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How Routers Work

The Internet is one of the 20th century's greatest communications developments. It allows people around the world to send e-mail to one another in a matter of seconds, and it lets you read, among other things, the articles on HowStuffWorks.com.

We're all used to seeing the various parts of the Internet that come into our homes and offices -- the Web pages, e-mail messages and downloaded files that make the Internet a dynamic and valuable medium. But none of these parts would ever make it to your computer without a piece of the Internet that you've probably never seen. In fact, most people have never stood "face to machine" with the technology most responsible for allowing the Internet to exist at all: the router.

Keeping the Messages Moving

When you send e-mail to a friend on the other side of the country, how does the message know to end up on your friend's computer, rather than on one of the millions of other computers in the world? Much of the work to get a message from one computer to another is done by routers, because they're the crucial devices that let messages flow between networks, rather than within networks.

Let's look at what a very simple router might do. Imagine a small company that makes animated 3-D graphics for local television stations. There are 10 employees of the company, each with a computer. Four of the employees are animators, while the rest are in sales, accounting and management. The animators will need to send lots of very large files back and forth to one another as they work on projects. To do this, they'll use a network.

When one animator sends a file to another, the very large file will use up most of the network's capacity, making the network run very slowly for other users. One of the reasons that a single intensive user can affect the entire network stems from the way that Ethernet works. Each information packet sent from a computer is seen by all the other computers on the local network. Each computer then examines the packet and decides whether it was meant for its address. This keeps the basic plan of the network simple, but has performance consequences as the size of the network or level of network activity increases. To keep the animators' work from interfering with that of the folks in the front office, the company sets up two separate networks, one for the animators and one for the rest of the company. A router links the two networks and connects both networks to the Internet.

Directing Traffic

The router is the only device that sees every message sent by any computer on either of the company's networks. When the animator in our example sends a huge file to another animator, the router looks at the recipient's address and keeps the traffic on the animator's network. When an animator, on the other hand, sends a message to the bookkeeper asking about an expense-account check, then the router sees the recipient's address and forwards the message between the two networks.

One of the tools a router uses to decide where a packet should go is a configuration table. A configuration table is a collection of information, including:

Information on which connections lead to particular groups of addresses
Priorities for connections to be used
Rules for handling both routine and special cases of traffic

A configuration table can be as simple as a half-dozen lines in the smallest routers, but can grow to massive size and complexity in the very large routers that handle the bulk of Internet messages.

A router, then, has two separate but related jobs:

The router ensures that information doesn't go where it's not needed. This is crucial for keeping large volumes of data from clogging the connections of "innocent bystanders."
The router makes sure that information does make it to the intended destination.

In performing these two jobs, a router is extremely useful in dealing with two separate computer networks. It joins the two networks, passing information from one to the other and, in some cases, performing translations of various protocols between the two networks. It also protects the networks from one another, preventing the traffic on one from unnecessarily spilling over to the other. As the number of networks attached to one another grows, the configuration table for handling traffic among them grows, and the processing power of the router is increased. Regardless of how many networks are attached, though, the basic operation and function of the router remains the same. Since the Internet is one huge network made up of tens of thousands of smaller networks, its use of routers is an absolute necessity.

Transmitting Packets

When you make a telephone call to someone on the other side of the country, the telephone system establishes a stable circuit between your telephone and the telephone you're calling. The circuit might involve a half dozen or more steps through copper cables, switches, fiber optics, microwaves and satellites, but those steps are established and remain constant for the duration of the call. This circuit approach means that the quality of the line between you and the person you're calling is consistent throughout the call, but a problem with any portion of the circuit -- maybe a tree falls across one of the lines used, or there's a power problem with a switch -- brings your call to an early and abrupt end. When you send an e-mail message with an attachment to the other side of the country, a very different process is used.

