What is a router?
Routers are present in every home, office, store, and restaurant. They are at the very core of internet connectivity. But just because people use them every day doesn’t mean they understand what they are and how they work.
So, what is a router?
Summary: In simple terms; you can think of routers as traffic cops that manage data traffic instead of actual traffic. Explained more complexly; a router is a gateway device used to intercept, analyze, and send data packets between various devices on a network. Whether physical or virtual, a router looks at destination IP addresses for data packets and uses packet information and a routing table to identify the most efficient way of forwarding the data packets to their destinations.
Router Types You Need to Know
Although there are two main categories of routers, either physical devices installed on network endpoints or virtual gateways, five types of routers are used to streamline network traffic.
A wireless router is a physical device that creates a wireless signal. Devices within range can use the signal to connect to the internet.
Router examples of this type would be the wireless routers most people use at home, the ones in malls, coffee shops, and any other place that allows you to connect to the internet without using a LAN cable.
While some wireless routers allow anyone to connect and use their signals, many require authentication. Adding a simple user ID and password authentication protocol provides extra security, meaning not everyone can connect to the network and potentially access its devices.
Unlike a wireless router, a wired router allows devices to connect to a network using an Ethernet cable. Wired routers are very common in offices, banks, and households.
The main advantage of using a wired router is having more bandwidth, additional download and upload speeds, and lower latency. Wireless connections are more limiting.
Another benefit to using a wired connection is to avoid having your devices join a public network that virtually anyone can access.
The interesting part is that a wired router can also be a wireless router if it has a Wi-Fi access point. That’s why most people buy routers with dual capabilities for their homes. It allows every device in the house to connect to the network, regardless of positioning, without the need for extensive cable management.
A virtual router or logical router doesn’t exist in a physical format, but it is a default element of computer sharing networks. Despite not being a hardware component, it can mimic the tasks of its hardware counterpart and may even take over if another primary router is disabled.
The purpose of logical router software is to enable servers and computers to share data packets similarly to how wired routers do. The main advantage of virtual routers is their scalability and usefulness when creating remote office environments.
A core router is designed to collect, analyze, and forward data packets inside a network. Unlike other router types, core routers don’t distribute packets between multiple networks. Because of this limitation in attributes, a core router is considered to have the highest performance.
Core routers get their name from where they are installed, which is the internet backbone, also known as the core.
Some router examples include the devices used by internet service providers (ISPs).
Edge routers are gateway devices installed on the boundary of networks. While they are classified as low-capacity devices, these routers make the connection between internal and external networks.
Due to the tasks they perform, they’re also known as access routers.
An edge router will often use a border gateway protocol (BGP) to enable connections with remote networks.
Unlike other types of routers, an edge router can be classified in two subtypes.
A subscriber edge router acts as a border device and is owned and operated by the end user.
A label edge router is the gateway device between LAN and WAN networks and the internet.
Understanding Routing Protocols
Different types of routers use specific routing protocols to identify other network devices or other routers. Based on the protocols, the routers can make dynamic decisions on how to manage the data packet forwarding process.
Here are some examples of routing protocols.
Open Shortest Path First
The OSPF protocol calculates each packet’s ideal route to reach its destination when moving across multiple connected networks.
Interior Gateway Routing Protocol
An IGRP is used to indicate how routing information should be communicated among different gateways and multiple devices within the same network.
Border Gateway Protocol
A BGP, often used by edge routers, is designed to manage the route of packets over the internet by exchanging information between multiple edge routers.
This protocol can create network stability even if an internet connection drops, because it can repurpose other network connections to handle the packet forwarding process.
Exterior Gateway Protocol
The EGP determines how routing information should be exchanged among neighboring gateway hosts with different routers. It also has its uses in routing table information exchanges from one host to another via the internet.
Enhanced Interior Gateway Routing Protocol
An EIGRP will be used when routers can’t determine a routing path for packets. This protocol allows communications with neighboring routers until one manages to find a path.
Routing Information Protocol
A RIP decides how different routers are allowed to share information between devices on a local area network. Unlike other protocols, the RIP is limited in its capacity and only useful on small networks.
What Is a Routing Table?
Routers couldn’t redirect data packets efficiently simply based on the information contained in their headers. Determining the best path requires analyzing that information and checking it against a routing table.
Routing tables contain IP addresses for the destination host, subnet mask information, extrovert interface information, and the IP addresses of other routers that must decide how the data packet should make its way to the destination network or device.
Differences Between Hubs, Switches, and Routers
Because routers are commonly used network devices and can perform somewhat similar tasks to hubs and switches, these devices are often mistaken for one another.
However, a hub is one of the most simplistic networking devices. Its primary function is connecting computers and multiple devices together. Unlike a router, a hub doesn’t use routing tables to determine how and where to send data. It may still be able to identify errors and collisions, but using it to broadcast information via multiple ports can raise security concerns.
Switches are hardware networking devices that can also connect devices, but handle data packets differently. Switches can assign only one device that receives the data packet and not share that information with other devices on the network. In contrast, hubs broadcast the packets to every connected device.
This is why switches are more efficient. They lessen the burden on the bandwidth and increase network efficiency.
Routers operate in a league of their own compared to hubs and switches, because they’re not limited to local networks and devices. In simplest terms, routers have more features and additional capabilities that exceed the scope of a hub or switch.
Benefits of Using Routers
There are a couple of great reasons to use a router for personal and business activities.
Unlike other networking devices, routers can feature built-in security means. Even the data packet route is secure because the packets can’t be read by multiple stops along the way, only by their intended destination network or device.
Networks with multiple workstations can become bottlenecked if multiple devices share the same connections or cables.
Routers can enable the creation of two, three, or more subnetworks with fewer workstations. Hence, the traffic load will be less intense. Thanks to this, businesses can optimize their workflow, give faster responses to customers, and enjoy more uptime.
Increased Networking Range
Routers overcome cable length limitations and other onsite challenges by repeating the signal and allowing other devices to connect to the network. Boosting the networking range can help manage operating costs and improve scalability. An example of how businesses do this is by enabling shared printers, shared servers, and other systems that streamline device access for multiple employees.
This type of infrastructure is not dependent on constantly upgrading or replacing the technology. Thus, it’s cheaper for a small business to maintain.
Don’t Underestimate the Importance of a Good Traffic Cop
While routers are rather complex devices capable of performing advanced tasks regarding network traffic management, it’s easy to see their value.
Routers offer network security, ensure data packets get where they need to, and do so in the most efficient way. They’re used as much for convenience as for streamlining and optimizing business operations.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which type of router is best?
Given its flexibility, a wireless router is probably the best choice, as it often has enough Ethernet ports to support multiple wired connections too.
Is a router a modem?
No. Modems can connect a network to the internet. But routers allow multiple devices to use that internet connection simultaneously.
Is a bridge different from a router?
Yes. Bridges can only connect two LAN networks, and use a different type of data transfer called frames. Routers can connect multiple LAN and WAN networks while using data packet transfer protocols.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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