The term topology refers to the way a network is laid out, either physically or logically. Two or more devices connect to a link; two or more links form a topology. The topology of a network is the geometric representation of the relationship of all the links and linking devices (usually called nodes) to each other. There are five basic topologies possible: mesh, star, tree, bus, and ring.

These five labels describe how the devices in a network are interconnected rather than their physical arrangement. For example, having a star topology does not mean that all of the computers in the network must be placed physically around a hub in a star shape. A consideration when choosing a topology is the relative status of the devices be linked. Two relationships are possible: peer-to-peer, where the devices share the link equally, and primary-secondary, where one device controls traffic and the others must transmit through it. Ring and mesh topologies are more convenient for peer-to-peer transmission, while star and tree are more convenient for primary-secondary, bus topology is equally convenient for either.

In a mesh topology, every device has a dedicated point-to-point link to every other device. The term dedicated means that the link carries traffic only between the two devices it connects. A fully connected mesh network therefore has n*(n - l)/2 physical channels to link n devices. To accommodate that many links, every device on the network must have 7 input/output (I/O) ports.

A mesh offers several advantages over other network topologies. First, the use of dedicated links guarantees that each connection can carry its own data load, thus eliminating the traffic problems that can occur when links must be shared by multiple devices.

Second, a mesh topology is robust. If one link becomes unusable, it does not incapacitate the entire system.

Another advantage is privacy or security. When every message sent travels along dedicated line, only the intended recipient sees it. Physical boundaries prevent other users from gaining access to messages.

Finally, point-to-point links make fault identification and fault isolation easy. Traffic can be routed to avoid links with suspected problems. This facility enables the network manager to discover the precise location of the fault and aids in finding its cause and solution.

The main disadvantages of a mesh are related to the amount of cabling and the number of I/O ports required. First, because every device must be connected to ever other device, installation and reconfiguration are difficult. Second, the sheer bulk of the wiring can be greater than the available space (in walls, ceilings, or floors) can accommodate. And, finally, the hardware required connecting each link (I/O ports and cable can be prohibitively expensive). For these reasons a mesh topology is usually implemented in a limited fashion—for example, as a backbone connecting the main computers of a hybrid network that can include several other topologies.

In a star topology, each device has a dedicated point-to-point link only to a central controller, usually called a hub. The devices are not directly linked to each other. Unlike a mesh topology, a star topology does not allow direct traffic between devices. The controller acts as an exchange. If one device wants to send data to another, it sends the data to the controller, which then relays the data to the other connected device.

A star topology is less expensive than a mesh topology. In a star, each device needs only one link and one I/O port to connect it to any number of others. This factor also makes it easy to install and reconfigure. Far less cabling needs to be housed, and additions, moves, and deletions involve only one connection: between that device and the hub.
Other advantages include robustness. If one link fails, only that link is affected. All other links remain active. This factor also lends itself to easy fault identification and fault isolation. As long as the hub is working, it can be used to monitor link problems and bypass defective links.
However, although a star requires far less cable than a mesh, each node must be linked to a central hub. For this reason more cabling is required in a star than in some other topologies (such as tree, ring, or bus).

A tree topology is a variation of a star. As in a star, nodes in a tree are linked to a central hub that controls the traffic to the network. However, not every device plugs directly into the central hub. The majority of devices connect to a secondary hub that in turn is connected to the central hub.
The central hub in the tree is an active hub. An active hub contains a repeater, which is a hardware device that regenerates the received bit patterns before sending them out. Repeating strengthens trans- missions and increases the distance a signal can travel.

The secondary hubs may be active or passive hubs. A passive hub provides a simple physical connection between the attached devices.

The advantages and disadvantages of a tree topology are generally the same as those of a star. The addition of secondary hubs, however, brings two further advantages. First, it allows more devices to be attached to a single central hub and can therefore increase the distance a signal can travel between devices. Second, it allows the network to isolate and prioritize communications from different computers. For example, the computers attached to one secondary hub can be given priority over computers attached to another secondary hub. In this way, the network designers and operator can guarantee that time-sensitive data will not have to wait for access to the network.

A good example of tree topology can be seen in cable TV technology where the main cable from the main office is divided into main branches and each branch is divided into smaller branches and so on. The hubs are used when a cable is divided.

The preceding examples all describe point-to-point configurations. A bus topology, on the other hand, is multipoint. One long cable acts as a backbone to link all the devices in the network.

Nodes are connected to the bus cable by drop lines and taps. A drop line is a connection running between the device and the main cable. A tap is a connector that either splices into the main cable or punctures the sheathing of a cable to create a contact with the metallic core. As a signal travels along the backbone, some of its energy is transformed into heat. Therefore, it becomes weaker and weaker the farther it has to travel. For this reason there is a limit on the number of taps a bus can support and on the distance between those taps.

Advantages of a bus topology include ease of installation. Backbone cable can be laid along the most efficient path, then connected to the nodes by drop lines of various lengths. In this way, a bus uses less cabling than mesh, star, or tree topologies. In a star, for example, four network devices in the same room require four lengths of cable reaching all the way to the hub. In a bus, this redundancy is eliminated. Only the backbone cable stretches through the entire facility. Each drop line has to reach only as far as the nearest point on the backbone.

Disadvantages include difficult reconfiguration and fault isolation. A bus is usually designed to be optimally efficient at installation. It can therefore be difficult to add new devices. As mentioned above, signal reflection at the taps can cause degradation in quality. This degradation can be controlled by limiting the number and spacing of devices connected to a given length of cable. Adding new devices may therefore require modification or replacement of the backbone.

In addition, a fault or break in the bus cable stops all transmission, even between devices on the same side of the problem. The damaged area reflects signals back in the direction of origin, creating noise in both directions.

In a ring topology, each device has a dedicated point-to-point line configuration only with the two devices on either side of it. A signal is passed along the ring in one direction, from device to device, until it reaches its destination. Each device in the ring incorporates a repeater. When a device receives a signal intended for another device, its repeater regenerates the bits and passes them along.

A ring is relatively easy to install and reconfigure. Each device is linked only to its immediate neighbors (either physically or logically). To add or delete a device requires moving only two connections. The only constraints are media and traffic considerations (maximum ring length and number of devices). In addition, fault isolation is simplified. Generally in a ring, a signal is circulating at all times. If one device does not receive a signal within a specified period, it can issue an alarm. The alarm alerts the network operator to the problem and its location.

However, unidirectional traffic can be a disadvantage. In a simple ring, a break in the ring (such as a disabled station) can disable the entire network. This weakness can be solved by using a dual ring or a switch capable of closing off the break.

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