10 key concepts that help you understand networking basics

Updated 30 September 2022

Computer networking can be an essential skill for many IT professionals, including network engineers and systems administrators. As an aspiring IT specialist, there are many industry terms and concepts you can review to improve your understanding of the field. Even if you have an educational background in IT, reviewing these concepts before a job interview can help you impress the hiring manager. In this article, we discuss computer networking basics and explore 10 networking concepts to review if you want to improve your knowledge of this area of IT.

What is computer networking?

Before you discover the terms that can help you better understand networking basics, it's important that you take a closer look at the definition of computer networking. Computer networking is a field of engineering that studies the connectivity of devices, including laptops, tablets, physical servers and other equipment. It concentrates on how these devices exchange data and share resources with each other.

Related: What does a network engineer do? (Plus how to become one)

Computer networking basics

If you aspire to work in IT, understanding the computer networking basics can help you to make a valuable contribution to a team. Computer networks help organisations operate virtually and are effective for connecting different parts of the company to one another. Modern networks also provide clients with data security solutions that network engineers implement and oversee. The basics include:

1. Switch

A switch is an essential element of a network, which serves to connect devices to each other. They act as controllers, which you'd use when you want to allow devices to exchange information. In networking, there are two key types of switches. They can either be physical devices that manage hardware networks, known as on-site switches, or software-based devices, known as cloud-managed switches.

2. Router

A router is a device that connects two or more networks. There are two key functions of routers. Firstly, they help manage traffic between networks by forwarding data packets to intended IP addresses. Their second function is that they allow devices to use an internet connection. Typically, one router can help several devices to connect, either via a cable or wirelessly.

Related: What Is Professional Networking? (Learn and Master It)

3. Local area network (LAN)

LAN is a term that describes a collection of devices, which all connect to the same physical location. For example, this refers to networks of companies that prefer working with hardware systems and servers. Depending on the user's needs, LANs can be small, such as home networks, and large, such as networks that entire organisations use. Typically, a LAN consists of various physical elements, including cables, switches, routers and access points.

4. Wide area network (WAN)

A WAN is a large network which enables the connectivity of devices from different locations around the world. It's typically a collection of LANs or other networks that aim to communicate with each other to connect devices. While it's often the IT department's responsibility to maintain LANs, WANs usually rely on connections that telecommunication carriers provide.

5. Wireless access point (WAP)

A wireless access point is a physical device or node on a LAN. It allows devices to connect to the Internet through a physical connection or a wireless standard, such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Many users choose to include additional WAPs to their network because these devices also serve to boost the network connectivity from the router. Thanks to this feature, users can connect more devices to the network wirelessly, even if they're not close by. For example, one can use it to connect to a router that sits on a different floor in the same building.

6. Cloud network

Cloud networking is a specific field of computer networking, which allows organisations to safely store and manage their resources online in a cloud platform. There are various types of cloud platforms that they can choose, depending on their data requirements. The most common types of cloud networks include:

  • Public clouds: Public clouds are external cloud environments which the end-user doesn't own. Many tech companies that develop Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) products provide users with additional access to a private cloud, making it a cheap and easily accessible solution for storing information online.

  • Private clouds: Unlike public clouds, private clouds serve to meet the data storing requirements of a single user or a group of users, such as an entire organisation. It's common for companies to build private clouds on servers that external providers own.

  • Hybrid clouds: Hybrid clouds combine various network environments, which connect through a LAN, WAN or a virtual private network (VPN). Typically, they comprise at least one private and one public cloud, but it's also possible that they consist of two or more clouds of the same type.

  • Multiclouds: Multiclouds are environments that involve more than one cloud service from more than one provider. This means that all hybrid clouds are multiclouds, but not all multiclouds are hybrid clouds.

Related: How to become a cloud engineer (with skills and salaries)

7. Internet protocol address (IP address)

An IP address is a numerical label and an identifier that the network assigns to each device in that network, including a computer, printer or tablet. Assigning IP addresses to devices allows networks to identify those devices and their types. Typically, IP addresses come in a form of four numbers, with each number ranging from 0 to 255. This means that the smaller IP address a device could have is and the largest is

There are different types of IP addresses, most commonly, private and public ones. When your device's IP address is public, anyone on the Internet can have access to it and determine your location. When you set your IP address to private, you can hide your location and make sure random users have no access to your information.

Related: What is a computer science degree? (With skills and careers)

8. Client-server architecture

A client-server architecture is a networking model that sees every device on a network either as a server or a client. It forms request-response relationships between devices, relying on sending the request to a programme to access the service that the server made accessible. For example, when a user wants to use a browser to access a webpage, their device sends a request to the server to ask for access to that website. Then, the server sends back information allowing the user to access that website.

Related: How to become an IT architect: a comprehensive guide

9. Peer-to-peer (P2P) architecture

Peer-to-peer architecture is a common network architecture, in which each node has the same capabilities. It differs from client-server architecture because it doesn't require a complex server to operate. Instead, each device can access information directly from another device. P2P architecture is common in online gaming and file sharing.

10. Network topology

Network topology is a term that describes the arrangement of nodes and links in a network. Learning how they work and ways to configure them can help you achieve different connectivity outcomes. There are various types of network topology, including:

  • Bus topology: Also known as line topology, bus topology connects all devices by one central or coaxial cable. In this type of network, every device receives all network traffic, which means they all have equal transmission priority.

  • Ring topology: In a ring topology, each note connects to exactly two other nodes, which allows them to form a single continuous network connection, known as a ring. In this type of network, data packets travel from one node to the other until they reach their destination.

  • Star topology: In a star topology, each component connects to a central node, which can be a router, hub or switch. This means that the central node acts as a server that connects other nodes and sees them as clients.

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