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Network architecture: Definition, types, and its future

Using devices to access various websites, work, connect, and search for information relies on network architecture. Just as you need electricity to run a device, a network requires a structure and a complex web of hardware and software. This is all part of its architecture, and this article will cover how it works, what components it is made of, what types of network architecture exist, its pros and cons, and, finally, what’s in store for the future of network architecture.

Network architecture: Definition, types, and its future

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What is network architecture?

Network architecture is a logistical and structural layout that shows how network devices are connected and the rules that regulate data transfer between them.

Its specific design depends on the size and purpose of the network, so there are many ways to build it. For example, there’s a considerable difference between wide area networks (WAN) and local area networks (LAN). LAN contains a large group of interconnected networks over extensive physical distances. Meanwhile, WAN only has a few computers in, for example, a small office. The massive size gap requires an entirely different type of architecture.

It’s important to note that internet architecture is different from network architecture. Internet architecture represents the protocols and the structure that make the global network work. Meanwhile, network architecture refers to a specific network’s structure and the connectivity of its devices and services.

Since the computer network architecture governs the structure of the network, its performance relates directly to the quality of the architecture. The more users there are on the network, the more important its arrangement becomes. The entire network will suffer slowdowns if an organization chooses the wrong equipment and transmission media for its server load. It will also suffer if other factors are not up to par, like bandwidth, software, and the overall setup of the network.

Most network architectures use the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model, separating the infrastructure into seven layers. Each has its own function and can only interact with the layer above or below it.

For instance, layer 1 handles the transmission of raw bitstreams through the physical medium. Layer 4, or the transport layer, guarantees a reliable data transfer. At the top is the application layer that enables the user to interact with host-based and user-facing applications effectively.

The OSI model for network infrastructure facilitates troubleshooting because administrators can easily find and isolate problematic areas.

What are the types of network architecture?

The number of ways we can design a network’s architecture is too big to define. That said, these methods still fall into a couple of specific network architecture types.

The two most common types are peer-to-peer and client-server models. These types can also be combined into a third hybrid variant, which is becoming more popular. Aside from these types, it is important to understand software-defined networking and cloud-based networks. Let’s review them.

Peer-to-peer architecture

A peer-to-peer network consists of devices with equal responsibilities and capabilities (some of which may vary depending on the protocol or application in usage), hence the term peer. This type of network infrastructure is decentralized — it has no central server, and user devices communicate directly. Tasks and files are shared across the whole network, so every device (node) is a network storage drive.

Peer-to-peer networks provide more resilience than centralized networks. A decentralized system is harder to get compromised than a centralized one because it doesn’t have a single central server. That’s why blockchain technology, based on this infrastructure, stands out for its high level of security. Bear in mind though that their resilience also depends on the specific implementation and redundancy measures in place.

However, a peer-to-peer network architecture is mainly used for smaller networks, like those at home. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that peer-to-peer architecture is limited to smaller networks because they are sometimes used in large networks and certain distributed applications.

Client-server architecture

Client-server architecture is made up of computers that provide services (servers) and computers that use these services (clients). The server is responsible for handling multiple client requests efficiently because it has more processing power. It also acts as a central hub, and all clients are connected to it, meaning it’s a centralized network. That centralization makes maintenance of client-server networks more manageable than in other architecture types.

However, centralization is also a weakness in client-server networks because it points to a single point of failure. In other words, the function of the whole network can be compromised in the event of software or hardware malfunction.

Compared to peer-to-peer networks, client-server networks are commonly associated with more extensive computer networks, like WANs, albeit they can still be implemented for smaller networks like LANs.

Hybrid architecture

Hybrid architecture, or edge computing, is similar to the client-server type of network, but it incorporates many elements of the peer-to-peer model. Some of the responsibilities and capabilities of the server are allocated to client computers called edge devices. In essence, certain network devices are clients, some are servers, and others are both.

This type of network architecture is commonly used with the Internet of Things (IoT). It’s becoming more widespread due to IoT’s growing popularity.

Cloud-based architecture

The primary aspect of cloud-based networks is that they offer storage and services through the internet. Users can access apps and access storage supplied by their cloud service providers. As a result, they don’t need to worry about software or hardware structure and maintenance.

