Have you noticed the speed of your internet increase when connected to Wi-Fi opposed to us just using the regular 4G network? Well, you gotta thank the Wi-Fi router for that, it makes our browsing experience seamless. Depending on which country you live in, the speed variance could be twice if not more. We are living in a time where the speed of the internet has gone up so much that now we measure our internet speed in Gigabits as opposed to kilobits just a few years ago. It is natural for us to expect improvements in our wireless devices as well with the advent of new exciting technologies that are emerging in the wireless market.
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What is a Wi-Fi Router?
In simple words, a Wi-Fi router is nothing but a small box with short antennas that helps transmit the internet throughout your house or office.
A router is a hardware device that acts as a bridge between the modem & the computer. As the name suggests, it routes the traffic between the devices that you use and the internet. Selecting the right type of router plays an important role in determining the fastest internet experience, protection from cyber threats, firewalls, etc.
It is completely fine if you don’t have technical knowledge of how a router works. Let’s understand from a simple example of how a router works.
You might have a wide variety of devices like smartphones, laptops, tablets, printers, smart TVs, and much more that get connected to the internet. These devices together form a network that is called the Local Area Network (LAN). The presence of more & more devices on the LAN results in the consumption of different bandwidths across various devices used, which might result in delays or disruption of the internet in some devices.
This is where the router comes in by enabling the transmission of information across these devices seamlessly by directing the incoming & outgoing traffic the most efficient way possible.
One of the primary functions of a router is to act as a Hub or Switch between computers allowing data assimilation and transfer between them to happen seamlessly.
To process all of these huge amounts of incoming and outgoing data, the router has to be smart, and hence a router is a computer in its own way since it has a CPU & Memory, which helps to deal with incoming & outgoing data.
A typical router performs a variety of complex functions like
- Providing the highest security level from the firewall
- Data transfer between computers or network devices that use the same internet connection
- Enable the use of the internet across multiple devices simultaneously
What are the benefits of a Router?
1. Delivers faster wifi signals
The modern age Wi-Fi routers use layer 3 devices that typically have a range of 2.4 GHz to 5 GHz range that helps in providing faster Wi-Fi signals and extended range than the previous standards.
A router isolates an affected network and passes the data through other networks that are working perfectly, which makes it a reliable source.
A wireless router eliminates the need for wired connection with the devices by sending Wi-Fi signals, thereby assures the highest degree of portability of a network of connected devices.
There are two different types of routers :
a) Wired router: It connects directly to the computers using cables through a dedicated port that allows the router to distribute information
b) Wireless Router: It is a modern age router that distributes information through antennas wirelessly across multiple devices connected to its local area network.
To understand the working of a router, we need to first look into the components. The basic components of a router include:
- CPU: It is the primary controller of the router that executes the commands of the operating system of the router. It also helps in system initialization, network interface control, etc.
- ROM: The read-only memory contains that bootstrap program & Power on diagnostic programs (POST)
- RAM: The random access memory stores the routing tables and the running configuration files. The contents of the RAM get deleted upon powering the router on and off.
- NVRAM: The non-volatile RAM holds the startup configuration file. Unlike the RAM it stores the content even after the router is switched on and off
- Flash Memory: It stores the images of the operating system and works as a reprogrammable ROM.
- Network Interfaces: The interfaces are the physical connection ports that enable different types of cables to be connected to the router like ethernet, Fiber distributed Data interface (FDDI), integrated services digital network (ISDN), etc.
- Buses: The bus acts as a bridge of communication between the CPU and the interface, which helps in the transfer of the data packets.
What are the functions of a Router?
One of the primary functions of a router is to forward the data packets through the route specified in the routing table.
It uses certain internal pre-configured directives that are called as the static routes to forward data between incoming and outgoing interface connections.
The router can also use dynamic routing where it forwards the data packets via different routes based on the conditions within the system.
The static routing provides more security to the system compared to dynamic since the routing table does not change unless the user manually changes it.
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The routers take into account multiple alternatives to reach the same destination. This is called path determination. The two main factors considered for path determination are:
- The source of information or the routing table
- The cost of taking each path – metric
To determine the optimal path, the router searches the routing table for a network address that completely matches the IP address of the destination packet.
The routing table has a network intelligence layer that directs the router to forward data packets to the destination. It contains the network associations that help the router to reach the destination IP address in the best possible way. The routing table contains the following information:
- Network Id – The destination IP address
- Metric – the path along which the data packet has to be sent.
- Hop – is the gateway through which the data packets have to be sent for reaching the final destination.
The router provides an additional layer of security to the network using a firewall that prevents any type of cybercrime or hacking. A firewall is a specialized software that analyses the incoming data from the packets and protects the network from cyber-attacks.
The routers also provide Virtual Private Network (VPN) that provides an additional security layer to the network and thereby generate a secure connection.
Forwarding is the actual process of the transmission of the data packets across layers. The routing table helps to select the best possible route while the forwarding table puts the route into action.
How does Routing work?
- The router reads the destination IP address of the incoming data packet
- Based on this incoming data packet, it selects the appropriate path using routing tables.
