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A Guide to Network Topology

A network topology is how computers, printers, and other devices are connected over a
network. It describes the layout of wires, devices, and routing paths. Essentially there are
six

different common topologies you should familiarize yourself with: Bus, Ring, Star,
Extended Star, Hierarchical, and Mesh.

Although it is usually easier to start connecting wires and setting up your network, you’ll
appreciate the level of organization these models provide- especially when your network
grows in size. And if you’re looking to do well on networking exams, consider these
topologies essential to both learn and memorize.

Bus Topology

The bus topology was fairly popular in the early years of networking. It’s easy to setup-
not to mention inexpensive. All devices on the Bus Topology are connected using a
single cable. If you need help remembering how the Bus Topology operates, think of it as
the route a bus takes throughout a city.
It is extremely important to note that both ends of the main cable need to be terminated. If
there is no terminator, the signal will bounce back when it reaches the end. The result: a
bunch of collisions and noise that will disrupt the entire network.

The Bus Topology is less common these days. In fact, this topology is commonly used to
network computers via coaxial cable- when’s the last time you can say you’ve done that?

Ring Topology

The Ring Topology is a very interesting topology indeed. It is a lot more complex that it
may seem- it looks like just a bunch of computers connected in a circle! But behind the
scenes, the Ring Topology is providing a collision-free and redundant networking
environment.

Note that since there is no end on a Ring Topology, no terminators are necessary. A
frame travels along the circle, stopping at each node. If that node wants to transmit data,
it adds destination address and data information to the frame. The frame then travels
around the ring, searching for the destination node. When it’s found, the data is taken out
of the frame and the cycle continues.

But wait- it gets better! We have two types of Ring Topologies in networking: the one we
just reviewed, and Dual-Ring Topology. In a Dual-Ring Topology, we use two rings
instead of one. This creates a sense of redundancy so that if any point in the network
fails, the second ring will (hopefully) be able to pick up the slack. If both rings were to
fail at separate locations, we can even use the opposite ring at each point to “patch” the
downed node.
In the above diagram, you can see that although the outer ring and inner ring failed at
separate parts of the network. Thanks to redundancy, the network is still fully operational.
This is generally more expensive to implement than other topologies- so it isn’t as
common as the Star or Extended Star Topology.

Star / Extended Star Topology

One of the most popular topologies for Ethernet LANs is the star and extended star
topology. It is easy to setup, it’s relatively cheap, and it creates more redundancy than the
Bus Topology.

The Star Topology works by connecting each node to a central device. This central
connection allows us to have a fully functioning network even when other devices fail.
The only real threat to this topology is that if the central device goes down, so does the
entire network.

The Extended Star Topology is a bit more advanced. Instead of connecting all devices to
a central unit, we have sub-central devices added to the mix. This allows more
functionality for organization and subnetting- yet also creates more points of failure. In
many cases it is impractical to use a Star Topology since networks can span an entire
building. In this case, the Extended Star Topology is all but necessary to prevent
degraded signals.

Whereas the Star Topology is better suited for small networks, the Extended Star
Topology is generally better for the larger ones.

Hierarchical Topology
The Hierarchical Topology is much like the Star Topology, except that it doesn’t use a
central node. Although Cisco prefers to call this Hierarchical, you may see it as instead
referred to as the Tree Topology.

This type of topology suffers from the same centralization flaw as the Star Topology. If
the device that is on top of the chain fails, consider the entire network down. Obviously
this is impractical and not used a great deal in real applications.

Mesh Topology

If you haven’t noticed, we’ve had a little problem with a fully redundant network. The
Dual-Ring Topology helped, but it wasn’t perfect. If you are looking for a truly redundant
network, look no further than the Mesh Topology. You will see two main types of Mesh
Topology: Full-Mesh and Partial-Mesh.

The Full-Mesh Topology connects every single node together. This will create the most
redundant and reliable network around- especially for large networks. If any link fails, we
(should) always have another link to send data through. So why don’t we use it more
often? Simple: how many wires would it take to link a computer to every device on a
network of over 100 devices? Now multiply that for every device on the network- not a
pleasant number is it? Obviously you should only use this in smaller networks.
Alternatively, you could try a Partial-Mesh Topology.

The Partial-Mesh Topology is much like the full-mesh, only we don’t connect each
device to every other device on the network. Instead we only implement a few alternate
routes. After all- what are the odds a network will fail in multiple times near the same
device?

You’ll see the Partial-Mesh Topology in backbone environments, since these are often
vital networks that depend on redundancy to keep services running (such as an Internet
Service Provider). Full-Mesh Topology is commonly seen in WANs between routers, yet
also on smaller networks that depend on a redundant connection.