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Wireless networking is a way of connecting devices to each other using radio signals.  Devices are joined together in a network, allowing them to communicate with each other. This "wirelessness" is essential whenever you want to place sensors where no cables can be installed, or where such tethering is undesirable. 

Network topologies describe the interaction and interconnection of the participants. This means how they communicate with each other and how they establish paths between each other. Networks topologies are not always what they seem to be. In the wired days, they generally followed the path of the wires – very simple. If devices were wired in a ring, then the network topology is a ring. The journey to wireless complicates everything because we all share the same air space so the path and access method is not always obvious. For example, is a Wi-Fi access point a star topology or a bus?

Before we go further in looking at these questions, it is important to first understand some common terminology.

  • DSSS – Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum. This is a method of encoding a signal which distributes information over a wide path of spectrum using a pseudo random code. Because of the wide spreading, the signal appears to be noise for those without the spreading code.
  • FHSS – Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum. Similar to DSSS, the big difference is that is uses a more constrained spreading algorithm and changes channels as a function of time, theoretically making the transmission more immune to interference.
  • TSMP – Time Synchronized Mesh Protocol. This is a mesh protocol that uses time slots to allocate spectrum for communication between two nodes. Because time slots differ over pairs, interference is minimized because access to the channel is controlled by timeslot.
  • AODV – Ad-hoc On-demand Distance Vector routing algorithm. AODV is a pure on-demand route acquisition algorithm: nodes that do not lie on active paths do not maintain any routing information nor participate in any periodic routing table exchanges. Further, a node does not have to discover and maintain a route to another node until the two need to communicate.
  • Cluster-Tree – Region based mesh network routing algorithm. In this algorithm, routes are formed and maintained between clusters of nodes. Route discovery is completed and maintained between the clusters – providing access to the children of each cluster.
  • ISM – Industrial Scientific and Medical band. This describes the frequency bands that can be used license-free. Generally we refer to the 2.4 GHz band, but it also covers spectrum in 900 MHz, 5.8 GHz, 433 MHz in North America. 2.4 GHz is used worldwide.
  • IPv6 – Internet Protocol Version 6. This is the latest version of the popular IP or Internet Protocol. With Version 6, the IP address structure, routing and class of service changes. It is part of the TCP/IP suite of protocols sponsored by the IETF.
  • PAN ID – Personal Area Network Identifier. This is the term for the network name assigned to particular personal area network.
  • CSMA – Carrier Sense Multiple Access. This protocol defines the channel access technique deployed by Ethernet, Wi-Fi and bus oriented networks. It provides a method for detecting collisions and retransmitting as a method to acquire a communications channel.
  • TDMA – Time Division Multiple Access. The protocol defines the channel access technique used by TSMP and GSM networks in which a communications channel is divided into time slots. Each node is allocated a specific time slot for communication.

Network types

Now that we have a feel for the terminology, we first look at different network topologies commonly used. The figure below shows three such topologies: Star, Bus and Ring.

In the Ring, nodes are connected from one to the next. Communications messages are forwarded around the ring in either a clockwise and/or counter-clockwise fashion. As a message is forwarded, the node checks to see if the message is meant for itself, if so, it keeps the message, if not, it forwards it on. It is most common in cabled networks (wire or fiber), but could conceivably be used in a wireless fashion as well – but is not practical unless being used over long distances.

In the Bus, all nodes share a common communications medium and contend for using it. Typically this means some kind of CSMA type approach. Since a common medium is used, collisions and retransmissions increase with traffic loading. In the wired case, these types of systems are referred to as hubs – which are generally no longer used. In the wireless case, it is more complicated because open space is often a shared medium, so even if routing is handled in a star, ring or other topology, open space often appears as a bus. 

In the Star, nodes are connected through a master, central node. This central node is responsible for looking at each message and forwarding it out on the proper communications link. While various star architectures have been used over time, the most commonly known in the wired space is the Ethernet Switch. In the wireless space, the Wi-Fi access point is also a familiar example, since all messages are routed through the access point; however, even though messages are routed through the access point, open space is accessed via CSMA – a bus type protocol.

A mesh network employs some level of more complete interconnection among nodes. This means that paths are not defined by a specific architectural pattern, but rather by the connections themselves. In the full mesh topology, each node (workstation or other device) is connected directly to each of the others. In the partial mesh topology, some nodes are connected to all the others, but some of the nodes are connected only to those other nodes with which they exchange the most data. The figure below illustrates a full mesh, where each of the five nodes is connected to all the others.

Another important thing to note about a mesh is that some or all nodes may be routers and some or all nodes may be end points. Typically, full interconnection is not achieved, unless the network is very small. Full interconnection gets very complex very quickly. In addition, wired mesh networks tend not be practical due to the complexities of connecting all the wires. The following figures illustrate three different instantiations of mesh networks. The green nodes are end devices, the yellow are routers (which may also be end devices) and the purple is the network coordinator – responsible for allowing joining and departing from the mesh (more on this later). Note that one instantiation of a mesh can be a star – a mesh with one router and the rest end points. The Cluster-Tree network is a combination of near full connectivity among routers and end points hanging off individual routers. The Peer-to-Peer mesh generally gives equal rights to all nodes, including routing and end point functionality.

While we have discussed the fact that mesh networks aren’t really practical for wired networks, it is also important to look at the other differences between wired and wireless domains. So what else makes wireless different? On the positive side, wireless makes it possible to have more connections since it is not practical or cost effective to create a full mesh with wires. However, on the negative side, wires are predictable, reliable and well understood. Wireless forces the sharing of an already noisy, uncontrollable medium called open space. Hence, while wireless gives us more flexibility, the uncertainty of wireless drives the need for more connection paths…and more complexity


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