- The data packets are then forwarded to the final destination IP address through hops using the forwarding table.
In simple words, routing is the process of transmitting the data packets from destination A to destination B using the required information in an optimum way.
A switch plays a very important role in sharing information across devices that are connected to each other. Switches are generally used for larger networks where all the devices connected together form a Local Area Network (LAN). Unlike a router, the switch sends data packets only to a specific device configured by the user.
We can understand more with a small example :
Let’s say you want to send a photo to your friend on WhatsApp. As soon as you post the picture of your friend, the source & the destination IP address are determined, and the photograph is broken into small bits called the data packets that have to be sent to the final destination.
The router helps to find out the optimum way to transfer these data packets to the destination IP address using routing and forwarding algorithms and manage the traffic across the network. If one route is congested, the router finds all the possible alternative routes to deliver the packets to the destination IP address.
Today, we are surrounded by more Wi-Fi access points than any time in history, all of them straining to serve more and more data-hungry devices.
There are so many Wi-Fi signals, strong and weak alike that if we had a special way to see it, there would be a lot of pollution of airspace around.
Now, when we enter a high density & high demand areas such as airports, coffee shops, events, etc. the concentration of multiple users with wireless devices increases. The more people try to get online, the more amount of strain the access point goes through to serve the massive surge in demand. This reduces the bandwidth available to each user and reduces the speed significantly, giving rise to latency issues.
The 802.11 family of Wi-Fi dates back to 1997 and every performance improvements update to Wi-Fi since then has been made in three areas, which has been used as the metric to keep track of the improvement as well and they are
- spatial streams
- channel bonding
The modulation is the process of shaping an analog wave to transmit data, just like any audio tune that goes up and down till it reaches our ears (receiver). This particular wave is defined by a frequency where the amplitude & the phase are modified to indicate unique bits of information to the target. So, Stronger the frequency, the better the connectivity, but just like sound, there is only so much we can do to increase the volume if there is interference from other sounds are radio signals in our case, the quality suffers.
Spatial Streams are like having multiple streams of water coming out from the same river source. The river source might be quite strong, but one single stream is not capable of carrying such a high amount of water, so it gets divided into multiple streams to reach the end goal of meeting at the common reserve.
Wi-Fi does these using multiple antennas where multiple streams of data are interacting with the target device at the same time, this is known as MIMO (Multiple Input – Multiple Output)
When this interaction takes place amongst multiple targets, it is known as Multi-User(MU-MIMO), but here is the catch, “the target needs to be sufficiently far away from each other.”
At any given time the network runs on a single channel, Channel Bonding is nothing but combining smaller sub-divisions of a particular frequency to increase the strength between the target devices. The wireless Spectrum is very limited to specific frequencies and channels. Unfortunately, most of the devices run on the same frequency, so even if we increase the channel bonding, there would be other external interferences that would dampen the quality of the signal.
Also Read: How to Find My Router’s IP Address?
What is different about Wi-Fi 6 over its predecessor?
In short has as improved upon speed, reliability, stability, number of connections, and power efficiency.
If we delve deeper into it, we start to notice what makes Wi-Fi 6 so versatile is the addition of 4th metric Airtime Efficiency. All these while, we failed to account for the limited resource that the wireless frequency is. Thus, devices would fill in more channels or frequency than required and be connected far longer than needed, in simple words, a very inefficient mess.
Wi-Fi 6 (802.11 ax) protocol addresses this issue with OFDMA (Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access) where the transmission of data is optimized & combined to only use the required amount of resource requested. This is assigned and controlled by Access Point to deliver the target requested data payload and makes use of Downlink and Uplink MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple inputs, multiple outputs) to increase the efficiency of data transfer between devices. Utilizing the OFDMA, Wi-Fi devices can send and receive data packets on the local network at higher speeds and at the same time in parallel.
The parallel transfer of data improves the data transferability across the network in an extremely efficient manner without causing a drop in the existing downlink speeds.
What will happen to my old WI-FI devices?
This is a new standard of Wi-Fi set by the International Wi-Fi Alliance in September 2019. Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible, but there are some cosmetic changes.
Every network that we connect to runs on a different speed, latency, and bandwidth denoted by a certain letter after 802.11, such as 802.11b, 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.11n and 802.11ac which has baffled even the best of us.
All of this confusion got put to an end with Wi-Fi 6, and the Wi-Fi alliance changed the naming convention with this one. Every Wi-Fi version before this will be numbered between Wi-Fi 1-5 for the ease of expression.
Having a good understanding of a router’s works helps us to navigate and solve various issues we may face with our routers as well as Wi-Fi routers. We have put a lot of emphasis on Wi-Fi 6, as it is a new emerging wireless technology that we have to keep up with. Wi-Fi is about to disrupt not just our communication devices but also our day-to-day items like refrigerators, washing machines, cars, etc. But, no matter how much the technology changes, the fundamentals discussed, such as routing, routing tables, forwarding, switches, hubs, etc. still are the critical driving fundamental idea behind the exciting developments that are about to change our lives entirely for good.