We live in an interconnected, super-networked world. New technologies constantly appear on the market and, unless you constantly read networking, computing or hacker news, you may find terminologies floating around that you don’t understand.
Here we’ll explore 10 common networking terms, what they mean and where you are likely to encounter them.
A Wireless Local Area Network links two or more devices via wireless distribution. A WLAN usually operates within a restricted area, only providing connectivity to those devices within its confines. Any device that moves outside of the coverage area will lose its connection to the network.
You likely operate a WLAN in your own home, using a router to provide wireless data transmission between your devices.
A Wireless Personal Area Network (WPAN) describes a network used to communicate between intrapersonal devices. When you are sat at your desk using a Bluetooth mouse, headphones, mouse and keyboard, you are utilising a WPAN.
WPANs describe the communication between devices in close proximity, but can also refer to devices in a wider-range i.e. connected via a Wireless Local Area Network (see above for more information on WLANs).
Protocols – IPv4 and IPv6
The Internet uses a range of standardized protocols allowing network communication. The Internet protocol suite is known as TCP/IP, which stands for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol.
The first major version of TCP/IP was Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4). Its successor is Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6), though both protocols are in use.
We use both protocols to define data transmission across the Internet. They also define the number of available Internet Protocol (IP) addresses available for use at any given time. For instance, you may have seen an Internet Protocol address online that looks like this:
This series of numbers refers to a specific location on the Internet. Every site, router, and device connected to the internet is assigned a specific IP. IPv4 limited the number of available IP addresses to 4,294,967,296. Sounds like a lot? IPv4 address exhaustion has long passed, way back in February, 2011. This is because IPv4 IPs were designed as 32-bit integers, limiting the available number of addresses. See the below image for a brief explanation.
The IPv6 standard was launched to address this problem by using 128-bit hexadecimal IP addresses, providing a 3,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 address space for the Internet to gradually spread into. An IPv6 IP address looks different to its IPv4 counterpart, too:
Whilst IPv6 has provided necessary IP address expansion required for a rapidly expanding Internet, it is not interoperable with IPv4. This means that IPv6 essentially operates on a parallel network. However, there are a number of IP translation gateways already in operation, so you shouldn’t notice much difference.
Network Address Translation is most commonly used by routers to share a single IP address (see above for Protocols – IPv4 and IPv6 for more information) across multiple devices.
If you have a wireless router in your home, it likely uses NAT to enable each of your connected devices to access the Internet through a single gateway (see below for more information on Gateways).
From the outside, your router has just a single IP address. Your router can assign individual IP addresses to the devices in your home network, creating a Local Area Network.
Gateway refers to a device in your network that enables traffic to move freely from one network to another. Your router works as a gateway, allowing data to route effectively from the Internet to your connected devices.
A packet is the most common format of data carried over the Internet. A packet traditionally consists of two types of data: control information and user data.
Control information refers to the data the network requires to deliver the user data: source and destination addresses, sequencing information and error detection codes.
User data refers to the actual data being transferred, be that looking up a website, clicking a link, or transferring files.
Peer-to-Peer is a term increasingly featured in the news. As a number of major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) move to restrict illegal downloading, P2P networks are now highly scrutinized.
A P2P network partitions tasks to individual computers, or peers, in a distributed network. This means each computer in the network provides a portion of its resources to allow distribution of data without requiring a central distribution centre. Peers are both simultaneously users and providers to the network, allowing P2P networks to engage in more powerful activities, whilst remaining beneficial to all connected users.
P2P is widely known due its involvement in file-sharing networks, of which some shared content breaks copyright law. However, P2P file-sharing is also used for many legal activities as its task distribution allows low resource data transfer of larger files. Many Linux distros use P2P to keep operating costs down, whilst cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin use P2P to ensure the integrity of the network.
Other commonly used P2P networks are Skype and Spotify. Both of these applications use a combination of P2P networking and direct streaming to lighten the load on their own resources, as well as the users.
Protocols – TLS/SSL – HTTPS
Transport Layer Security and its predecessor, Secure Sockets Layer form an important part of keeping your data secure on the Internet. They are cryptographic protocols that allow you to communicate sensitive data securely with a range of websites, such as online banking portals, retailers and government gateways.
TLS/SSL works by layering encryption onto of the existing Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) we all use to browse the web. This gives us Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), which you may have noted when accessing your banking, or purchasing through Amazon.
The term Distributed Denial of Service has featured in more and more headlines as well known corporations fall victim to hacking attacks. Christmas Day, 2014, will remain in the memory for many gamers as the day when, after unwrapping a shiny new Xbox One or PS4 and plugging into the Internet for the first time all online activity was effectively blocked by a DDoS.
Denial of Service isn’t always malicious. If too many users attempt to access the same IP address at a single moment, it can overload the website’s hosting server, causing access to the service to be denied. This unintentional denial of service is a regular occurrence when a website with a large user-base links to a much smaller one. Indeed, the news roundup site Reddit affectionately calls this “the Reddit hug of death.”
However, it can also be used maliciously by those wishing to purposefully render a service unavailable. This is where the “distributed” aspect comes into play. A hacker can use a network of computers to flood a single (or set of) IP with requests, forcing the service offline.
These attacks are usually coordinated, and usually use a network of compromised computers, called zombies. Zombies are systems that have been infected with a virus or Trojan horse that allows a remote user to control the resources of that system. Zombies are more widely known as bots, and give rise to the term botnet – a network of compromised systems.
The Domain Name System is how our computers translate our regular, everyday text into network readable IP addresses. When you type makeuseof.com into your browser address bar and hit enter, your computer contacts its DNS server. The DNS server responds with the corresponding IP address of makeuseof.com, connects, and brings you up glorious technology content for your enjoyment.
You can set your DNS servers to be different from their default, as a number of alternative DNS providers exist, such as Google Public DNS or OpenDNS. In some cases, switching to an alternative DNS provider can return small speed benefits when loading webpages, or improve reliability with your internet service provider.
Has this article helped your network understanding? Would you have included anything different? Let us know below!
Image Credits: WiFi Range, Bluetooth Symbol, IPv4, IPv6, Router, IPv4 Packet, Networked Computers, DDoS Architecture, Server Cabling and Ethernet all via Wikimedia Commons, IPCONFIG via Flickr user Fallenninja