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A brief index of network configuration basics

This glossary of terms provides a brief overview of network configuration and some of the crucial components involved -- many of which remain as necessary as ever.

In the advent of transformative networking initiatives, such as virtualization and intent-based networking, one universal aspect remains consistently essential: network configuration.

Network configuration is the process of setting a network's devices, policies, flows and operations to support network communication throughout an organization. In other words, it's the network setup. Ultimately, this results in a network topology that network teams can manage.

Recently, network configuration has moved from traditional, time-consuming, manual configurations to increasingly automated configurations. These changes can help optimize security, streamline network maintenance and minimize human errors in change management.

Network teams can use network configuration to reduce downtime, as they can find and make changes in a timely manner. They can also update both hardware and software components and pinpoint where they want to improve visibility and accountability in the network.

Teams should archive any network configuration changes so they can be rolled back if necessary. Device changes should also be consistently managed to ensure they don't adversely affect other devices.

To get started with some network configuration basics, it's important to establish a vocabulary of the devices, processes and methodologies involved. Dive into this cheat sheet of essential key terms, phrases and extra tidbits of information.

Index for network configuration basics

Router. A router is an appliance that passes information between two or more packet-switched networks. Specifically, a router analyzes a packet's destination, calculates the best way to reach that destination and forwards information accordingly.

The different types of routers include core, enterprise, edge and branch. Routers can be virtual or physical appliances, and other devices -- such as switches or access points -- can include built-in router functionality.

Beyond the network configuration basics: Network teams configure routers so they can communicate with the networks securely and properly. Traditionally, network teams configured each router manually using the command-line interface, so making any changes could be a tedious task.

Switch. A switch moves data from an input port to the specific output port that will move the data to its destination within the network. Two common switch types are virtual switches, which are software-only, and routing switches, which connect LANs. Switches make up the majority of the devices that create a network topology.

Beyond the network configuration basics: Similar to routers, teams configure switches so they can securely communicate with the rest of the network. Switches move data from different interconnects of the network topology.

Network topology. A network's topology is its arrangement of devices, nodes and connecting lines. Topologies are both physical -- as in the physical layout of workstations -- and logical, where the nature of the path signals follow from one node to another.

Topology types include bus, star, ring, token ring, mesh and tree. Logical topologies are sometimes the same design as the physical type, but they operate differently at times. For example, a physical topology could be a star, but the network may operate as a bus.

Beyond the network configuration basics: Network topology is the end result of network configuration and how a team structures it. Organizations design their topology based on business size, performance requirements, data flows and available connectivity, among other considerations.

Network configuration management. Network configuration management is the process of organizing and maintaining information about the network's components. Teams refer to the management database to figure out the best course of action for reparations, modifications, expansions or upgrades. The database itself includes locations, IP addresses, default settings, updates and more.

Beyond the network configuration basics: Unsurprisingly, network configuration management is the actual process of managing and maintaining one's network configuration. Network teams can use network configuration management to verify policies, fix errors, and document and analyze network changes. This can be done manually or through automation.

Automation. Automation involves software automatically configuring, provisioning, managing and testing network devices. It can be used to roll out policy changes and software updates, among other capabilities. Enterprises and service providers use automation to improve efficiency, reduce the possibility of human error and lower operational expenses.

Beyond the network configuration basics: More and more often, teams are turning to automation for network configuration management instead of setting it up manually. Automation tools support many basic network functions and complex workflows. Any device or resource controlled with a command-line interface or application programming interface can be automated.

Network orchestration. Network orchestration is sometimes confused with automation. While the two are similar, orchestration is the process of applying a series of configurations in an orchestrated way using automation. Orchestration can coordinate hardware and software that applications or services require to function, for example. The goals of orchestration are to automate workflows and minimize the amount of human intervention necessary to deliver applications and services.

Beyond the network configuration basics: Teams can use orchestration to define their own gateways, routers and security groups in a network configuration and to automate network workflows. The teams can use analytics to decide where to deploy resources for improved network performance.

Intent-based networking. Intent-based networking (IBN) is a networking architecture that incorporates advanced analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate a network's administrative duties. Although IBN is still immature, it touts the potential to use network automation and orchestration to change how network configurations are deployed.

Beyond the network configuration basics: Instead of a network team making changes based on a network topology, for example, it can submit requests to an IBN system that suggests possible configurations based on network behavior. If the team approves the configurations, the IBN system can implement them.

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