What is Network Architecture?

M. McGee

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.

Cat5 cable for use with a network.
Cat5 cable for use with a network.

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.

A wireless router can be part of the architecture of a network.
A wireless router can be part of the architecture of a network.

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.

Understanding the network architecture can make it much easier to locate faulty cables or other issues.
Understanding the network architecture can make it much easier to locate faulty cables or other issues.

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Discussion Comments


@MrMoody - Network architecture diagrams aren’t always pretty to look at either way, in my opinion.

I remember the first time I looked at a VOIP network architecture diagram, back when I was working in the telecommunications industry. You have icons here and there, and then you have this cloud, which is a symbol for the Internet.

Everything feeds into the cloud, where the magic happens, and then winds up on the receiver’s end where voice packets are reassembled and turned into voice calls. It’s somewhat of a loose diagram, but I guess that’s the nature of VOIP technology.


@Mammmood - That might work, but I think the point of the article is that sometimes you have networks that satisfy both of your conditions.

Typical network architecture topology deals with the physical hardware as well as the schematic diagrams. I don’t think the issue of confusion is a major one, personally. I believe the context of the diagram will reveal whether you are dealing with mere outlines or an actual blueprint of something physical.


The term architecture has been abstracted away from its physical origins for quite some time, from what I can tell.

The field that I work in, Information Technology, has given rise to terms like software architecture. Unlike network architecture, in software architecture we have only one meaning, and that is the software component.

It’s all digital; there are no brick buildings or wires or stuff like that. I think one way that you can remedy the confusion over the term network architecture is to qualify the terms some more.

For example, you can say “Network Hardware Architecture” when you mean brick and mortar stuff, and “Network Architecture” when you are simply dealing with the basic outline of a network.

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