What makes a network?

To make a network, you need nodes and connections (sometimes called links) between them. Linking up the nodes means making some sort of a temporary or permanent connection between them. In the last decade or so, wireless connections have become one of the most popular ways of doing this, especially in homes. In offices, wired connections are still more commonplace—not least because they are generally faster and more secure and because many newer offices have network cabling already in place.

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Photo: If your laptop doesn't have a network card, you can simply plug in a PCMCIA adapter like this one. The adapter has a network card built into it.

Apart from computers, peripherals, and the connections between them, what else do you need? Each node on a network needs a special circuit known as a network card (or, more formally, a network interface card or NIC) to tell it how to interact with the network. Most new computers have network cards built in as standard. If you have an older computer or laptop, you may have to fit a separate plug-in circuit board (or, in a laptop, add a PCMCIA card) to make your machine talk to a network. Each network card has its own separate numeric identifier, known as a MAC (media access control) code or LAN MAC address. A MAC code is a bit like a phone number: any machine on the network can communicate with another one by sending a message quoting its MAC code. In a similar way, MAC codes can be used to control which machines on a network can access files and other shared resources. For example, I've set up my wireless link to the Internet so that only two MAC codes can ever gain access to it (restricting access to the network cards built into my two computers). That helps to stop other people in nearby buildings (or in the street) hacking into my connection or using it by mistake.

The bigger you make a network, the more extra parts you need to add to make it function efficiently. Signals can travel only so far down cables or over wireless links so, if you want to make a big network, you have to add in devices called repeaters—effectively signal boosters. You might also need bridges, switches, and routers—devices that help to link together networks (or the parts of networks, which are known as segments), regulate the traffic between them, and forward traffic from one part of a network to another part.

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