“Switches and routers – oh my!”

Paul McGowan .....

With all these crazy packets running around our network, like web page traffic, email and music files, how do the attached devices (like our DAC or our computer) know which of these packets are intended for them?   And how do we connect everyone together?  There are three elements we need to lightly understand to answer these questions: network inputs, switches and routers.

First, let’s narrow our scope a bit because network inputs are everywhere.  For example every cell phone in the world has a network input and I don’t think it’ll be valuable for us to have this broad of a scope.  So let’s focus on just our home network called a LAN.  LAN stands for Local Area Network and in our terms it simply means the connected system we use at home to tie together our devices, like computers, printers etc.

Every modern computer has an Ethernet and/or wireless input that allows access to a network.  Both are essentially going to the same place – they are different only in the way they connect – but they perform the same function.  The main purpose of this input is two fold: to create and manage an address that tells everyone on the network who the computer (or DAC) is and where to find it, and to prepare and organize the traffic that goes in and out of the computer or DAC.   Think of this as your own Post Office (PO) box.

Next is the network switch.  On one end of the switch you connect up the network and it reads everything that is going on.  On the other end are a bunch of Ethernet or wireless ports (inputs).  When you connect your computer or your DAC to one of these ports, the switch says “hello, what’s your address and who are you?”  The two talk, the switch remembers which port the computer or DAC is on and whenever someone on your network wants to communicate with your computer or DAC, the switch simply makes the connection between the two.  Think of the switch as the local post office and mail sorter; the connected equipment as the individual PO boxes the post office delivers mail to.

A router is a switch and a gateway.  The gateway is how you connect to the internet or larger network and once connected it tells the outside world your personal address and how to find you when you ask for something.  Think of the router as the connection between your local post office and the larger worldwide post office.

Most of us have only a router – which is a gateway and switch combined – to form our network and that’s all we need.  To this piece of kit you can connect your DAC, your computer, your Apple TV, whatever you have.  Most routers are wireless as well as wired – but again, the wireless part is the same as the wired input, just using a different medium to send the traffic.

And that, my friends is a network and how music travels down that network.