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Hubs, Switches, and Routers, Oh My!

June 22nd, 2005 · No Comments

It is now officially the summer. This explains yesterday’s horrid traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge, causing my commute to last over 90 minutes, for example. This likely also explains why the superiors at the organization I work for believe that I am probably at most capable of taking in sun and enjoying the beach (for I am only a college student and thus have no qualifications or practical knowledge or experience whatsoever).

Yesterday, for example, I responded to an email that one of my superiors had sent me. It was a response to an email that I had sent her. She sent back her comments in red, as if we were in grade school and she was my teacher. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me, because red is an obvious color for making editing revisions. What bothered me was that on top of that, she used phrases like “be careful how you phrase things” as if I had actually done something wrong by pointing out the obvious – that things didn’t work properly (in some circumstances, obviously ‘mum’ is the word, but I’m a systems tester and so it’s my job to report things when they don’t work).

But today’s example of the complete lack of respect that I get was a result of the recent installation of a cable modem in our test facility. Although we have a corporate LAN in the building, we recently had Cablevision equip us with Optimum Online so that we could simulate a more realistic environment when testing software. There was, however, an obvious problem with this solution: Optimum Online allows its users to have only one IP address per cable modem. Users that want to share a connection need to use a router.

The ‘experts’ here seemed to fail to recognize one thing: a router is not a hub, nor is a router a switch, nor is a switch a hub.

So, when I came back from the training class I took this morning, I couldn’t help but notice – and get excited – that some networking device had been connected to the cable modem. It was quite frustrating having to reset the power to the cable modem each time we wanted to change the computer connected to it. Since it was lunch time, I just went with my coworkers to lunch without actually trying to use the connection. While at lunch, one of my peers remarked that it didn’t work because the ‘router’ was “too old”. Immediately, I knew that they were using a hub, and not a router. I went to see whether they were using a router or a hub after lunch, and I was right – they were using a hub.

I wrote a memo to my boss about this. I later heard back from a boss in a different department that I “had no idea what I was talking about”. They came in to tell me that they “use the same router at home and have four computers connected to the Optimum Online.” I pointed out that he said that he was using a router, and not a hub, to which he replied, “you know what I meant.” Except that really, I didn’t know what he meant. This is a good time to explain the difference between a router and a hub (and a switch). All three devices allow you to network computers together, but each has their own little differences.

Hub – A hub is like a party line. It lets you plug more than one device into the same line so that the devices share the physical connection. ‘Share’ is the operative word here, because with computers especially, multiple devices can share the same physical connection without ill effect (usually). This type of device doesn’t work with Optimum Online because it allows the devices to share the cable modem, and the cable modem effectively says, “no way, Jose”. The difference between a hub and a party line is that with a hub, the individual devices rely on something “higher up” in the network like a router to give them an IP address, so each computer could have its own unique IP. A party line, on the other hand, requires users to share a phone number. If two computers try to use the line at the same time, things start to slow down.

Router – A router is like a private phone system. You have extensions on that private phone system. I can call upstairs from downstairs, and I can call downstairs from upstairs. I can also call out to my Grandmother, though. If my Grandmother wants to call me, she calls one number, but would either need to know my extension or she wouldn’t be able to reach me (unless the phone system was set up to forward the call). Each extension doesn’t have its own public phone number though; they share the phone number of the main line.

Switch – A switch is like a combination of a router and a hub. A switch determines where communications need to go and routes them accordingly. It also lets devices have unique IP addresses (comparable to separate phone numbers). If my Grandmother called my upstairs line, it would make sure that the call rang only the upstairs extension, and vice versa. If two computers tried to use the line at the same time, the performance would stay fairly constant because the communications would go only where they need to go. A switch doesn’t assign IP addresses though; it just keeps things moving in the direction they’re supposed to move.

So, the ‘expert’ from my office called me his bitch and showed off his impressive knowledge of networking components, never even stopping to listen to a word I had to say. Go ahead, and call Optimum Online, and ask if you need a hub or a router. I dare you. Go ahead, and pick up a book on networking, and figure out how ‘layers’ work. For those that are interested, a hub works on the physical layer (I), a switch works on the data link layer (II), and a router works on the network layer (III). The terms ‘hub’, ‘switch’, and ‘router’ are not interchangeable.

So to the idiots at work that think you’re smarter than me because you’re older than me and have wasted more of your time with an organization that doesn’t respect you: congratulations on your experience, but if you’d like to have someone else do my job, you can get someone that’s older than me and just not as smart. That’s a line from Doogie Howser, right there.

Tags: Computers · Technology

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