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LAN 101: Networking Basics

Network Architecture Overview

The architecture on which you choose to base your network is the single most important decision you make when setting up a LAN. The architecture defines the speed of the network, the medium access control mechanism it uses (for example, collision detection, token passing, and so on), the types of cables you can use, the network interface adapters you must buy, and the adapter drivers you install.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) has defined and documented a set of standards for the physical characteristics of both collision-detection and token-passing networks. These standards are known as IEEE 802.3 (Ethernet) and IEEE 802.5 (Token-Ring), respectively. IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi) defines wireless versions of Ethernet.

Note: Be aware, however, that the colloquial names Ethernet and Token-Ring actually refer to earlier versions of these architectures, on which the IEEE standards were based. Minor differences exist between the frame definitions for true Ethernet and true IEEE 802.3. In terms of the standards, IBM’s 16 Mb/s Token-Ring products are an extension of the IEEE 802.5 standard.

New Token-Ring installations are rare today and are not covered here.

The most common choice today for new networks is Ethernet (both wired and wireless). In rare cases, you may encounter a Token-Ring or ARCnet network. Network data-link architectures you might encounter are summarized in the following table. The abbreviations used for the cable types are explained in the following sections.

LAN Architecture Summary
Network TypeSpeedMaximum Number of StationsTransmission TypesNotes
Ethernet10 Mb/s1024Category 3 UTP or better (10BASE-T), Thinnet RG-58 coax (10BASE-2), Thicknet coax (10BASE-5), fiber-optic (10BASE-F)Replaced by Fast Ethernet; backward compatible with Fast or Gigabit Ethernet when using UTP.
Fast Ethernet100 Mb/s1024Category 5 UTP or betterThe most popular wired networking standard, rapidly being replaced by gigabit Ethernet.
Gigabit Ethernet1000 Mb/s1024Category 5 UTP or betterRecommended for new installations; uses all four signal pairs in the cable.
10 Gigabit Ethernet10 000 Mb/s1024Category 6a UTP or betterUses all four signal pairs in the cable.
802.11a Wireless EthernetUp to 54 Mb/s1024RF 5 GHz band with dual-band 802.11nShort range; interoperable with dual-band  802.11n.
802.11b Wireless EthernetUp to 11 Mb/s1024RF 2.4 GHz bandInteroperable with 802.11g/n.
802.11g Wireless EthernetUp to 54 Mb/s1024RF 2.4 GHz bandInteroperable with 802.11b/n.
802.11n Wireless EthernetUp to 600 Mb/s1,024RF 2.4/5 GHz bandsLongest range; interoperable with 802.11a/b/g; dual-band hardware needed to interoperate with 802.11a; recommended for new installations.
Token-Ring4/16/100 Mb/s72 on UTP; 250–260 on Type 1 STPUTP, Type 1 STP, and fiber-opticReplaced by Ethernet; obsolete for new installations.
ARCnet2.5 Mb/s255RG-62 coax UTP, Type 1 STPReplaced by Ethernet; obsolete for new installations; uses the same coax cable as IBM 3270 terminals.
UTP = unshielded twisted pair, STP = shielded twisted pair, RF = Radio Frequency
  • gerchokas
    Last time I tried to set up a LAN I messed it all up and ended up reconfiguring services and drivers for a good while... Now I just settle for an internet (WiFi) connection for games and the like, and transfer files with a pen-drive. MUCH simpler...
    Reply
  • iam2thecrowe
    I know a lot of so called "I.T." companies that could learn a thing or two, like how to plug a cable in and how to diagnose a fualty cable/patch point, instead of calling the printer guy out to troubleshoot their network problems for them. IT guys are so lazy sometimes.
    Reply
  • LORD_ORION
    OK seriously, you cannot even do a book prize internationally?

    Lame.

    You suck etc...
    Reply
  • nevertell
    A true fileserver is running linux :>
    Reply
  • Pyree
    I think this should become a sticky on the network forum.
    Reply
  • amk-aka-Phantom
    Nice article. Bookmarked for future reference... some of my friends could use these basics and the article is well-written and simple to understand :)
    Reply
  • cangelini
    LORD_ORIONOK seriously, you cannot even do a book prize internationally?Lame.You suck etc...
    Nope, we can't unfortunately. The same tax laws and rules that apply to $100 motherboards and $1000 CPUs also apply to $60 books.

    A letter to your congressman about our ridiculous tax laws would be more productive ;)
    Reply
  • amk-aka-Phantom
    9519710 said:
    Nope, we can't unfortunately. The same tax laws and rules that apply to $100 motherboards and $1000 CPUs also apply to $60 books.

    A letter to your congressman about our ridiculous tax laws would be more productive ;)

    Lol, I accept that explanation readily, as much as I hate all these kick-ass US-only draws. Taxes are a party crasher...
    Reply
  • jryan388
    I was under the impression that cat6 cable was required for gigabit ethernet...
    Reply
  • Proximon
    It really is an impressively clear and complete book. It's quite a skill to cover topics like this in a way that doesn't require too much background knowledge first.
    Reply