Proper Care and Feeding of Your Stub Network

Not to be confused with Stubby Boardman, the lead singer of the popular musical group The Hobgoblins. That, folks, was a little Harry Potter humor, bonus points to the nerd who identifies the fictitious periodical I’m quoting.

So on we go to the next technical round. By now, it’s possible you are scraping yourself with broken pottery (Job humor?) and groaning – “Please don’t start on that whole Binary thing again, it’s stupid and you smell like wet dog.” I don’t smell like wet dog, what you are actually smelling is the subtle paradigm shift of technical comprehension.

Network. To quote the dictionary, a network is a group or system of interconnected people or things. In our case, these things are computers. If you have one computer and it wants to talk to itself, well perhaps it’s time to invest in some therapy. But if you have one computer that wants to check its email, it is communicating with another computer. And if you have one computer that wants to buy Kenny Roger’s Greatest Hits on iTunes and rock out some Don’t Fall In Love With a Dreamer, well you’re communicating with another computer. And if you want to update your Quicken finances from your bank or download maps for your Garmin GPS or watch Netflix or make sure your Apple stock didn’t tank because they haven’t had an original thought since Steve Jobs took a dirt nap, well you’re communicating with another computer. The act of communicating with each other is called networking, and the avenue of communication is across a network.

There are two kinds of networks – Local Area Network (LAN) and Wide Area Network (WAN). Well, technically there is a third – Metropolitan Area Network (MAN) but that’s obscure and no one cares about them and besides – behind every great MAN there is a woMAN. That, kind sir, is nerd humor. I’ll focus on LAN and WAN because that’s really the foundation of our entire study here.

The LAN or Local Area Network is best summarized as what you plug “your stuff” into. For most of us, the LAN is accessed by plugging an Ethernet cable into our Netgear Router or Linksys Switch or by accessing our Wireless Router on our wireless device. Examples of “your stuff” that sit on your LAN are the DVD Player that streams Netflix, Laptops and iPads and iPods (oh my), Desktop Computers and wireless printers. All this stuff connects to a network so it can talk to other stuff.

The best comparison I can make here is with roads. Let’s say that you own a sprawling five acre island, with lots of little huts all over the island. And interconnecting those little huts are roads – one could say those huts are all networked. But we must distinguish that those roads are not huts. Why, if I told you have the things I’ve heard about these huts, you’d probably short circuit. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Now let’s take that island analogy and compare it to our home LAN. All our little huts (the laptops, iPods, wireless printers, etc.) are interconnected via roads. Those roads are our Local Area Network. The roads may be paved in Ethernet cabling, or perhaps they are paved in wireless fluff. But they are there and they allow us to get from hut to hut, device to device. If I want to pull up a Word Document that resides in another hut, I go down the network road to that hut. If I want to print to the hut over there from my hut, I print across the network road. Pretty simple, right?

By comparison, the WAN or Wide Area Network is best summarized as “not your stuff”. Not to be confused with “Not the Mama” which every father reading this can probably relate to at some point in time. “Not your stuff” could be summarized as anything outside your home that you access. Using the island analogy, if you want to leave your own private island and visit a hut somewhere else to buy a strawberry mango smoothie (very delicious), you have to leave your island (LAN) and go to someone else’s hut. Once you leave your Island, you are traversing different roads that are not your own – that is the Wide Area Network (WAN). The roads out there could be paved with copper wire like your home, or perhaps light signals riding fiber optics. But the bottom line is those roads are not yours, they belong to someone else. You have no real control over those roads, they just get you from your hut to someone else’s hut. You’ll often hear the WAN called by another name – the Internet.

I should stop before I wade off into deep water. But I must cover one final topic – the gate. Your island has walls all around it to keep your stuff in, and keep other people out of your stuff. It has to be so, or there is no real “mine” or “yours”. To get off your island or out of your LAN, you have to go through a gate that separates “out there” from “in here”. On our LAN, there is a real device that we have to go through to get from “in here” to “out there”. This device is called a router.

The router is the gate to the world out there. The router connects our LAN to our ISP – our Internet Service Provider. I’ll say a few words, tell me if they ring a bell: Verizon. Fios. Comcast. DSL. America Online. Oh wow, America Online – anyone remember that? Those are examples of companies that have their own roads (networks) that connect our island (LAN) to the world out there. That point where the two touch each other is the router. Using the gate analogy, you have to go through the gate to get out there. Using the house analogy, you have to go through the door to get out there. And the opposite is true, too – to get from out there into here, you have to come through the gate or door or router. It’s the router’s job to keep the two separate from each other – a digital bouncer for our elite club LAN.

This router is very important, especially when we get into the deeper waters of content filtering and security. For most (if not all) of our home networks, there is a single gate or door or router connecting our stuff to the world outside. We have one way in or out – and the technical term for this kind of network is a Stub Network. If you have one way in or out for your LAN, and all your stuff has to go through that one single gate / door / router to get out, you probably have a Stub Network. And that is nothing to be ashamed of – most people have a Stub Network. The drawback to a Stub Network is the single point of failure it provides. If your Comcast Internet goes down or your Fios blows up, there is no other way to binge on Lost episodes on Netflix. The single point of failure went down – you are done.

I’ll stop here. For now.

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