A properly designed network is a lot like a two channel stereo system. In both cases, the parts that make up said system are modular and work together as a team to deliver the desired end result. If, for example, you have a DAC, Transport, Mono block amplification, power conditioning, and all the cables you need, but no Pre-Amp (yes, the DAC could have volume control, but assume it does not, please) you have no stereo system. The same is true for the network. There are essential parts required for any network to function properly and without the right parts you cannot create a functioning network.
What most consumers are used to purchasing at their local big box retailer is akin to the Stereo Receiver. An integrated piece of equipment that is actually multiple individual parts integrated into one plastic piece of equipment. Just as the Stereo receiver is an AMP, Pre-Amp and Tuner all in one box, an integrated network appliance is several parts integrated into one appliance. For example, an Apple Airport Extreme is all of the following:
Can this appliance excel at any of these functions? Not really, but it can deliver an experience that is well rounded and gets most of the job done – think Honda. The sum total of the design and build quality of the Apple product is what counts. Don’t get me wrong, for many consumers this product is exceptional and in no way is this meant to point out anything other than the multiple duties this single device is meant to perform for $189. How can it excel at any of its duties with such a low cost of entry?
Let us then define what these individual parts are, what their contribution to the network is and why they are important. For this exercise, let us think of the network in your home as a neighborhood and the packets that course through them as if they are bits of mail. Just as our homes and neighborhoods have sets of numbers we use to identify a geographic location on the planet, each device on the network as a local address inside the network that looks something like this:
The two sets of numbers that I would like to focus us in on in are the last two sets of numbers:
The subnet is the third set of numbers: .55.XXX. Think of this set of numbers as if it were a zip code, in that is defines the local neighborhood in which that device resides. The local address or for this analogy, the street address, is the last set of numbers: .70. Every device you connect to your network will have an address and those packets or bits of mail will be sent from one device to another or sent out of the house to some other neighborhood and another device for various reasons. In most homes, one subnet is sufficient, although, here at Access Networks we deploy multiple subnets (VLAN) as part of our solution. This allows us to separate groups of products and users from one another. For example, the home owners personal network appliances from the automation system, from guests. For this exercise, however, let us focus on a home with one subnet.
The Router: Think of the router as your local post master. The post master defines the local address a device will be assigned (DHCP) if it is new to the neighborhood and records this information on a master list of both all local devices and the various other post offices around the planet. Using this list, mail or packets that must travel out of the local network are managed by this device. The list of local devices is shared with another network appliance, the Ethernet switch for local delivery.
The Ethernet Switch: This device is essentially your local postmen. Having already been handed the list of all local devices, the switch is responsible for the delivery of packets to and from local devices and from local devices to the router. Thousands (or millions) of packets are handled by this device on a daily basis. The NAS drive communicating with your DAC as it streams said music track, your new e-mail messages, etc.
The Wireless Access Point: This device is essentially an alternate doorway into the local neighborhood or network. Devices can connect to the network without connecting physically to the switch, can be assigned a local address dynamically (DHCP) and can send and receive packets with other devices and to the router for transmission outside of the house.
The overall management of these individual devices is built upon a whole slew of protocols, functions and algorithms that have been developed over the course of decades. What is pertinent to our discussion here is that the Apple Airport Extreme and its contemporaries are all of these devices (and others) all at once.
As I mentioned in last month’s installment, the network in your home is now a major component in your stereo system. And, just as it is with stereo components, not all network appliances are created equally. Some are better built and outperform others. What is important for our perspective here is the thought and attention you pay to the parts of your network that will most directly interface with the parts of your stereo system that touch the network. Here are some tips:
Next month I will cover IP address’s and some other companion protocols in depth. This will help us further explore the network and its important role in the overall performance of your stereo system.