an IT executive working on her laptop

You’ve probably heard us talk about computer networks. In fact, you probably encounter computer networks all over in your daily life – from your workplace, to your home, to even cafes and leisure centres. 

But building a computer network, or suddenly having to tweak a network, can suddenly become an overwhelming mess of wires, boxes and blinking lights.

Fear not! Here’s our basic guide to all the different computer network components that when put together, build an overall network. 

Also see: Our experts guide to the best remote working software in 2021.

Lady holding a laptop next to network centre


1. Server

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to miss a server. Servers are usually singular computers that will look and behave differently to a desktop. Servers tend to be contained to larger rectangular boxes, and dedicated servers are often grouped together in housing.

In a network environment, a server is a vital network component that will provide data, resources, programmes or services to other desktop computers through the network. 

Servers are classified as either dedicated or shared, depending on how they’re built. Dedicated servers require all of their resources for one user, while shared servers offer fractional use of their resources and share with others who may be requesting information from it at any given time.

2. Modem

The full name for a modem is a Modulator/Demodulator. To understand why, it’s best to break it down. 

Modulation refers to the process of converting an analog signal to a digital signal which is then able to be recognised by a router or switch. Demodulation refers to the reverse, where digital signals are converted into analog signals.

The process of modulation and demodulation enables computer devices to connect to the internet, which is where modems fit into computer networks.

Different types of modem offer different types of speed and informational transfer. We’ve listed the main types of modem below.

The Types of Modem

  1. External Modems: Connect to the serial port of computers through a cable located externally to the desktop, with another wire connecting the modem to the telephone line.
  1. Internal Modems: Are located internally within the unit. An internal modem connects to the telephone line via the telephone cable.
  1. Wireless Modems: Are the most up-to-date modems and don’t require any wiring, instead they send and receive signals through the air in a particular range.
  1. Optical Network Terminal (ONT): ONT’s are technically not modems, but in modernised computer networks which use fibre-optic internet, they almost act as one to communicate faster with ISPs (internet service providers).

3. Router

If modems are the piece of hardware that connects us to the internet, routers are the hardware that allows us to access the internet and create our own private networks which we connect all of our devices to.

On a technical level, when data travels from one network to another it’s known as a packet. Routers then send, receive and interpret these packets so that they are able to forward information within the data packet on to destination devices, like a desktop or additional network. 

Whereas routers were once only able to connect to computer networks using a mass of wiring, nowadays they’re mostly wireless. However routers are still able to connect to different networks regardless of whether they’re wired or wireless.

The types of Router

  1. Broadband Routers: Broadband routers connect devices on a network and connect to the internet. VOIP (Voice over IP) phone systems will commonly use broadband routers to connect to the internet, and broadband routers will also contain ethernet and phone jacks for such a purpose.
Close up of router

Draytek Vigor Router (Source)

  1. Wireless Routers: Wireless routers are used in a variety of different computer networks and they enable a multitude of devices, like desktops, tablets and smartphones to connect to the internet through a wireless internet connection. Password security is a big feature of wireless routers to enable a secure and private connection, and external devices will need to know the router’s IP address to be able to see the hardware and establish a connection.

4. Switch

Switches are the evolved hardware of a piece of equipment once known as the ‘Hub’ and they fall under a variety of different names, like the switching hub, bridging hub or MAC bridge.

The switch is a network component that provides additional ports to a router. Switches are commonly found in larger computer networks where the network is mostly wired – for example an office building spanning multiple floors and devices.

Switches took over from hubs because of their more advanced technology. Switches are able to interpret incoming packets, ascertain their source, destination address and following routes, and then forward the data accordingly without compromising data security. 

Close up of switches

A Unifi 16XG Switch (Source)

5. Bridges

Bridges interpret incoming traffic onto the network and determine whether to either forward or discard the data depending on the information. They do this by reading the MAC addresses of both destination and source. Bridges are able to connect two LANs (Local Area Network) in the same manner. 

