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What is a mesh network, and how does it work?

A mesh network can seamlessly integrate multiple wired and wireless networks to form one large ecosystem. In this article, we’ll explain how mesh networks operate and explore different kinds of mesh networks.

What is a mesh network, and how does it work?

What are mesh networks?

A mesh network is a collection of devices that provide internet connectivity. In most cases, they are internet routers. By linking multiple internet gateways, you can create one large network with multiple sources of connectivity.

Contrast this with the way in which an individual network operates. Most networks consist of one or more devices, connected to a single internet gateway (the piece of hardware that provides connected devices with internet access). Mesh networks are interconnected sets of these smaller networks.

Mesh networks typically act as LANs (local area networks), with all the connection points being in a particular space. For example, if a ten-floor office block has a router on each level, all ten routers could be meshed into a single network.

Data moves through that network using one of two methods: routing and flooding.

Routing

Routing within a mesh network involves sending a data packet from one router to the next, until it finds the router to which the recipient is connected. Imagine that you’re on the fifth floor of your office building and want to send a file to a printer on the second floor. Your data travels through each router, or node, on each floor between the fifth and the second, where it then is passed to the connected printer.

Flooding

Flooding takes a different approach from routing and sends data packets to every other node. If we’re still in that office with ten mesh routers across ten floors, the file you send to the printer is sent to ten different locations, though only one (the intended recipient) will respond to it. This may be slightly faster than routing, but it’s less resource-efficient, and creates a larger surface area for cyberattacks.

Mesh network topology

When we talk about mesh network topology, we’re referring to the different setups mesh networks can use. The word “topology” in this context is just a word for the overall arrangement of nodes on a network. Mesh network topology comes in two forms.

Full mesh

In full mesh networks, every router connects to every other router. If you send a file to a printer via the routing method, the data can move directly from the router on your floor to the one where the printer is housed; there’s no need for it to pass through multiple routers to get there. While this may not be practical, depending on hardware capacity and physical restrictions, it is probably the fastest option available.

Partial mesh

As the name suggests, partial mesh networks do not involve all devices being directly linked. Each router might just link to its two closest neighbors, with data packets being handed from one router to the next as they find their way to the intended recipient. Another version of a partial mesh network could involve one or two central routers through which all other routers interlink. Compared to a full mesh, partial mesh systems aren’t as fast, because data needs to jump between more nodes to move around.

Wired mesh network vs. wireless mesh network

In addition to the full and partial categorizations, we can also classify mesh networks by whether they are wired or wireless.

Wired networks require all nodes to be physically connected. In an office or a school, for example, the routers on each floor or in each department could be linked with cables, creating a wired mesh network.

Alternatively, all the nodes could be linked without physical connections, the data being sent via wireless signals. Wireless mesh networks are helpful if running cables between every node isn’t practical, for physical or budgetary reasons. However, bandwidth on a wireless network is considerably narrower than on wired options. Wireless mesh networks work well in situations where network nodes aren’t static.

While these two systems have advantages, there is a third configuration that can provide the best of both worlds.

Hybrid mesh networks

A hybrid mesh network is a combination of wired network and a wireless solution. Some nodes on the network are physically linked with cables, while others use wireless connectivity.

This setup allows for optimal bandwidth wherever possible, while also retaining the capacity to have mobile, wireless devices within the network. For many organizations, this can be the best overall approach, as the wireless elements can provide internet access to a wider area, while the static cables maintain good bandwidth for the rest of the ecosystem.

Differences between mesh node, Wi-Fi extender, and Wi-Fi access point

Let’s clear up some confusion around the differences between mesh network nodes, Wi-Fi extenders, and Wi-Fi access points.

  • A mesh network node is a connecting point on a mesh network. In most cases, this will be a router of some kind.
  • A Wi-Fi extender is a piece of hardware that picks up and repeats the wireless broadcast from a Wi-Fi router. If you’re struggling to get full Wi-Fi coverage in your home, an extender is a good solution, but it’s a mesh network node, just an amplifier for the router.
  • A Wi-Fi access point (also known as a wireless access point) serves a similar function to a Wi-Fi extender. They are small pieces of hardware that can connect to a router with ethernet cables, and essentially siphoning off some of the router’s Wi-Fi and extending it into another space. Wi-Fi access points are an important part of mesh Wi-Fi systems.

