Network Architecture Explained

  • Sep 13, 2021

There is infinite knowledge sitting in the palm of our hands. With a few swipes, we can log on to any website and get the information we want in seconds. It’s so convenient that we often take for granted the complex and incredible mechanisms – the wires, cables, and servers – that make it all possible.

This is what network architecture is all about. It’s how data flows efficiently from one computer to another. And for businesses with an online component, it’s an important concept that has a significant impact on their operation. Let’s start with the networking architecture definition.

What is Network Architecture?

Network architecture refers to a network’s structural and logical layout. It describes how the network devices are connected and the rules that govern data transfer between them.

There are many ways to approach network architecture design, which depend on the purpose and size of the network. Wide area networks (WAN), for example, refer to a group of interconnected networks often spanning large distances. Its network architecture will be vastly different from that of a local area network (LAN) of a smaller office branch.

Planning the network architecture is vital because it either enhances or hinders the performance of the entire system. Choosing the wrong transmission media or equipment for a particular expected server load, for instance, can cause slowdowns on the network.

Network architecture can also facilitate security, becoming increasingly important as more user devices connect to the network. The design and protocols of the network need to support quick and efficient user recognition and authorization.

Most network architectures adopt the Open Systems Interconnection Model or OSI. This conceptual model separates the network tasks into seven logical layers, from lowest to highest abstraction.

The Physical layer, for instance, deals with the wire and cable connections of the network. The highest layer, the Application layer, involves APIs that deal with application-specific functions like chat and file sharing.

The OSI model makes it easier to troubleshoot the network by isolating problem areas from each other.

Types of Networking Architecture

While there are myriads ways to design your network architecture, you’ll find that most fall into one of two types. These are the peer-to-peer and client/server architectures.

In a peer-to-peer model, all devices in a network have equal responsibilities and privileges with each other. This means tasks are allocated equally throughout the network. Files in one computer can be shared with every other computer, essentially making every node a network storage drive. Resources like a printer connected to one device are also visible to every other device on the network.

A peer-to-peer architecture is suitable for small networks, such as a branch office. Your home network, by the way, often uses a peer-to-peer model.

In a client/server architecture, all devices in the network, called “clients,” are connected to a central hub, called a “server.” The server handles the bulk of the network operations – data storage, processing of client requests, cybersecurity, and access control.

Most large networks, such as WANs, often use the client/server model. The web server you’re accessing this article on, for instance, is a perfect example. In this case, your computer or smartphone is the client device. Client/server is also the preferred enterprise network architecture.

There’s also a hybrid architecture called edge computing, which is becoming more popular with the Internet of Things (IoT). It’s similar to a client/server architecture. However, instead of the server being responsible for all storage and processing tasks, some of it is delegated to computers located closer to the client machine, called edge devices.

Network Architecture Design

The design of any digital network architecture involves optimizing its building blocks. These include:

  • Hardware
    These are the equipment that forms the components of a network, such as user devices (laptops, computers, mobile phones), routers, servers, and gateways. So, in a way, the goal of any network architecture is to find the most efficient way to get data from one hardware point to another.

  • Transmission Media
    Transmission media refers to the physical connections between the hardware devices on a network. Different media have various properties that determine how fast data travels from one point to another.

    They come in two forms: wired and wireless. Wired media involve physical cables for connection. Examples include coaxial and fiber optic. Wireless media, on the other hand, relies on microwave or radio signals. The most popular examples are WiFi and cellular.

  • Protocols
    Protocols are the rules and models that govern how data transfers between devices in a network. It’s also the common language that allows different machines in a network to communicate with each other. Without protocols, your iPhone couldn’t access a web page stored on a Linux server.

    There are many network protocols, depending on the nature of the data. Examples include the Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) used by networks to connect to the Internet, the Ethernet protocol for connecting one computer to another, and the File Transfer Protocol for sending and receiving files to and from a server.

  • Topology
    How the network is wired together is just as important as its parts. Optimizing this is the goal of network topology.

    Topology is the structure of the network. This is important because factors like distance between network devices will affect how fast data can reach its destination, impacting performance. There are various network topologies, each with strengths and weaknesses.

    A star topology, for example, describes a layout where all devices in the network are connected to a central hub. The advantage of this layout is that it’s easy to connect devices to the network. However, if the central hub fails, the whole network goes down.

    On the other hand, a bus topology is where all network devices are connected to a single pathway, called the bus. The bus acts like a highway that carries data from one part of the network to the other. While cheap and easy to implement, its performance tends to slow down as more devices are added to the network.

    Today, most network architectures use a hybrid topology, combining different topologies to compensate for each individual’s weakness.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Network Architecture

Different network architectures have their pros and cons; and knowing them is the key to picking out the right one for your needs.

Peer-to-peer models are often inexpensive and easy to put up because you don’t need to invest in a powerful server. Theoretically, all you need are network cables or a router, and you’re good to go. It’s also quite robust; if one computer goes down, the network stays up. The distributed nature also lessens or at least spreads out the network load to prevent congestions.

However, peer-to-peer models are harder to manage. Since there’s no centralized hub, you’d need to configure each computer individually to set up, for example, security software. Thus, peer-to-peer networks are also less secure. One hacked computer is all it takes to hijack the network.

Client/server models, on the other hand, are easier to manage because they take on a centralized approach. You can set up access privileges, firewalls, and proxy servers to boost the network’s security. Thus, a client/server setup is best for large networks over larger distances.

The disadvantage of this approach is that a client/server architecture is more expensive to set up, as you need a powerful server to handle the network load. It also requires a dedicated administrator to manage the server, which adds to payroll.

But the biggest con of a client/server model is that the server is a weak link. If the server goes down, the entire network shuts down. Thus, security is often the most robust at and near the server.

Computer Network Architecture Examples

Let’s take a look at how network architecture works in practice. Let’s use a manufacturing company with various locations globally as an example.

Each location, such as a factory, will have its own network. If the manufacturing site uses Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on its equipment, it will most likely use edge computing. These sensors will be connected via WiFi to an edge gateway device or an on-site server. This can also accept user devices on the factory, such as employee workstations and mobile phones.

These mini networks will then be connected to the company’s wide area network (WAN), often using a client/server architecture. Corporate headquarters will often house the central server, although a server on the cloud is also a possibility these days. Regardless, network administrators on HQ can monitor and manage the whole WAN infrastructure.

The enterprise WAN is also connected to the Internet via a broadband connection, courtesy of their service provider.

Network Architecture Starts with the Right Equipment

Protocols and software matter, but the heart of any good network is quality equipment. Regardless of which architecture you choose, trust Fusion Connect to provide you with the best routers, SD-WAN, wireless access points, and other devices to power up your network. Contact us today to learn more.