In our previous post we explored the various types of home networks. But to bring the elements of a smart home together you need to get them talking to one another. In this article we’ll look at your options.
Three Ways Computers Communicate
The networked devices in your home are part of a local area network (LAN) and how they talk to one another is similar to a dinner party. One person can engage the whole table to give a toast, a group at one end of the table can converse among themselves, or two people can have a private conversation. Other than the private conversation, as long as you’re within earshot of whomever is speaking, you’re hearing the message whether you want to or not.
That’s why there are different devices for networking that sort out the various conversations at its table. Here’s a look at them and how they work.
A hub is the simplest type of network connection. All it does is receive data and spread it to every connected device…like the toastmaster does at the table. That’s fine as long as everyone’s okay with their time and attention being monopolized. But what if you have a better use for your time than listening to a boring toast that has no meaning to you? Then you need a switch.
Like a hub, a switch is connected to every device on the network, but unlike many humans, it thinks a second before it speaks. By listening to network traffic, it learns who’s who, if they’re interested, and sends it to the desired recipient without bothering the other devices on the network. This is done using Media Access Control (MAC) addresses, unique identifiers for each device the switch has gotten to know (usually quickly) by watching who is speaking to whom. This cuts down traffic on the network, reducing bandwidth use and speeding up communication. It also limits communication to the intended recipients, so no bored guests or eavesdropping.
Switches have come down in price to the point they’re about the same cost as hubs, so unless you need a hub for a specific reason (see below), you’re better off with a switch.
If a switch is a smarter hub, a router is a smarter switch. Much smarter, in fact, since most routers are small computers themselves. They understand, manipulate, and route the data passing through them, similarly to a switch, but also perform other important tasks.
To use the internet, devices must have an ID known as an Internet Protocol Address (IP address) to identify it to other devices. The router will assign IP addresses to your various network devices (computers, smart phones, refrigerators, etc.) like a switch uses MAC addresses, but when it connects to the internet, it also replaces your local IP addresses with the one assigned by your service provider. Then using a process called Network Address Translation (NAT), the router determines what passes along the network and what doesn’t. Like a firewall, this prevents outside computers from talking to your devices unless you initiate the process, preventing unwanted intrusions.
So What Do You Need?
Most home networks will do fine with just a router. Your service provider likely has one included with your subscription package along with a wireless modem. And you probably pay a fee for it. The advantage is that you’ll usually get “free” upgrades and tech support. The downside is you’ll typically pay more than buying one of your own.
But before you rush out to buy a router to save money, be sure the device you buy is compatible with the system you’re on. And realize that your service provider may no longer offer support or upgrades, but your device manufacturer may.
Occasionally, smart devices like light bulbs and thermostats may also require a separate hub to integrate with your home network. Before you buy any smart device, be sure to check their connectivity requirements.
A Word About Security
Any network becomes vulnerable when it connects to an outside source like the internet. Regardless of your network type, it should be protected by a good firewall, antivirus software, encryption, and strong passwords.
If you need to add or change a home network, call Allstar Electrical at (303) 399-7420 or visit our website. Then use our handy on-line forms to request an estimate or set up an appointment. We’ve served the Front Range for over 15 years and are top-rated by the BBB.