Routing Packets: An Example
Let's take a look at a medium-sized router -- the router we use in the HowStuffWorks office. In our case, the router only has two networks to worry about: The office network, with about 50 computers and devices, and the Internet. The office network connects to the router through an Ethernet connection, specifically a 100 base-T connection (100 base-T means that the connection is 100 megabits per second, and uses a twisted-pair cable like an 8-wire version of the cable that connects your telephone to the wall jack). There are two connections between the router and our ISP (Internet service provider). One is a T-1 connection that supports 1.5 megabits per second. The other is an ISDN line that supports 128 kilobits per second. The configuration table in the router tells it that all out-bound packets are to use the T-1 line, unless it's unavailable for some reason (perhaps a backhoe digs up the cable). If it can't be used, then outbound traffic goes on the ISDN line. This way, the ISDN line is held as "insurance" against a problem with the faster T-1 connection, and no action by a staff member is required to make the switch in case of trouble. The router's configuration table knows what to do.
In addition to routing packets from one point to another, the HowStuffWorks router has rules limiting how computers from outside the network can connect to computers inside the network, how the HowStuffWorks network appears to the outside world, and other security functions. While most companies also have a special piece of hardware or software called a firewall to enforce security, the rules in a router's configuration table are important to keeping a company's (or family's) network secure.
One of the crucial tasks for any router is knowing when a packet of information stays on its local network. For this, it uses a mechanism called a subnet mask. The subnet mask looks like an IP address and usually reads "255.255.255.0." This tells the router that all messages with the sender and receiver having an address sharing the first three groups of numbers are on the same network, and shouldn't be sent out to another network. Here's an example: The computer at address 18.104.22.168 sends a request to the computer at 22.214.171.124. The router, which sees all the packets, matches the first three groups in the address of both sender and receiver (15.57.31), and keeps the packet on the local network. (You'll learn more about how the addresses work in the next section.)
Between the time these words left the Howstuffworks.com server and the time they showed up on your monitor, they passed through several routers (it's impossible to know ahead of time exactly how many "several" might be) that helped them along the way. It's very similar to the process that gets a postal letter from your mailbox to the mailbox of a friend, with routers taking the place of the mail sorters and handlers along the way.