Bridges are network components that are also mostly used in larger computer networks where there is a lot of traffic – for example, a public hub such as an airport – which needs to be sorted and then divided either into a packet or segment. 

6. Network Interface Card (NIC)

Network Interface Cards (NICs) are hardware components that are essential to connect a desktop or server with a network. Without it, a device will fail to connect to the network.

NICs are integrated into computer circuit boards, and although they used to be standalone devices they can now be found pre-installed in a majority of modern motherboards. If the component should fail however, some repairs will offer the choice between trying to replace the NIC ahead of the motherboard because of the risk of loss of data involved with either replacing or repairing a motherboard – but this is not always possible.

NICs are also known as Network Interface Controllers, network adapters, LAN adapters or Physical Network interfaces.

The types of NIC

  1. Internal Network Interface Card (Wired NIC)

If a motherboard is using an internal network card, there will be a slot on the motherboard where the card can be inserted. The slot will require a network cable to then provide network access. Additionally, there are two different types of internal NICs: One which uses Peripheral Component Interconnectivity (PCI) and the other which uses Industry Standard Architecture (ISA). 

ISA is an older technology and in modern motherboards it has mostly been replaced by PCI, but depending on the age of the systems it is worth observing which slot requires which card. ISA slots are traditionally black and long with gold contacts, whilst PCI slots are usually white, shorter, smaller and with lighter coloured contacts.

If you’re using an older computer network, read the urgent reasons why you should consider an upgrade.

  1. External Network Card (Wireless NIC)

External NICs are used predominantly by laptops and some desktop computers because they have no room for an internal NIC. External NICs also have two types and these are either wireless or USB based. Wireless network cards are predominantly used by desktops and will need to be inserted into a port on the motherboard, whilst USB based NICs will connect to a laptop using a port.

7. Firewall

Firewalls are common computer lingo and you’ve likely heard of one mentioned on your operating system. However, hardware firewalls differ from software firewalls because these are physical devices that look similar to a switch. 

Hardware firewalls act identically to software firewalls. Whereas software firewalls scan the data being sent to your computer and aim to prevent malicious data from entering your software, hardware firewalls scan the incoming and outgoing traffic to the network and aim to discard traffic that looks untrustworthy.

Nowadays most new routers and some modems have built-in firewalls, which prevents the need for a physical box, but they are still a feature in some networks.

8. Gateway

Gateways do exactly what they say on the tin – they’re hardware devices which act as a gate between two networks. Any piece of hardware that allows traffic to enter and exit the network can double up as a gateway, for example routers, firewalls and servers.

Just like a bridge is used to join two similar types of networks, a gateway will join two dissimilar networks. For that reason, gateway nodes are primarily located at the edges of a network so that data flows through it before entering or exiting.

Gateways will also translate packets received from outside networks into data formats or protocols that can then be identified by devices within the primary network.

9. Repeater

If your wireless router isn’t giving off a great signal, that’s to say, if you’re losing WiFi connection as you move around your building (like our client Stratford Garden Centre were experiencing) you’re probably in need of a repeater.

Repeaters are small yet powerful components in a computer network that are able to regenerate wireless signals. This fixes the signal, which stabilises the strength of it – enabling the signal to not drop.

Repeaters work by taking data signals from the original communication medium – commonly the router – and amplifying them before sending them back. Hence, its name: when a signal is weak, the repeater will copy the signal, repeat it, and regenerate it back to its original strength to ensure the connection remains stable.

In a computer network, these components are mostly found in cables that cover distances of around 100 metres and will receive signals from cables like optical fibre, coaxial and copper cables.

10. Client

Finally, any device that receives requests or seeks a response from the server is a computer network component known as a client. 

When a server and its clients work together, this is what’s known as the client/server network and it’s the reason why computer networks are established in the first place!

Need help setting up your computer network?

At Binary Blue we’ve over 40 years of experience helping our clients implement, rejuvenate and upgrade their computer networks. We can assist you with finding the right components for the right network solutions, and we can advise on which type of network may be the best for your organisation or set up. Find out more about our IT support services or send us a message today for a quick chat.