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Networking Primer

What are the Benefits of Computer Networking?

The most obvious benefit of computer networking is that you can store virtually any kind of information at, and retrieve it from, a central location on the network as well as access it from any connected computer. You can store, retrieve, and modify textual information such as letters and contracts, audio information such as voice messages, and visual images such as facsimiles, photographs, medical x-rays, and even video segments.

A network also enables you to combine the power and capabilities of diverse equipment and to provide a collaborative medium to combine the skills of different people—regardless of physical location. Computer networking enables people to share information and ideas easily, so they can work more efficiently and productively. Networks also improve commercial activities such as purchasing, selling, and customer service. Networks are making traditional business processes more efficient, more manageable, and less expensive.

Cost-Effective Resource Sharing

By networking your business computers you can reduce the amount of money you spend on hardware by sharing components and peripherals while also reducing the amount of time you spend managing your computer system.

Equipment sharing is extremely beneficial: when you share resources, you can buy equipment with features that you would not otherwise be able to afford as well as utilize the full potential of that equipment on your network. A properly designed network can result in both lower equipment costs and increased productivity.

Suppose that you had a number of unconnected computers. Employees using these computers would not be able to print unless you purchased a printer for each computer or unless users manually transferred files to computers with printers. In this scenario you would be choosing between hardware and labor expenses.

Networking the computers would give you other alternatives. Because all users could share any networked printer, you would not need to buy a printer for every computer. As a result, instead of buying numerous inexpensive, low-end printers that would sit idle most of the time, you could buy a few inexpensive printers and a few printers with high-end productivity features. The more powerful printers would be able to print more rapidly and with better quality than the less expensive ones. In addition, the more powerful printers might also be able to print in color and to sort, staple, or bind documents.

When you select the right mix of printers and assign each network user appropriate access to them, you have enough printing power to address the needs of all of your employees. Rather than leave expensive equipment idle, you provide your employees with the latest, most powerful productivity features—all for a significantly lower cost than if you were to purchase an inexpensive printer for each workstation on the network.

A network enables you to share any networkable equipment and realize the same benefits that you would enjoy from sharing printers. On a network, you can share e-mail systems, modems, facsimile machines, data storage devices such as hard disks and CD-ROM drives, data backup devices such as tape drives, and all network-enabled software. When you compare the costs associated with sharing these resources to the costs of purchasing them for each computer, the savings can be enormous.

A network also enables you to save money on software. Instead of buying separate copies of the same application for various machines, you can purchase one copy with enough user licenses for your network. In large businesses the amount of money saved on software is substantial.

Finally, you will also be able to reduce your administrative overhead. On a computer network, updates to software, changes in user information, and network security can all be accomplished from one location. With standalone computers you would be required to make these updates on each individual computer workstation.

Streamlined Business Processes

A well-designed computer network produces benefits on several fronts: within the company, between companies, and between companies and their customers. Within the company, networks enable businesses to streamline their internal business processes. Common tasks such as employee collaboration on projects, provisioning, and holding meetings can take less time and be much less expensive. For example, a managing editor, associate editors, writers, and artists may need to work together on a publication. With a computer network they can work on the same electronic files, each from their own computers, without copying or transferring files from a floppy disk. If the applications they are using feature basic integration with the network operating system (NOS), they can open, view, or print the same files simultaneously.

Provisioning, the process by which companies give new employees everything they need to get started (workstation, ID card, etc.), can be automated on a network. All the new employee's information can be entered into one terminal, and various departments such as properties, payroll, and security will receive that new information automatically. When an employee leaves the company, the process can be reversed just as easily.

Networks also make holding meetings more efficient. For example, collaboration software can search through a number of busy schedules to find time for a meeting—including the schedules of employees at different locations. The meeting can be held over the network through a teleconferencing session, thus eliminating the travel cost for those employees at remote sites. The attendees can simultaneously view and edit the same document and instantaneously view each other's changes as they are made. Moreover, they can do this without worrying about accidentally changing or deleting the work of others.

Freedom to Choose the Right Tool

A networking solution that enables data and resource sharing between different types or brands of hardware, operating systems, and communication protocols—an open networking environment—adds another dimension to the information-sharing capabilities inherent in computer networking. Open networking products enable you to work on the type of computer best suited to your job requirements without encountering compatibility problems. They also allow you to choose the system that best works in your environment without sacrificing interoperability with other companies' systems.

