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Wired and Wireless Routers

Routers were invented in 1980 by a Stanford University Researcher named William Yeager, who was tasked with the responsibility of networking three departments in the University. With a diskless PDP11/05 which had only 56KB of user memory, he struggled to find a solution that would seamlessly connect the three departments so that they could use the same printers and work on several different types of computers while enabling the systems to communicate with each other!

Bill Yeager

Why do I need a router?

Today, routers still have the same functionality; they connect computers. But they also connect large networks together creating Local Area Network (LAN) or a Wide Area Network (WAN). Although initially only companies and large corporations required routers, they are present in most homes today mainly due to the presence of multiple computers, printers, scanners, etc.

Simple Router Configuration

Routers forward data packets (blocks of information) along networks. The point where routers are connected are called gateways because they are the "entrances" to another network. Information called "headers" in the packets inform the router of the destination, size of packet, etc. so that the router can configure the best path for this packet to get to the destination. Most packets will have to go through several routers to get to their final destination. The transfer of a packet from one router to another is termed a "hop". There are utilities (ping, traceroute, etc.) to help us understand how many hops it takes for a message to be delivered to the destination. Ideally, the fewer hops the message requires, the faster the access.

Routers allow us to access other computers as though they physically connected to ours, as shared drives or through applications such as Telnet, Ftp, Remote Desktop, PC Anywhere, etc. And they allow us to share the same printers, fax machines, scanners etc.

Although routers are doing a wonderful job connecting computers, some of them are technically so advanced that they have the capabilities of a computer, with a processor, operating system, RAM, NVRAM and flash memory! Here is a picture of a LinkSys Router with wireless capabilities.

Linksys (Cisco) router

Routers on the market today

The explosive growth of the internet industry fueled a rapid rise in the demand for routers. Companies that were quick to jump into the Router bandwagon were Cisco, Enterprise, 3Com, ADTRAN, NetGear, Linksys (now Cisco), D-Link, Vanguard, Tasman, Enterasys, Telesyn, etc. As a result, a consumer looking into buying a router has numerous choices, countless and confusing. So before we buy a router, we have to understand exactly what our requirements are.

Routers are divided into two categories; Wired and Wireless.

Wired Routers are commonly used in large office complexes, where wiring exists for every office room or cube. Wired routers are also usually less expensive than wireless options. These routers offer better network security options since the data is easily contained and secured. Currently, wired Broadband routers also may take on the responsibilities of a DSL modem or a hub and also act as a firewall (software or hardware "wall of protection" specifically used to keep hackers out and allow only secure information to filter through) by limiting access to outsiders. Security vulnerabilities leave the computers on any network open to attacks by unscrupulous hackers who may compromise your computer and your data. Software Trojans, viruses, spyware and other malware can not only damage your computer data, they can also capture sensitive numbers such as passwords and credit card information which could be used by identity thieves. Choosing secure routers and maintaining them regularly along with proper maintenance of secure passwords are some of the major responsibilities of IT departments in most companies all over the world.

Wireless Routers are used when computers are installed in spaces that are not reachable by the currently installed network. At home, for example, if the wired router is installed in the basement for one computer, a person using another desktop on an upper level can get access to the network by using a "wireless adapter" that can communicate with the wired router downstairs. Most users of wireless adapters are consumers with mobile PCs (laptops).

Since the invention of the routers, many places such as airports and hotels have wireless services so that business people and other travelers can use their portable computers from anywhere, airport or hospital, the local Starbucks or a beach in Hawaii.

So how do we decide which type of router to purchase? If we have a number of computers that are easily reachable by wired connections in the infrastructure, then we need a wired router. If there are laptops or computers installed in places that are not always accessible by the installed connections, then get a wireless router. Additionally, for wireless service, computers that do not have built-in wireless networking support require wireless network adapters.

A wireless router also has extra ports for direct connection to local computers. So you can add computers directly to the router and also have wireless devices with adapters communicating wirelessly to the same router. If you already have a wired router and you want to get wireless capabilities, you can use Access Points (AP), which are dedicated devices (that have built-in network adapter, radio transmitter and an antenna) which comply with WI-FI wireless communication standards.

One important issue that needs to be addressed when choosing a router is the networking technology that it works with. For wireless routers, choose 802.11g because it is most compatible with most wireless networking standards. Currently, since both categories of routers are reasonably priced, it's better to buy a wireless router that has four or more ports to connect computers and peripherals directly. Also, get a router with built-in firewall for more security.

Security is an important concern for wireless communication. Anyone listening in (electronically) within the range of our wireless network is capable of using information detection software to gain access to our communications. Using WEC or MAC address filters give unique hardware identifiers to our equipment that enable network devices to identify themselves and unscramble messages if required. Another method of ensuring secure transmissions is Wireless Encryption Protocol. This provides secure transfer of data by establishing a shared key that is used to code/decode the contents.

Virtual Private Networks (VPN) are secure communication channels that are tunneled through another network using specialized VPN routers. VPNs are mainly used for easy and secure access to company networks by employees working in remote locations. Some VPN routers additionally use SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protocol as well as have bandwidth management along with encryption, authentication and firewall functionality

It is an established fact that the use of routers increased the connectivity of global telecommunications. Telecommuting, Tele-working and Tele-conferencing networks were set up so that people were not tied down to a particular work location. The rapid increase in global connectivity led to interdependence in the economic, technological and cultural areas that has resulted in expanded trade opportunities for all nations and a trend towards a global economy.







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