Network architecture can be many different things. In some cases, it refers to the planning, specifications and placement of physical parts of a networked system, such as a phone or computer network. Other usages refer only to the actual physical parts of those systems. When the network will be used by a service provider, the architecture may contain usage and billing information as well. Lastly, the term is occasionally used to describe the specifics of a single network, such as number of computers and wireless capabilities.
The original usage of the term "network architecture" placed it specifically in the planning phase of a project. While these plans had relation to physical objects, the term did not. When a network of connected devices, such as telephones and computers, was planned out, the result was a network architecture schematic. The actual plans were generally very basic; they would be more of a guideline than anything else.
In time, the network architecture schematic began to contain additional material relating to the network. Specific physical objects were assigned positions based on the plan. In addition, certain internal specifications would end up laid out as well. In the end, the architecture began to look more like a blueprint than a basic layout.
At this point, the term began to have more of a physical meaning. Service providers began using network architecture plans for a wide variety of things. They would lay out their physical network based on a network architecture plan. They would use the plan to locate bottlenecks in their system, as well as determine rates and population usage.
This is when the term made the full transition to physical. When buildings are wired with network feeds, both the plan to make the network and the physical network itself will be called network architecture. The process by which the Internet, conventional and cell phone companies transfer information uses the term as well. This broad use of a single term can create confusion, especially where those systems overlap.
The last main area where the term is used is as a description of individual network specifics. These cover areas like the number of computers on the system and whether they are wireless or wired. The term also may refer to a network using only a specific company’s hardware, such as a Cisco® Network Architecture. In this case, it would not only mean that the system uses only Cisco® products, but also adheres to their specific network protocols as well.