Much like people, computers need to be speaking a common language to communicate. If you were speaking Spanish and we only spoke English, we would certainly hear each you talking, but we wouldn’t really understand what you were saying. In the same way, computers need to
be running a common “protocol” in order to share information. A protocol is essentially like a language, a formal set of communication standards that network devices follow in order to exchange information. A variety of network protocols exist, but four are far more common than others – TCP/IP, IPX/SPX, NetBEUI, and AppleTalk.
The Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol is actually a suite of different protocols that make communications between systems possible. As the “protocol of the Internet”, TCP/IP has become the defacto standard for networks worldwide. Where companies previously ran a whole slew of different protocols on their networks, almost all have now moved to TCP/IP only, or are moving in that direction. On your home network, TCP/IP is almost certainly the only protocol you’ll ever need to run, with very few exceptions.
The other three protocols mentioned all have (or at least had) their time and place. IPX/SPX is a protocol that was developed by Novell for use on NetWare networks – in other words, for networks that included NetWare servers. Even NetWare uses TCP/IP as its standard protocol today, so the chances of you needing to install it are very slim indeed. NetBEUI (NetBios Extended User Interface) is a very simple protocol that was used extensively on networks until the early 90s, mainly because it was easy to configure – simply install it, and two computers will chat away. Unfortunately, NetBEUI is limited to local networks, and won’t get you onto the Internet. Given that most home networks are implemented to share Internet access, NetBEUI is unlikely to be in your future either. Finally, AppleTalk was a protocol developed by Apple for use on their Macintosh systems. Although a solid protocol in it’s own right, Macs now run TCP/IP, and even Apple (the company) runs TCP/IP on their internal network.
At the end of the day, the message should be clear – 99.9% of the time, the only protocol that home networkers will need is TCP/IP. In future articles, this subject will be looked at in much more detail.