The main benefits of this type of network architecture is scaling and accessibility.

Software-defined networking architecture

Software-defined networking, or SDN, architecture is a network that has separate control and forwarding functions. Centralized management is much easier, leading to flexibility as well as easy and fast introduction of new services.

The SDN model differs from traditional network architectures because it doesn’t use hardware network devices like routers and switches for network traffic control. Instead, it employs virtual networks, which it creates and operates.

Network architecture design components

Understanding network architecture requires knowledge of its components. Here’s an overview of some of the more important components or building blocks of network architectures:

  • Hardware — It comprises all equipment that’s part of the network, including user devices, servers, gateways, switches, and routers.
  • Network protocols — These are the rules and models for how network devices share data. Protocols serve as a common language for different machines, enabling them to communicate with each other. An excellent example of a protocol is TCP/IP, a network protocol suite that governs online data transfer, keeping it safe and efficient.
  • Transmission media — These components include virtual or physical paths data uses to travel within a network. Transmission media can be wired or wireless, where the former contains all cables (primarily Ethernet cables). Meanwhile, the latter term refers to all wireless networks that use radio waves to transfer data, that is, Wi-Fi and cellular data transmission protocols like 4G or 5G.
  • Network topologies — A network topology represents the structure of a network. Each topology has its strengths and weaknesses. Most network architecture today uses a hybrid model that’s effectively a mesh of different topologies that compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

Advantages and disadvantages of network architecture

Network architecture has several benefits and drawbacks you need to know about. Let’s review both.

Advantages

Among the main advantages of network architecture are efficiency, reliability, automation, and scalability. At the same time, every architecture type has specific benefits. For example, peer-to-peer models are usually cheap and easy to set up. In theory, you only need a router and network cables. The model is also stable because the network remains online if one computer is down.

Meanwhile, client-server networks are usually easy to manage because they are largely centralized. This also means that security is easier to handle. The administrator can set up proxy servers, access privileges, and firewalls.

Disadvantages

The main disadvantages of network architecture are the costs of necessary components and the robustness of physical servers. Naturally, there are security issues as well, like viruses and malware, which are always a threat to most types of network architecture.

Just like every network type has advantages, each type also has its own set of drawbacks. Peer-to-peer models may be tricky to manage. This type of architecture has no centralized hub, so every node requires prior configuration. It may also have security issues unless each device has adequate software.

Client-server architecture has several drawbacks, mainly revolving around costs. This model is expensive to set up. Namely, the central server must be powerful enough to handle the entirety of the network’s load. Moreover, an administrator is necessary, and hiring one and keeping them on payroll increases the overall expense. The server’s security also needs to be robust since it’s the model’s weak link, and that also costs money.

What is the future of network architecture?

When it comes to the long-term evolution of network architecture, the following factors are likely to influence it:

  • Simplicity is the goal — Network architecture models are evolving, replacing older ones. Next-generation architecture should focus on simplicity more than its predecessors because this will make it easier to implement, maintain, and scale it when needed.
  • 5G and 6G — The implementation of 5G networks is an ongoing process and still faces certain challenges, like specifying multiple deployment options, including standalone and non-standalone ones. 6G will likely be even more complex, thus bringing more difficulties for wide implementation, so the industry must address issues plaguing the 5G market first.
  • Hybrid work culture — Many businesses are switching to a hybrid working model where employees split their time between their home and office. Therefore, the network architecture needs to be able to handle a large number of site locations, employ strong security, and perform well in new environments.
  • Blockchain and cryptocurrency — Many companies, especially those in the financial sector, are starting to adopt blockchain technology, cryptocurrency, or both. This requires setting up proper network architecture to run smoothly.
  • Artificial intelligence — AI systems can locate and respond to various network events, including security incidents. As the use of AI rises, network architectures will have to adapt to implement and handle them properly.

Network architecture governs how a network will operate, influencing many variables, including how costly it will be to set up and manage it as well as its security, robustness, scalability, and reliability. Every organization needs to choose the right type and track the network’s performance to ensure it is running smoothly.


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