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Switches, hubs, meshes, routers for WFH and very small businesses

Network equipment can seem complex, but a basic understanding of the components can help small operations upgrade for speed and efficiency.

Networking is a pretty broad term in technology. Many different types of devices can be networked together, from medical instruments to industrial machinery to the various subsystems in your car. We're discussing the networking that allows PCs to talk to each other, across the Internet, and to local and remote servers.

There are really two primary layers to networking (although network professionals often talk about several more layers in a stack). The two layers are the hardware layer (the boxes you buy and wire up, along with their cables) and the software layer (how all the devices communicate with each other, how they shake hands, and their various protocols).

Here, we're just going to talk about the hardware, the gear that moves your email from your computer to your work server, that streams your favorite Netflix show, and that you're using right now to read this article.

This blog is sponsored by Dell, so I'm going to point you to the Dell.com networking pages when I refer to specific products. Note that while those models will do what you need, it's much more important to understand the general categories than the specific models, at least as you learn how all these pieces work together.

Routers

And with that, let's talk about the router. As with all networking gear, there are home versions and giant enterprise versions (and enormous variations in between). We're looking at home and small business models.

Before we go further, let's take a moment and address what we mean by small business. The US Small Business Administration roughly defines a small business as those operations with $1 to $40 million in revenue or 100 to 1,500 employees. This metric has always been baffling to the more than half (54%) of all employer businesses who have five employees or less and yet somehow aren't considered "small businesses."

From a networking point of view, network hardware designed to support companies with 100 to 1,500 employees is different from networking hardware designed to support consumers, work-from-home, and small businesses of ten employees or less. We'll focus on those smaller operations in this piece. If you're in a larger small business with hundreds or more employees, you're looking at a different category of hardware. 

In a home or small business network, the router transitions data from the full Internet to your home network. This is done through a process called Network Address Translation (NAT). Roughly speaking, a router is like a traditional phone system (technically named a private branch exchange). When someone calls your company (yes, some people still make voice calls!), they dial a main number. But to reach an individual, the call is transferred. In pre-pandemic days, that was transferred to an internal extension. Now, it's just as likely the call is forwarded to an employee's mobile number.

Your router, whether purchased or provided by your ISP, is assigned an IP address by your networking provider (that's like the main phone number). Computers (including servers) trying to reach your business, will use that number. Typically, an ISP assigns just one IP address per physical location. That means, if you have a bunch of machines inside your home, there will necessarily be a bunch more IP addresses inside your home, so that packet of Star Trek: Discovery can reach your TV and not your smart microwave. Those internal IP numbers are roughly analogous to the PBX's extensions.

That's the job of the router. It translates an Internet address like 207.12.45.19 to an internal network address like 10.0.0.11 (for the TV) instead of 10.0.0.14 (for the microwave). It also takes packets of data from your computer (at 10.0.0.19) and sends them to, say, a Gmail server, which registers that it's getting data from 207.12.45.19.

Most routers have one Ethernet socket for your ISP's interface box (usually a cable modem), and four Ethernet sockets for running Ethernet cables to individual machines or switches.

We'll get to switches in a minute, but first I want to talk about Wi-Fi. Many homes now use Wi-Fi to communicate with the router. Wi-Fi is a radio signal that is transmitted and received using a Wi-Fi access point. When Wi-Fi first became available, access points were separate devices. Now, most routers are also Wi-Fi access points.

So the Internet comes into your house via a cable from your ISP, either your cable TV wire or a fiber optic cable. On much more rare occasions, it reaches your home or small office via a satellite dish, a 5G network node, or even community Wi-Fi. Each of these mechanisms has some sort of box that connects to your router, but the most common by far is the cable modem.

Very briefly, a cable modem is a device for converting cable signals to Ethernet, which then talks to the router. And that covers the "outside world to your home" part of the network equation.

Keep in mind that your ISP controls the speed of the connection between your home's router and the Internet. You control the performance between your devices and your router. I wrote extensively on that here and here, and I encourage you to give those articles a read.

Switches (and hubs)

Going from your router to inside-the-home devices, you're going to connect either over Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Ethernet is far more reliable and often faster, but it has the disadvantage of running wires. Even so, that added speed and reliability can be worth it.

I mentioned that routers often have four internal Ethernet ports. But what if you have more than four devices? That's where switches come into play. A switch is also a box with a bunch of Ethernet ports, usually four, eight, or sixteen.

But where a router converts IP addresses across networks, a switch merely moves bits efficiently between its ports. It's kind of like a power strip. When you need to plug in more network devices, a switch gives you more plugs.

Of course, inside the box, there's a lot more to it than that. A switch is smart about how it transmits data, moving network traffic intelligently. I generally have a switch near every cluster of Ethernet devices. Sometimes, I even connect a switch to another switch to extend my wired range, or to group sets of devices.

Another device you may come across is the hub. A hub serves the same general function as a switch, but it is far less efficient. Hubs flood all ports and the network with data packets, while switches send packets only to the port that needs to act on the data.

Back in the day, switches required a lot more processing power and cost more than hubs. But now, high-quality switches like the Linksys LGS105 5-Port Business Desktop Gigabit Switch are under $30, so there's really no compelling reason to buy a hub anymore.

Mesh

Let's wrap this up with a discussion of mesh networks. Between routers, switches, and Wi-Fi access points, you now have enough of a background to understand the concept of a mesh.

The overall goal of a mesh network is to provide you with a good Wi-Fi connection all through your home or office. As we discussed, Wi-Fi is a radio signal, and as such, it is subject to interference just like any other radio signal. A big reason people often have poor network performance is not their connection to their ISP, but lousy Wi-Fi radio signals inside their own building.

A mesh network uses a bunch of Wi-Fi access points that link together, providing a blanket of coverage over your whole space. Mesh networks differ from Wi-Fi range extenders in that all members of the mesh work together, where extenders are more like long wireless extension cords. 

There are a bunch of different brands of mesh devices, like those spotlighted here on the Dell store. The thing to keep in mind is that all mesh devices on a given network need to be part of the same vendor's system to work together reliably.

But here's where things get interesting. Take my house, for example. My house was originally a small building. Over the decades, the owners added a second wing that was once a garage with a bedroom on the end. Between the old house and the garage side is a hallway, which now houses our freezer, washer, dryer, and a giant HVAC.

No radio signal can pass through all those appliances and steel. Our router, with its built-in Wi-Fi access point, is on the garage side, so nothing in the old house can reach the router. We built a hybrid mesh to solve the problem. We ran a cable from the router to a switch on the garage side. From the switch, we ran a very long cable all the way to my wife's office, where there's another switch. She has her computer, a TV, and her printer plugged into that switch. But we've also added a Wi-Fi mesh node onto that switch. This box connects all the way back to our router via Ethernet, but provides a wireless connection to all the Wi-Fi devices in the old house wing.

Another mesh node at the far end of the garage side provides Wi-Fi into the garage and into my upstairs office.

Switches, hubs, meshes, and routers, oh my! Now, you have a good idea what all these devices are, and how they fit into your network topology.

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