Extenders and access points could be part of a hybrid network, but they can also act on their own and be useful even if you’re not setting up a mesh network.

Can you use a Wi-Fi extender with a mesh network?

You can use a Wi-Fi extender within a mesh network, but it won’t act like the other nodes. Remember, an extender is just picking up and repeating the signal from a Wi-Fi router — it can’t handle any data itself.

As such, a Wi-Fi extender could be used to improve the performance of a node in a mesh network — extending the reach of its wireless communications so it can mesh with more nodes — but the extender itself cannot act as a node.

Mesh network vs. ad hoc network

Mesh networks are sometimes confused with ad hoc networks, but they are separate systems. In an ad hoc network, several devices are temporarily connected. For example, if one laptop is able to connect to a Wi-Fi router and another is not, the connectivity could be “shared” through an ethernet cable, run between the devices.

Ad hot networks are essentially short-term LANs. The main difference between a LAN and an ad hoc network is that the former is set up for long-term use, while the latter is a temporary solution.

You could also create a wireless ad hoc network by temporarily turning a device into a router — for example, by using the hotspot on a phone to connect other devices to the internet.

The benefits of mesh networks

Bore wired and wireless mesh networks offer a lot of benefits for organizations of all sizes, as do hybrid options.

  • Improved range. Perhaps the biggest benefit of a mesh network is its capacity to increase the range of an organization’s networking capabilities. Especially in the case of hybrid mesh networks, this approach can create very large, seamlessly integrated networks.
  • Long-term scalability. Mesh networks can very easily be scaled over time, with new nodes added as an organization expands.
  • Self-healing networks. When one node in a mesh network goes down, data is automatically routed through a different node. This is referred to as “self-healing” and allows a network to stay functional even if routers within the ecosystem aren’t working.

The drawbacks of mesh networks

Mesh networking isn’t perfect, of course, and there are some drawbacks.

  • Increased node traffic. The individual nodes on a network (especially on partial mesh networks) will have to handle more traffic than they would if they were not meshed. This can lower overall speed and performance, especially on a wireless mesh network.
  • Complex setup and maintenance. Establishing a wired or wireless mesh network, troubleshooting ongoing errors, and maintaining its security can be a lot of work. For smaller organizations and businesses, this complexity can be a barrier to entry.
  • Increased cybersecurity risks. Every router is a potential access point for hackers wishing to target an organization. If you connect multiple routers in a large mesh network, the potential for a cyberattack to escalate is increased. If one router is hacked, a bad actor could spread malware rapidly through the mesh network.

Can I add an existing router to a mesh network?

If you already have a router set up, and you now want to add it to a new mesh network, that is entirely possible. You can configure devices with mesh clients to add them to a mesh network

For optimal performance and security, it is best to establish all mesh nodes at the same time, with the specific intention of creating a mesh network. However, if you already have several routers in place and want to retroactively mesh them, that’s also an option.

The best kind of mesh nodes are devices and software specifically designed for meshing. A regular Wi-Fi router may not be as stable and efficient as a device set up specifically to facilitate mesh networking.

You should be wary of compromising the overall performance of your mesh network by adding in substandard nodes, which might end up slowing down data throughput.

Mesh network vs. Meshnet

It’s easy to confuse the terms mesh network and Meshnet. “Mesh network” is a catch-all term for a kind of network topology, while Meshnet is a specific feature provided by NordVPN.

Meshnet is a free system that allows users to link devices with encrypted tunnels, essentially creating their own VPNs. A Meshnet user could route traffic from their phone through a home computer so that when traveling abroad they can still browse online with their usual local IP address.

If you’d like to try Meshnet today, you can download the NordVPN app, though you don’t need to pay for NordVPN to enjoy all the benefits of Meshnet.

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