for all who share information. This works for researchers, student study groups, medical staff, and many other groups. Researchers learn more and get to experiments and results faster. Students learn more and faster. Patients reap the benefits of the collaboration of all medical professionals’ sharing wherever they may be located. All of this also saves travel time and costs.

Sharing resources such as printing, messaging, file sharing, server browsing, video conferencing, and management functions has multiple benefits. The per-device costs drop when compared to separate resources for each device. This lets a network manager get better and faster resources knowing they will spend much less time sitting idle. The larger the network, the more likely those shared resources will also include networking staff and equipment to keep the network secure and running at its best.

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