Computer networking devices are often taken for granted, and more often than that, they are thought of interchangeably.
Knowing the difference, however, between routers, switches, access points, and gateway devices, can make all the difference in either setting up a home network or figuring out where the weak link in your connection is.
In this article, we’ll define what each of these means on their own, and then compare them, Router VS Switch, Access Point VS Router, Gateway VS Router, and Wireless Access Point VS Router. There are also some common misconceptions that we seek to clarify along the way.
The need for knowing how these differ from each other arises in defining them to a point, eliminating confusion and enlivening understanding. First, a quick rundown of these terms as if you’ve never heard of them before (as if!).
A router might be the most crucial piece of technology in any home, one that enables a fully functional and enjoyable use of all devices – phones, laptops, tablets, even the television. The router connects all devices with the network, or more accurately, within it, through the use of data packets being sent back and forth throughout, being forwarded to the destination node. It can receive and analyze these data packets, as well as directing traffic.
This might make some think of modems, from the early dates of very patient Internet usage, and wonder what the difference is.
Modern modems blur the difference by having pre-installed routers; the router connects the devices on the network whereas the modem connects to the Internet at the source via the ISP.
To put it simply, the modem “gets” the Internet, converting its analog signals to the digital signals that computer and cellphones use, then sends it to the router, which then shares it between and betwixt various devices, coordinating the signals.
The router handles the data packets – both between devices or between devices and the Internet – instantaneously and simultaneously, using an assigned local IP address for each device. The router ensures data is received where it’s meant to be received, sent to where it needed to be sent.
Different types of routers include Internet Connectivity Routers (used in Border Gateway Protocol), Edge routers (for host systems), Subscriber Edge Routers (using the EBGP protocol for enterprise organizations), and Inter Provider Border Routers, and Core Routers.
There are also differences between wired and wireless routers: while the best router for gaming or high-speed data transfer in government offices could be either of the two, a wired router will only allow LAN ports, and a Wi-Fi router has an antenna and wireless adapter. These days, of course, most routers have LAN cable ports as well as Wi-Fi wireless device connectivity.
Router VS Switch
We now begin to compare router to these other networking devices, starting with a Router VS Switch comparison. Those who have read or heard about switches before might already be a bit wary – does a switch also not connect devices, in the way that we explained routers do?
A switch (known interchangeably as a network switch, switching hub, bridging hub, or a MAC bridge) can, yes, connect the different devices on a network, just as routers can.
Routers, on the other hand, can also connect different networks, even being able to link devices from one network to devices in another network altogether.
We talked about routers and IP addresses in the previous section. It is these IP addresses that allow for internetwork connection for routers, whereas a switch is confined to their single network, using MAC addresses (hence it being called a MAC bridge).
On a more technical level, switches can be also considered less sophisticated than routers and less “intelligent” because unless they’re multilayered, switches usually operate at layer two, the data link later, of the Open System Interconnection model, whereas routers are layered in the standard Open System Interconnection models at layer 3, network.
While routers are both wired and wireless, switches are always wired: the real benefit of switches exists in situations where you need to add more computers to the router when you run out of ports on your wired router.
Another plus point in favor of switches is that they’re pretty much plug-and-play, no prior configuration needed, whereas routers come with their OS built-in, requiring configuration before they can be used. Even the best Ethernet switches out there, then, do what you need them to do perfectly well, but it might not be something many of us need in the way home networks are usually set up.
A further few differences exist between router vs switch wherein we notice:
- Routers can offer services such as NAT, NetFlow, and QoS, whereas a Switch cannot.
- A router is a networking device, and a switch is primarily a multi-port bridge.
- A switch typically works faster than a router in a LAN environment, but in many other network environments such a MAN and WAN, a router is faster across the board.
- Every port has its broadcast domain in a router as compared to a switch, with only one broadcast domain.
Something of note to be mentioned here is the difference between a switch and a hub, usually taken to mean the same thing by most people because of similar structure:
While a switch manages and routes data signals and traffic between multiple devices, a hub (which is pretty uncommonly used in homes and personal networks) merely copies a signal onto all devices connected to it. The hub operates on the physical layer in half-duplex transmission mode and a switch on the data link layer (full-duplex). While they’re both used in LAN, the hub is a passive device that uses electrical signal orbits whereas the switch is an active device using packets and frames.
Understanding Access Points
From the last section, we’ve seen that the utility of switches is fairly limited and only seems to solve a certain specific problem due to them being wired, whereas most home and professional networks now require wireless solutions.
Enter wireless access points: these allow you to extend your connectivity over a larger area by boosting the Wi-Fi signal to any devices that need it.
An access point first connects to the router over Ethernet, thus enabling devices without Ethernet to communicate with it via the Wi-Fi. A router can be an access point, as we’ll see in the next paragraph, but an access point can’t work as a router.
Thus, it’s not always a question of pitting the wireless access point VS routers, but instead of seeing how they can complement each other, such as in mesh network kits (more on that at the end of this section).
Many routers can be set up either in Router mode or Wireless Access Point mode. Restricting it to the latter, you forgo certain features and functions: no parental control option, no access or bandwidth control, no QoS, NAT Forwarding, IPv6, nor VPN capabilities are retained by the router.
You might have also heard of mesh networking and range extenders.
Both of these utilize or act as wireless access points with a router already in place to extend the Wi-Fi range over a larger area than the router itself would have the ability to blanket. While most routers being sold for homes usually have wireless access points built-in, multiple wireless access points can be used to extend a single connection over a large area, making them very common for the Wi-Fi architecture of commercial buildings and businesses.
Ultimately – combining what we’ve learned in the sections up till here – what you or most people might have in their homes is something called a wireless router, which is a router, which includes a wireless access point built-in. It might be connected to a switch in, let’s say, a research computer lab in a university where multiple physical connections are needed, and then the architecture might require and have external wireless APs at various key locations in the building to make sure anyone can connect to the Wi-Fi or Internet at any location instead of needing to stay put in one place.
Drawing A Line: Gateway VS Router
After discussing routers, switches, and wireless APs, let’s talk about gateways and their relationship with routers. What is the difference between a gateway and a router, and how do they work together?
Routers regulate data packet traffic between two or more networks, as we’ve learned. Gateways do the same, but routers can only work with similar networks, and gateways with dissimilar networks, such as a PC network with a NetWare network, or a Windows NT network with a 3270-mainframe environment, making communication possible where it otherwise wouldn’t be.
In contrast, routers are used for similar networks (and thus used primarily for connecting to the Internet) such as those using TCP/IP protocols, ensuring that the Internet traffic doesn’t bleed on to the local network, and vice versa.
In other words, the gateway (also known as the protocol converter) is a network entity that allows for computers on two networks of different protocols to connect and communicate, acting as the entry (and exit) point and defining the boundaries for any and every network.
Thus, the router forwards and routes packets of data and traffic from one network to another based on internal routing tables, deciding how and where to send each packet, whereas the gateway converts the data packets protocols from one format to another.
Similar to what we discussed in the section on Switches, while routers can have features such as a DHCP server, NAT, IPv6, et cetera, gateways just convert protocol such as VoIP to Network Access Control, and so on. Additionally, routers support both static and dynamic routing, whereas a gateway doesn’t, while a gateway can also be a virtual appliance as opposed to purely dedicated physical hardware. A gateway also works up to layer 5 in the OSI and is much crucial to the entire network, needed to be protected from viruses and physical damage.
Knowing about these different devices and their function and distinctions will help you not only in understanding Wi-Fi architectures better but is also practical knowledge that you can apply right now, knowing how these devices interact and complement each other.