What do I need to know about Networking?

You've just started your first semester at SAIT in the Information Technology program under one of the 4 majors: Computer Systems (ITCS), Software Development (ITSD), Network Systems (ITNS) or Telecom Systems ITTS) and you have to take Intro to Networking. If you are an ITNS or ITTS student then it makes sense as these majors are up to their necks in networking. But why should ITCS and ITNS have to take them?

Let's take a look at the Computer Systems major first - If you wanted to just fix PCs, then you really don't need to go through the ITCS major. You could take a crash course and become A+ certified then work fixing and installing home computers at the Future Shop for minimum wage along with a dime-a-dozen other self-taught PC experts. So what is different about the 2 year ITCS major?

PCs, Servers and Security - In the ITCS major, you learn about PCs in the first semester, then you graduate to server hardware, server farms and virtualization. You learn about administration of servers - this includes not only user accounts but applications and the interaction of applications across servers. Virtualization is creating multiple virtual images of servers running on one physical piece of hardware. That piece of hardware might span several racks of equipment or even across a city, province, country or the world. The data can be stored on Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices or Storage Area Networks (SANs)

The Network - Once we get the big picture of servers and server farms, we realize that the component that interconnects everything is networks. In order to compete and work at the bleeding edge high paying jobs, you need to know how networks work and the path that the data takes as it transverses through the LAN, across a WAN connection. You have to know the technology behind the network so that you can converse intelligently with the network experts to build, install, design and troubleshoot your server farms or connect your branch office servers to headquarters. A solid knowledge of networking is a must for the ITCS major - that is specifically what the computer system's industry told us when the ITCS major was designed.

What about the ITSD major? - Software programming - that's what the ITSD major is all about. "Who cares about networking, I don't have to know about it because it has nothing to do with software programming!" - this is what some first semester ITSD students think! These students couldn't be more wrong!

Wrong about Networking? - The state of the art for software programming in the 1980s was to create a program that would run on one PC or a program that would run on a minicomputer or mainframe that was connected by terminals. Did you need to know anything about networking? Not much really as the data and users were limited to those platforms.

That was Yesterday - What about Today? - Today, almost every program is expected to be able to run on a server that is connected to its clients across the Internet! Mobile devices like iPods, iPads, smart phones, PCs, Laptops and PDAs. How are these devices connected? They are connected by network equipment! It is easy to create an application that works perfectly fine on a Local Area Network (LAN) but may crash when running across a city on a Metropolitan Area Network and may not even work across a province or the Internet using a Wide Area Network (WAN).

Network Protocols? - The network protocols used for a LAN where your software works fine are not the same protocols used on a WAN. The security used on a LAN is not the same security that is used across a WAN connection. A solid understanding of what happens to your data and how the network affects it is absolutely important. Like the ITCS major, a solid knowledge of networking is a must for the ITSD major and that is specifically what the software industry told us when the ITCS major was designed.

It doesn't stop there! - We talked about how server farms can be spread across a LAN, or a MAN or even spread across the Internet. Data can be spread across Storage Area Networks or Network Area Storage devices. Servers can be spread out by application: you can have a web server front end for a database server which uses a file server for distributing files and a custom application like a voice over IP private branch exchange running. All of these servers could be individual server farms spread across the Internet and connected together by network equipment.

Facebook - Do you think Mark Zuckerberg knew little about networking when he started Facebook? He had a solid understanding of how the network worked and the protocols that are used. Facebook doesn't run on just one server - it runs on thousands of servers connected together by the Internet which consists of thousands of networks connected together by WANs. You want to build the next killer app? You better have a solid understanding of networking otherwise go back to the 80s.


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Copyright Jan 2013 Eugene Blanchard