Essential things to know before you start

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Learning computer networking is not horribly difficult but it does require some initial understanding of the electrical components required to make networking 'work.'

  • Wire
The most common kind of wire used for computer networking today is called "category 5" or "category 6", abbreviated as cat5 or cat6. This wire is specifically designed to carry low voltage digital signals over a distance between a sending network device and a receiving device. You cannot substitute speaker wire or other kinds of wire in its place because the 8 wires that are inside a jacketed cat5 cable are paired, and each pair is twisted together at different twist intervals to help minimize noise and interaction between wire pairs. Cat5 cable contains either solid core wire or stranded wire, but in either case, the gauge of the wire is generally 24 gauge and has very thin insulation. Because it's rather tiny wire and does not have much insulation, cat5 wire is not a good choice for carrying high current or voltage loads. Cat5 wire uses plastic "crimp" plug connectors on the ends, making it easy to plug network devices together.
Extremely important: Just because a cable has a cat5 crimp plug on the end, or because a device has a jack that looks like a cat5 plug can plug into it, do not automatically assume that it is a network connection or a network device. This hobby uses cat5 cable for both networking and for other low-voltage electrical connections between devices that are NOT actual network devices but may be serial communications and/or TTL signaling between various lighting equipment. Before plugging something in, find out what kind of devices are involved first.
Another kind of networking wire is coaxial wire, which is similar to TV coax cable. Generally RG58U is used, but because category 5 wiring is so much easier, less expensive and provides more options, coax is rarely used anymore. A coax-based network is typically called a 10-base-2 network and uses T-connectors and 50-ohm terminators to connect devices together. A serious drawback to 10-b-2 is that if a break in the network wire occurs, all the computers on that wire go down.
  • Switches, Hubs and Routers
To have a network of multiple devices, one generally needs a way to interconnect them. Interconnections are the work of a network switches, hubs and routers. These devices require power, which is usually provided by simple wall warts. There are differences between the devices' functionalities and it's important to understand what they are. Almost exclusively these devices provide connections via convenient RJ45 plugs and cat5 wiring but some provide coaxial connections, too.
SWITCH: Between a hub and a switch, this is the preferred device, is generally faster and is 'smart' in the sense that it remembers the connections between devices and automatically reconnects them for increased efficiency and communication speed.
HUB: This provides the same plug-in convenience that a switch does but it does not have the 'smart' electronics to remember connections. Consequently, traffic going through a hub has to search for and reestablish connections as needed which generally creates more network traffic, usually resulting in slower overall network performance.
ROUTER: To differentiate between devices on a network and because there cannot be two devices on a network that have the same address, there must usually be some kind of traffic control system that assigns specific addresses to each device so that they may communicate with either other. The router performs this function so that communication "routes" can be created between devices. A router can also negotiate traffic between two different networks, such as between your local network and the internet. In this way, the router can translate and route data from one network to the other while keeping addresses completely unique. Many kinds of routers also incorporate convenient switch capability by providing four or more RJ45 jacks for other local network components. Dedicated routers normally include only two network connections: one for the WAN ("wide area network" or Internet) and one for the LAN ("local area network" or home network). Usually there is only one router on a LAN, and multiple switches and/or hubs can be connected to it, providing the capability to interconnect hundreds or even many thousands of devices.
  • Wireless
A LAN (local area network) doesn't have to be wired with cat5 or coax cabling; it can also be wireless. Some routers have miniature transmitters/receivers built into them so that their functionality can be extended to other wireless devices that operate in the same radio frequency range and channel. These frequencies and channels are predefined by the federal government for consistency and control. Wireless communication speeds are generally not quite as quick as wired connections and the very nature of using radio waves introduces the possibility of interference that is usually absent with wired connections. Nonetheless, wireless opens the door for unprecedented flexibility and convenience.
All this comes at a cost, however, insofar as wireless adds yet another layer or two of complexity to the networking pie. For example, there are wireless routers, wireless access points and wireless bridges, each of which has slightly different connectivity nuances to meet different needs. Space doesn't permit explaining everything in detail, but the following descriptions should provide some helpful information:
Wireless Router: As its name implies, this is essentially a wired router with added wireless capability.
Wireless Access Point: Similar to a router but usually is not used to provide routing addresses; a wireless access point (AP) provides a way for wireless devices to connect to an existing wired network.
Wireless Bridge: Similar to a wireless access point, this can provide a translation function between two different networks, each having a different address or using a different communication protocol.