Many networks exist in the world, often with different hardware and software. People connected to one network often want to communicate with people attached to a different one. The fulfillment of this desire requires that different, and frequently incompatible, networks be connected. A collection of interconnected networks is called an internetwork or internet. These terms will be used in a generic sense, in contrast to the worldwide Internet (which is one specific internet), which we will always capitalize. The Internet uses ISP networks to connect enterprise networks, home networks, and many other networks. We will look at the
Internet in great detail later in this book.
Subnets, networks, and internetworks are often confused. The term ‘‘subnet’’ makes the most sense in the context of a wide area network, where it refers to the collection of routers and communication lines owned by the network operator. As an analogy, the telephone system consists of telephone switching offices connected
to one another by high-speed lines, and to houses and businesses by low-speed lines. These lines and equipment, owned and managed by the telephone company, form the subnet of the telephone system. The telephones themselves (the hosts in this analogy) are not part of the subnet.
A network is formed by the combination of a subnet and its hosts. However, the word ‘‘network’’ is often used in a loose sense as well. A subnet might be described as a network, as in the case of the ‘‘ISP network’’. An internetwork might also be described as a network, as in the case of the WAN. We will follow similar practice, and if we are distinguishing a network from other arrangements, we will stick with our original definition of a collection of computers interconnected by a single technology.
Let us say more about what constitutes an internetwork. We know that an internet is formed when distinct networks are interconnected. In our view, connecting a LAN and a WAN or connecting two LANs is the usual way to form an internetwork, but there is little agreement in the industry over terminology in this area. There are two rules of thumb that are useful. First, if different organizations have paid to construct different parts of the network and each maintains its part, we have an internetwork rather than a single network. Second, if the underlying technology is different in different parts (e.g., broadcast versus point-to-point and wired versus wireless), we probably have an internetwork.
To go deeper, we need to talk about how two different networks can be connected. The general name for a machine that makes a connection between two or more networks and provides the necessary translation, both in terms of hardware and software, is a gateway. Gateways are distinguished by the layer at which they operate in the protocol hierarchy. We will have much more to say about layers and protocol hierarchies starting in the next section, but for now imagine that higher layers are more tied to applications, such as the Web, and lower layers are more tied to transmission links, such as Ethernet.
Since the benefit of forming an internet is to connect computers across networks, we do not want to use too low-level a gateway or we will be unable to make connections between different kinds of networks. We do not want to use too high-level a gateway either, or the connection will only work for particular applications. The level in the middle that is ‘‘just right’’ is often called the network layer, and a router is a gateway that switches packets at the network layer. We can now spot an internet by finding a network that has routers.