Internet data, whether in the form of a Web page, a downloaded file or an e-mail message, travels over a system known as a packet-switching network. In this system, the data in a message or file is broken up into packages about 1,500 bytes long. Each of these packages gets a wrapper that includes information on the sender's address, the receiver's address, the package's place in the entire message, and how the receiving computer can be sure that the package arrived intact. Each data package, called a packet, is then sent off to its destination via the best available route -- a route that might be taken by all the other packets in the message or by none of the other packets in the message. This might seem very complicated compared to the circuit approach used by the telephone system, but in a network designed for data there are two huge advantages to the packet-switching plan.

The network can balance the load across various pieces of equipment on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis.
If there is a problem with one piece of equipment in the network while a message is being transferred, packets can be routed around the problem, ensuring the delivery of the entire message.

The Path of a Packet

The routers that make up the main part of the Internet can reconfigure the paths that packets take because they look at the information surrounding the data packet, and they tell each other about line conditions, such as delays in receiving and sending data and traffic on various pieces of the network. Not all routers do so many jobs, however. Routers come in different sizes. For example:

If you have enabled Internet connection sharing between two Windows 98-based computers, you're using one of the computers (the computer with the Internet connection) as a simple router. In this instance, the router does so little -- simply looking at data to see whether it's intended for one computer or the other -- that it can operate in the background of the system without significantly affecting the other programs you might be running.
Slightly larger routers, the sort used to connect a small office network to the Internet, will do a bit more. These routers frequently enforce rules concerning security for the office network (trying to secure the network from certain attacks). They handle enough traffic that they're generally stand-alone devices rather than software running on a server.
The largest routers, those used to handle data at the major traffic points on the Internet, handle millions of data packets every second and work to configure the network most efficiently. These routers are large stand-alone systems that have far more in common with supercomputers than with your office server.

Routing Packets: An Example

Let's take a look at a medium-sized router -- the router we use in the HowStuffWorks office. In our case, the router only has two networks to worry about: The office network, with about 50 computers and devices, and the Internet. The office network connects to the router through an Ethernet connection, specifically a 100 base-T connection (100 base-T means that the connection is 100 megabits per second, and uses a twisted-pair cable like an 8-wire version of the cable that connects your telephone to the wall jack). There are two connections between the router and our ISP (Internet service provider). One is a T-1 connection that supports 1.5 megabits per second. The other is an ISDN line that supports 128 kilobits per second. The configuration table in the router tells it that all out-bound packets are to use the T-1 line, unless it's unavailable for some reason (perhaps a backhoe digs up the cable). If it can't be used, then outbound traffic goes on the ISDN line. This way, the ISDN line is held as "insurance" against a problem with the faster T-1 connection, and no action by a staff member is required to make the switch in case of trouble. The router's configuration table knows what to do.

In addition to routing packets from one point to another, the HowStuffWorks router has rules limiting how computers from outside the network can connect to computers inside the network, how the HowStuffWorks network appears to the outside world, and other security functions. While most companies also have a special piece of hardware or software called a firewall to enforce security, the rules in a router's configuration table are important to keeping a company's (or family's) network secure.

One of the crucial tasks for any router is knowing when a packet of information stays on its local network. For this, it uses a mechanism called a subnet mask. The subnet mask looks like an IP address and usually reads "" This tells the router that all messages with the sender and receiver having an address sharing the first three groups of numbers are on the same network, and shouldn't be sent out to another network. Here's an example: The computer at address sends a request to the computer at The router, which sees all the packets, matches the first three groups in the address of both sender and receiver (15.57.31), and keeps the packet on the local network. (You'll learn more about how the addresses work in the next section.)

Between the time these words left the Howstuffworks.com server and the time they showed up on your monitor, they passed through several routers (it's impossible to know ahead of time exactly how many "several" might be) that helped them along the way. It's very similar to the process that gets a postal letter from your mailbox to the mailbox of a friend, with routers taking the place of the mail sorters and handlers along the way.

Knowing Where to Send Data

Routers are one of several types of devices that make up the "plumbing" of a computer network. Hubs, switches and routers all take signals from computers or networks and pass them along to other computers and networks, but a router is the only one of these devices that examines each bundle of data as it passes and makes a decision about exactly where it should go. To make these decisions, routers must first know about two kinds of information: addresses and network structure.

