What Is A Router?

A router is a device that forward data packets along networks. A router connects at least two networks, and a common example of that would be connecting the computers in your home or business with your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP)network.

Routers are located at gateways, the places where two or more networks connect, and they’re the critical devices that keep data flowing between networks and that keep the networks connected to the Internet. When data travels between locations on a network or from one network to a second network, the router sees and directs the data to the correct location. Routers typically use special protocols to communicate with each other and determine the best route between any two networks.

The Internet itself is a global network connecting millions of computers and smaller networks — so you can see how crucial the role of a router is to our way of communicating and computing.

Why Would I Need a Router?

Many people set-up a network (generally referred to as a LAN, or Local Area Network. A wireless network is called a WLAN, or wireless LAN) in their homes to connect all their computers to the Internet without having to pay for a full subscription fee to their ISP for each computer on the network.

In many instances, an ISP will let you use a router and connect multiple computers to a single Internet connection and pay a nominal fee for each additional computer sharing the connection.

Routers for Home and Small Business

Not all routers are created equal since their job will differ slightly from network to network. Additionally, you may look at a piece of hardware and not even realize it is a router. What defines a router is not its shape, color, size or manufacturer, but its job function of routing data packets between computers. A cable or DSL modem, which routes data between your PC and your ISP can be considered a router. In its most basic form, a router could simply be one of two computers running the Windows 98 (or higher) operating system connected together using a feature called Internet Connection Sharing (ICS).  In this scenario, the computer that’s connected to the Internet acts as the router for the second computer to obtain its Internet connection.

Going a step up from ICS, we have a category of hardware routers that are used to perform the same basic task as ICS, albeit with more features and functions. Often called broadband or Internet connection sharing routers, these routers allow you to share one Internet connection between multiple computers

Broadband or ICS routers will look a bit different depending on the manufacturer or brand, but wired routers are generally a small box-shaped hardware device with ports on the front or back into which you plug each computer, along with a port to plug in your broadband modem. These connection ports let the router send the data packets between each of the computers, and it also directs the data going to and from the Internet.

Depending on the type of modem and Internet connection you have, you could also choose a router with phone or fax machine ports. A wired network broadband router will typically have a built-in switch to allow for expansion. These routers also support an Internet standard called network address translation, or NAT, which allows all of your computers to share a single address on the Internet.

Wireless broadband routers look much the same as wired routers, with the obvious exception of the antenna on top, and the lack of cable running from the PCs to the router when it is all set up. Creating a wireless network adds a few more security concerns as opposed to wired networks, but wireless broadband routers do have extra levels of embedded security.

Along with the features found in wired routers, wireless routers provide extra security options that protect your network from prying eyes and unauthorized visitors. These include Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and wireless MAC address filtering. WPA is a very strong encryption code that prevents outsiders from hacking into your network. Each computer on your network has unique identifier called a MAC address, and it’s advisable to have your router filter it, so that it can’t be identified outside of your network.

Additionally, most wireless routers can be configured for “invisible mode” so that your neighbor can’t piggyback on to your Internet access or a hacker can’t simply drive by your home or business and access your network. Wireless routers will often include ports for Ethernet connections as well. If you’re unfamiliar with Wi-Fi and how it works, it is important to note that choosing a wireless router may mean you need to beef up your Wi-Fi knowledge-base. After a wireless network is established, you may possibly need to spend more time on monitoring and security than one would with a wired LAN.

Wired and wireless routers and the resulting network can claim pros and cons over each other, but they are somewhat equal overall in terms of function and performance. Both wired and wireless routers have high reliability and reasonably good security (without adding additional products). However —and this bears repeating — invest time in learning more about wireless security. Generally, a wired network will be cheaper overall, but setting up the router and running cables to the computers is a bit more difficult than setting up the wireless network. Of course, mobility on a wired system is very limited while wireless lets you access the Internet and your network from practically anywhere in your home or business.

Adapted from webopedia.com.

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