The opposite of the open networking environment is the proprietary or homogeneous environment in which only one vendor's products are used. Proprietary environments tend to be most successful in small companies that do not require a wide range of functions from their network. Medium- and large-sized companies, however, find that one computing platform is often more appropriate for a particular task than another. In an open environment you can combine many kinds of workstations and systems to take advantage of the strengths of each. For example, network users can use IBM personal computers (PCs) running any version of Windows or DOS, Macintosh computers running a version of the Macintosh operating system (OS), Sun workstations running the UNIX OS, and other types of computers all on the same network. You can use the computer equipment best suited to the work you do and your equipment will still be compatible with other systems. Most important, it will be compatible with systems in other companies.

Powerful, Flexible Collaboration between Companies

When two or more companies connect selected portions of their networks, they can streamline business processes that normally occupy inordinate amounts of time and effort and that often become weak points in their productivity. For example, a manufacturing company that grants its suppliers access to the inventory control database on its network can drastically cut down on the time it takes to order parts and supplies. The network could be configured to alert suppliers immediately when the manufacturer needed a new shipment, the purchase order could be automatically generated, and authorization could be granted electronically—all over the network.

Improved Customer Relations

The most obvious way in which networks connect businesses to customers is through the electronic store front—a Web site where customers can search for and order products and services over the Internet. Many customers enjoy the convenience of shopping at home, and many businesses enjoy the expense saved over maintaining several physical "brick and mortar" stores. But networks provide customers with more benefits than simple convenience: they also make it easier for businesses to customize services for each customer and to respond more quickly to customer concerns. Networks speed the flow and analysis of data so that businesses can determine which products their customers want most at each of their physical stores, for example, or so they can catalog and analyze customer complaints and make necessary improvements faster and more efficiently. Companies that maximize the capacities of their networks gather, analyze, and disseminate critical marketing information quickly, which can give them an advantage over their competitors.

Secure Management of Sensitive Information

Another significant advantage of computer networking is the ability to protect access to network resources and files. A network that is properly designed has extremely powerful security features that enable you to control who will have access to sensitive data, equipment, and other resources. This control can be exercised over both your own employees and those outside your company who access your system over the Internet.

Worldwide, Instantaneous Access to Information

If you choose a networking platform that offers a full suite of products—including robust directory services—and one that supports open standards, you will be able to securely connect heterogeneous computing equipment located at geographically separated sites into one cohesive network. As a result, you will be able to disseminate critical information to multiple locations anywhere in the world, almost instantaneously.

When you implement a business intranet, you can create or update information and make it accessible to all company employees easily and immediately. With Web publishing tools and a World Wide Web server running on your intranet you can create or change any information, and you can have that information automatically and instantaneously published on your Web server.

With access to your business's intranet and Web server, your employees will be able to access any new or updated information from anywhere in the world within a few seconds after it is published. The Internet provides the low-cost backbone for global access to your intranet. Web browsers and other intranet tools make it easy for even a novice computer user to access the information and intranet resources they need.

Integrated, flexible information sharing, instantaneous information updating and access, lower equipment costs, flexible use of computing power, secure management of sensitive information—these are the benefits of computer networking. With a properly designed and implemented network, you increase efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

The remainder of this primer is divided into sections designed to explain the fundamentals of computer networking as well as define the various technologies with which it is associated. The following topics will be explained (in this order) in the corresponding sections:

  • Application Software—Introduces computer applications and their function both on standalone computers and in a network.
  • Desktop Operating System—Explains the role of the desktop operating system as the link between the application, the computer hardware, and the rest of the network.
  • Data Transmission—Details how information must be converted into electronic data and then transmitted from one computer to another through the various levels of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model.
  • Hardware Technology—Defines the hardware required to connect computers on a network.
  • Network Operating System—Explains how the network operating system serves as the control center of the entire network.
  • Network Topologies—Explains the configuration options of the various types of computer networks.
  • Internetworking—Explains how networks can be expanded, combined, or partitioned.
  • Real-World Networking—Examines the implementation of an actual versus a theoretical network.
  • Important LAN and WAN High-Speed Technologies—Explains several technologies used in both local area network (LAN) and wide area network (WAN) environments that provide high-speed data transfer.
  • Internet Technology—Explains how the Internet has affected modern computer networking and how Internet technologies are now being used in business networks.
  • Network Management—Explains the complex nature of network management, including extended sections on network security and directory services.

These sections are arranged to guide you from the most fundamental aspects of computer networking (the user interface) to the more complex (high-speed technologies and network management). Each section builds upon the information discussed in previous sections.

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