How Hybrid Networks Work


Today's college student wants to access the Internet throughout the campus network.
Today's college student wants to access the Internet throughout the campus network.
© Photographer: Jaimie Duplass | Agency: Dreamstime

Wires are for work. Wireless is for play. A few years ago, that was the conventional wisdom on wired versus wireless networks. Wi-Fi was great for checking e-mail at Starbucks, but it wasn't fast enough or secure enough for an office setting -- even a home office. For speed and security, Ethernet cables were the only way to go.

Things are changing. Now people are viewing Ethernet and Wi-Fi as important components of the same local area network (LAN). Wires are great for linking servers and desktop computers, but Wi-Fi is ideal for extending that network seamlessly into the conference room, the lunch room, and yes, even the bathroom.

Think about the typical college or university LAN. According to a 2007 survey, 73.7 percent of college students own a laptop [source: Educause Center for Applied Research]. And they expect to be able to access the Internet and share files across the college network, whether they're in the physics lab or sunbathing in the quad. That's the role of a hybrid network.

A hybrid network refers to any computer network that contains two or more different communications standards. In this case, the hybrid network uses both Ethernet (802.3) and Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g) standards. A hybrid network relies on special hybrid routers, hubs and switches to connect both wired and wireless computers and other network-enabled devices.

How do you set up a hybrid network? Are hybrid routers expensive? Is it hard to configure a Wi-Fi laptop to join an existing wired network? Read on to find out more about hybrid networks.

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.

Hybrid Networks: Wired vs. Wireless

To get the maximum speed for LAN parties, it's best to use a wired connection.
To get the maximum speed for LAN parties, it's best to use a wired connection.
© Photographer: Patrick Hermans | Agency: Dreamstime

The chief advantage of a wired network is speed. So-called "Fast Ethernet" cables can send data at 100Mbps while most Wi-Fi networks max out at 54Mpbs [source: About.com]. So if you want to set up a LAN gaming party or share large files in an office environment, it's better to stick with wired connections for optimum speed. Take note, however, that the upcoming 802.11n Wi-Fi standard claims throughput speeds of 150 to 300Mbps [source: Network World].

The chief advantage of a wireless network is mobility and flexibility. You can be anywhere in the office and access the Internet and any files on the LAN. You can also use a wider selection of devices to access the network, like Wi-Fi-enabled handhelds and PDAs.

Another advantage of wireless networks is that they're comparatively cheaper to set up, especially in a large office or college environment. Ethernet cables and routers are expensive. So is drilling through walls and running cable through ceilings. A few well-placed wireless access points -- or even better, a wireless mesh network -- can reach far more devices with far less money.

Other than that, both wired and wireless networks are equally easy (or difficult) to set up, depending on the organization's size and complexity. For a small office or home network, the most popular operating systems -- Windows XP, Vista and Mac OS 10 -- can guide you through the process with a networking wizard. Installing and administering a large office or organizational network is equally tricky whether you're using wired or wireless. Although with wireless connections, you don't have to go around checking physical Ethernet connections.

As for security, wired is generally viewed as more secure, since someone would have to physically hack into your network. With wireless, there's always a chance that a hacker could use packet-sniffing software to spy on information traveling over your wireless network. But with new wireless encryption standards like WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) built into most Wi-Fi routers, wireless networking is nearly as secure as wired.

A hybrid wired/Wi-Fi network would seem to offer the best of both worlds in terms of speed, mobility, affordability and security. If a user needs maximum Internet and file-sharing speed, then he can plug into the network with an Ethernet cable. If he needs to show a streaming video to his buddy in the hallway, he can access the network wirelessly. With the right planning, an organization can save money on CAT 5 cable and routers by maximizing the reach of the wireless network. And with the right encryption and password management in place, the wireless portion of the network can be just as secure as the wired.

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