The network is down until further notice! Welcome to the wonderful world of networks and networking!

Whether sweating the driver's test at the Department of Motor Vehicles, calling the state Department of Revenue to confirm that the check is really in the mail or buying groceries, most citizens encounter at least one computer network almost every day. Moreover, many people now spend much of their business and professional life working directly with computer networks. The phenomenal growth of networks over the last decade has woven them into the fabric of our life and society -- a trend that will continue as we move into the 21st century.

This growth trend goes well beyond universal acceptance of networking technology. Citizens now expect the efficiency and convenience of networks while loathing the network delays and downtime that inevitably occur. Those expectations will soon skyrocket as high bandwidth moves into the home.

For many cash-strapped localities, networking technology is a vital link in the effort to leverage thinning resources while delivering on promises of better service.

So, what is a network? Where did networks originate and where are they going? Before these questions are answered, we must first define some basic terms, including the definition of "networking," and outline some of the topics that fall under this general heading.

THE DEFINITION OF TERMS

Although there are many fine, modern definitions, the origins of the word "network" predate the electronic era by quite some time and provide some interesting insight. (Interestingly, the first published use of the word noted by the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1560.) For example, the 1913 edition of Websters Dictionary, courtesy of , contains the following:

"2. Any system of lines or channels interlacing or crossing like the fabric of a net; as, a network of veins; a network of railroads."

The roots of the word itself are even older. The derivation of "net" traces to the Latin word "nodus" meaning "knot" and "nectere" meaning "to bind."

The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing defines networking as: "Hardware and software data communication systems."

And finally, ZDNET's Webopedia definition is: "A group of two or more computer systems linked together."

These definitions cover a lot of ground. Some are simple, while others don't even relate to electronics, yet they all seem to describe a core concept: Two or more points or nodes (a point could be a railroad station or a computer) connected in some fashion (railroad tracks or telephone lines) involving interchange (goods and people across a railroad line or data bits on a computer network) forming a system (railroad track switching and routing of trains or the routing of packets over computer networks) for the purpose of speeding up the exchange of things (people and commodities on a railroad network or business information on a computer network).

So, networks exist to facilitate the exchange of communication and the delivery of goods or services, and they evolved from a need to speed up and enhance this exchange.

THE POWER TO TRANSFORM

Useful and technologically successful networks change society. Consider, for example, the impact on civilization of the Roman army's system of roads (parts of which are still in use today); the way the railroad network of the 1800s helped open the West; or how different America looks since the introduction of telephone and television networks during the 20th century.

Although many successful networks have transformed their societies, one of the most remarkable characteristics of computer networks is the speed with which they have effected radical change -- even when compared to the railroad or telephone networks that transformed society in record time. What's more, all indications point to the conclusion

David Aden  | 
David Aden DAden@webworldtech.com is a writer from Washington, D.C.