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Network Architecture: Why is it important?

In an era of increasing network complexity, understanding the ins and outs of network architecture is more crucial than ever. This article comprehensively introduces network architecture and its various components, bridging the gap between NetOps professionals and the general audience interested in the subject.

What is Network Architecture?

Network architecture refers to a network’s structural and logical layout. It describes how the network devices are connected and the rules that govern data transfer between them.

There are many ways to approach network architecture design, which depend on the purpose and size of the network. Wide area networks (WAN), for example, refer to a group of interconnected networks often spanning large distances. Its network architecture will be vastly different from that of a local area network (LAN) of a smaller office branch.

Planning the network architecture is vital because it either enhances or hinders the performance of the entire system. Choosing the wrong transmission media or equipment for a particular expected server load, for instance, can cause slowdowns on the network.

Network architecture can also facilitate security, becoming increasingly important as more user devices connect to the network. The design and protocols of the network need to support quick and efficient user recognition and authorization.

Most network architectures adopt the Open Systems Interconnection Model or OSI. This conceptual model separates the network tasks into seven logical layers, from lowest to highest abstraction.

The Physical layer, for instance, deals with the wire and cable connections of the network. The highest layer, the Application layer, involves APIs that deal with application-specific functions like chat and file sharing.

The OSI model makes it easier to troubleshoot the network by isolating problem areas from each other.

network architecture

What does a network architect do?

A network architect is responsible for planning, designing, and implementing data communication networks that meet their organizations’ needs. Once deployed, these professionals monitor the network and perform network modeling tasks to assess future needs. Their typical job responsibilities include:

  • Planning and designing data communication networks
  • Presenting network plans to management staff
  • Overseeing the network implementation process, including setting schedules and budgets
  • Managing information and network security
  • Implementing upgrades to hardware and software as needed
  • Performing maintenance and repairs to network equipment
  • Keeping documentation of networks, including drawings, descriptions, and configurations
  • Researching network technologies and staying up to date on advancements in the field

What are the different types of network architecture?

Organizations have many different types of networks to choose from. It can be useful to loosely group them as private or internet-based networks.

Private networks
You have the most control over private networks such as your on-premises LANs and how you link networks at other facilities. For example, your network architecture could guide evaluations of the trade space between a telco’s managed WAN services, a vendor’s VPN technology, or emerging Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) solutions. However, private networks have a cost. You generally have to manage them yourself. Over time, they become more expensive and difficult to manage. And without constant vigilance, your network could fall prey to cyberattacks.

Public networks
Internet-based services are transforming the way business works. Cloud services can be more capable and performant than traditional software. Better yet, the vendor assumes responsibility for maintaining the underlying computing and networking systems. Administrative overhead, however, may offset some of those savings. Unless cloud services integrate with your security stack, for instance, you will be managing parallel access control systems.

Architecting trust
A new direction in network architecture design is undoing the legacy of trust. Typical corporate networks assume that certain users and devices directly connected to those networks are more trustworthy than others. This is why common technologies such as VPNs, which serve as entry points into those networks, have become vectors for cyberattacks. Traditional architectures mitigate these weaknesses through micro-segmentation, defense-in-depth, and other expensive measures. Zero trust network access (ZTNA) is a more modern approach to network architecture. Rather than defending a trusted network, ZTNA protects each resource individually. No matter who the user is, what device they use, or their method of connection, every attempt to access any resource requires authentication and authorization.

Network architecture design components

Understanding network architecture requires knowledge of its components. Here’s an overview of some of the more important components or building blocks of network architectures:

  • Hardware — It comprises all equipment that’s part of the network, including user devices, servers, gateways, switches, and routers.
  • Network protocols — These are the rules and models for how network devices share data. Protocols serve as a common language for different machines, enabling them to communicate with each other. An excellent example of a protocol is TCP/IP, a network protocol suite that governs online data transfer, keeping it safe and efficient.
  • Transmission media — These components include virtual or physical paths data uses to travel within a network. Transmission media can be wired or wireless, where the former contains all cables (primarily Ethernet cables). Meanwhile, the latter term refers to all wireless networks that use radio waves to transfer data, that is, Wi-Fi and cellular data transmission protocols like 4G or 5G.
  • Network topologies — A network topology represents the structure of a network. Each topology has its strengths and weaknesses. Most network architecture today uses a hybrid model that’s effectively a mesh of different topologies that compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

network architecture

Advantages and Disadvantages of Network Architecture

Some of the advantages of Network Architecture include efficiency, scalability, reliability, and automation. The automated management solution that comes with NA for security and network devices helps perform various tasks to backup and preserve configurations, which is essential to keep operations running.

Some of the disadvantages of Network Architecture are that purchasing the necessities for network architecture can be costly and it can last robustness when it comes to individual, physical servers. That means it also lacks independence in some scenarios. Lastly, viruses and malware are constant threats as infections can spread quickly throughout the network if they’re not contained.

Why are Network Architectures under pressure?

Today, to serve the exacting needs brought on by technology advancements and digital transformation initiatives, networks are called on to do more.

Access networks need to recognize, authenticate, and authorize user devices and smart things before bringing them on board. Data center networks need to connect applications in multiple data centers and clouds. WANs need to minimize costs and enhance user experience when serving distributed applications to distributed users.

Networks also need to be dynamic, agile, and in lockstep with business needs. Traditional, manually intensive methods of managing computer networks are proving to be unsustainable. New approaches are necessary, ones that require transformational changes in how networks are architected.

Conclusion

Network architecture governs how a network will operate, influencing many variables, including how costly it will be to set up and manage it as well as its security, robustness, scalability, and reliability. Every organization needs to choose the right type and track the network’s performance to ensure it is running smoothly.

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