How Routers Work

Directing Traffic

The router is the only device that sees every message sent by any computer on either of the company's networks. When the animator in our example sends a huge file to another animator, the router looks at the recipient's address and keeps the traffic on the animator's network. When an animator, on the other hand, sends a message to the bookkeeper asking about an expense-account check, then the router sees the recipient's address and forwards the message between the two networks.

One of the tools a router uses to decide where a packet should go is a configuration table. A configuration table is a collection of information, including:

  • Information on which connections lead to particular groups of addresses
  • Priorities for connections to be used
  • Rules for handling both routine and special cases of traffic

A configuration table can be as simple as a half-dozen lines in the smallest routers, but can grow to massive size and complexity in the very large routers that handle the bulk of Internet messages.

A router, then, has two separate but related jobs:

  • The router ensures that information doesn't go where it's not needed. This is crucial for keeping large volumes of data from clogging the connections of "innocent bystanders."
  • The router makes sure that information does make it to the intended destination.

In performing these two jobs, a router is extremely useful in dealing with two separate computer networks. It joins the two networks, passing information from one to the other and, in some cases, performing translations of various protocols between the two networks. It also protects the networks from one another, preventing the traffic on one from unnecessarily spilling over to the other. As the number of networks attached to one another grows, the configuration table for handling traffic among them grows, and the processing power of the router is increased. Regardless of how many networks are attached, though, the basic operation and function of the router remains the same. Since the Internet is one huge network made up of tens of thousands of smaller networks, its use of routers is an absolute necessity.