Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Routers Work

The Path of a Packet

The routers that make up the main part of the Internet can reconfigure the paths that packets take because they look at the information surrounding the data packet, and they tell each other about line conditions, such as delays in receiving and sending data and traffic on various pieces of the network. Not all routers do so many jobs, however. Routers come in different sizes. For example:

  • If you have enabled Internet connection sharing between two Windows 98-based computers, you're using one of the computers (the computer with the Internet connection) as a simple router. In this instance, the router does so little -- simply looking at data to see whether it's intended for one computer or the other -- that it can operate in the background of the system without significantly affecting the other programs you might be running.
  • Slightly larger routers, the sort used to connect a small office network to the Internet, will do a bit more. These routers frequently enforce rules concerning security for the office network (trying to secure the network from certain attacks). They handle enough traffic that they're generally stand-alone devices rather than software running on a server.
  • The largest routers, those used to handle data at the major traffic points on the Internet, handle millions of data packets every second and work to configure the network most efficiently. These routers are large stand-alone systems that have far more in common with supercomputers than with your office server.

More to Explore