Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Hybrid Networks Work

        Tech | Networking

Understanding Hybrid Networks
A router allows connections to be shared among devices.
A router allows connections to be shared among devices.
© Photographer: Tomasz Dobrowolski | Agency: Dreamstime

In a wired computer network, all devices need to be connected by physical cable. A typical configuration uses a central access point. In networking terms, this is called a star topology, where information must travel through the center to reach other points of the star.

The central access point in a wired network can be a router, hub or a switch. The access point's function is to share a network connection among several devices. All the devices are plugged into the access point using individual Ethernet (CAT 5) cables. If the devices want to share an Internet connection as well, then the access point needs to be plugged into a broadband Internet modem, either cable or DSL.

In a standard wireless network, all networked devices communicate with a central wireless access point. The devices themselves need to contain wireless modems or cards that conform with one or more Wi-Fi standards, either 802.11 a, b or g. In this configuration, all wireless devices can share files with each other over the network. If they also want to share an Internet connection, then the wireless access point needs to be plugged into a broadband modem.

A standard hybrid network uses something called a hybrid access point, a networking device that both broadcasts a wireless signal and contains wired access ports. The most common hybrid access point is a hybrid router. The typical hybrid router broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal using 802.11 a, b or g and contains four Ethernet ports for connecting wired devices. The hybrid router also has a port for connecting to a cable or DSL modem via Ethernet cable.

When shopping for a hybrid router, you might not see the word "hybrid" anywhere. You're more likely to see the router advertised as a wireless or Wi-Fi router with Ethernet ports or "LAN ports" [source: About.com]. Hybrid routers start at around $50 for a basic model with four Ethernet ports and a network speed of 54Mbps (megabits per second).

There are several different possible network configurations for a hybrid network. The most basic configuration has all the wired devices plugged into the Ethernet ports of the hybrid router. Then the wireless devices communicate with the wired devices via the wireless router.

But maybe you want to network more than four wired devices. In that case, you could string several routers together, both wired and wireless, in a daisy chain formation. You'd need enough wired routers to handle all of the wired devices (number of devices divided by four) and enough wireless routers -- in the right physical locations -- to broadcast a Wi-Fi signal to every corner of the network.

Computers aren't the only devices that can be linked over a hybrid network. You can now buy both wired and wireless peripheral devices like printers, Web cams and fax machines. An office worker with a laptop, for example, can print a document without plugging directly into the printer. He can send the document over the hybrid network to the networked printer of his choice.

Now let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of traditional wired and wireless networks and how hybrid networks offer the best of both worlds.