When a friend mails a birthday card to be delivered to you at your house, he probably uses an address that looks something like this:

Joe Smith 123 Maple Street Smalltown, FL 45678 

The address has several pieces, each of which helps the people in the postal service move the letter along to your house. The ZIP code can speed the process up; but even without the ZIP code, the card will get to your house as long as your friend includes your state, city and street address. You can think of this address as a logical address because it describes a way someone can get a message to you. This logical address is connected to a physical address that you generally only see when you're buying or selling a piece of property. The survey plot of the land and house, with latitude, longitude or section bearings, gives the legal description, or address, of the property.

Logical Addresses

Every piece of equipment that connects to a network, whether an office network or the Internet, has a physical address. This is an address that's unique to the piece of equipment that's actually attached to the network cable. For example, if your desktop computer has a network interface card (NIC) in it, the NIC has a physical address permanently stored in a special memory location. This physical address, which is also called the MAC address (for Media Access Control) has two parts, each 3 bytes long. The first 3 bytes identify the company that made the NIC. The second 3 bytes are the serial number of the NIC itself.

The interesting thing is that your computer can have several logical addresses at the same time. Of course, you're used to having several "logical addresses" bring messages to one physical address. Your mailing address, telephone number (or numbers) and home e-mail address all work to bring messages to you when you're in your house. They are simply used for different types of messages -- different networks, so to speak.

Logical addresses for computer networks work in exactly the same way. You may be using the addressing schemes, or protocols, from several different types of networks simultaneously. If you're connected to the Internet (and if you're reading this, you probably are), then you have an address that's part of the TCP/IP network protocol. If you also have a small network set up to exchange files between several family computers, then you may also be using the Microsoft NetBEUI protocol. If you connect to your company's network from home, then your computer may have an address that follows Novell's IPX/SPX protocol. All of these can coexist on your computer. Since the driver software that allows your computer to communicate with each network uses resources like memory and CPU time, you don't want to load protocols you won't need, but there's no problem with having all the protocols your work requires running at the same time.

On the next page, you’ll learn how to find your computer’s MAC address.

MAC Addresses

The chances are very good that you'll never see the MAC address for any of your equipment because the software that helps your computer communicate with a network takes care of matching the MAC address to a logical address. The logical address is what the network uses to pass information along to your computer.

If you'd like to see the MAC address and logical address used by the Internet Protocol (IP) for your Windows computer, you can run a small program that Microsoft provides. Go to the "Start" menu, click on "Run," and in the window that appears, type WINIPCFG (IPCONFIG/ALL for Windows 2000/XP). When the gray window appears, click on "More Info" and you'll get this sort of information:
Windows 98 IP Configuration:


DNS Servers:


Node Type: Broadcast

NetBIOS Scope ID:

IP Routing Enabled: Yes

WINS Proxy Enabled: No

NetBIOS Resolution Uses DNS: No
Ethernet adapter:

Description: PPP Adapter

Physical Address: 44-45-53-54-12-34

DHCP Enabled: Yes

IP Address:

Subnet Mask:

Default Gateway:

DHCP Server:

Primary WINS Server:

Secondary WINS Server: Lease Obtained: 01 01 80 12:00:00 AM

Lease Expires: 01 01 80 12:00:00 AM

There's a lot of information here that will vary depending on exactly how your connection to the Internet is established, but the physical address is the MAC address of the adapter queried by the program. The IP address is the logical address assigned to your connection by your ISP or network administrator. You'll see the addresses of other servers, including the DNS servers that keep track of all the names of Internet sites (so you can type "www.howstuffworks.com" rather than "") and the gateway server that you connect to in order to reach the Internet. When you've finished looking at the information, click OK. (Note: For security reasons, some of the information about this connection to the Internet has been changed. You should be very careful about giving your computer's information to other people -- with your address and the right tools, an unscrupulous person could, in some circumstances, gain access to your personal 
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