A Comprehensive Guide on Network Topology, Types, and Tools

Networking plays a crucial role in every organization’s daily activities. It helps exchange sensitive data between nodes (computer systems and network devices) over a shared medium. However, building a network and arrangement of networking devices is challenging. Organizations need to plan out specific models, follow crucial guidelines, and create physical and logical layouts of a network or a configuration map to achieve optimal network performance. Various topology tools can help create and understand the layout of a computer network and the physical and virtual connections of the components, so it’s easier to identify and troubleshoot errors.

What Is Network Topology?

Network topology aligns a network setup so each node is interconnected with network links or connecting lines. It helps organizations in device monitoring, network visualizations, and network issue diagnosis.

While there are several ways of arranging a network, each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the degree of connectivity and security the organization needs, IT teams may develop a network topology map.

Importance of Network Topology

Network topology is used to define the layout of a network, its structure, and its shape, both physically and logically. A network can have one physical topology and multiple logical topologies simultaneously.

Physical network layout refers to the physical connections of the devices such as wires, cables, and more. Tasks like provisioning, setup, and maintenance require insights into the physical layout. The logical network layout, on the other hand, is a conceptual representation of how various devices operate at different layers of abstraction. It provides information about the interconnection of multiple nodes, how the data is transmitted, and the medium of transmission. Cloud and virtual resources come under the logical network layout.

Choosing the right topology helps organizations locate faults, troubleshoot errors, and allocate resources across the network. With a better understanding of networking concepts, teams can maximize the effective utilization of resources and networking components. Having a well-managed and streamlined network topology reduces maintenance and operational costs up.

Types of Network Topology

Organizations can choose different types of network topologies depending on the suitability of various operations, overall network size, and business objectives.

Bus Topology

Bus topology is sometimes also referred to as line or backbone topology. In this network setup, every device is connected to a single cable running throughout the network. Teams can connect as many nodes as they need; however, it may affect network performance. One of the connected nodes acts as a server and transmits data in a single direction from one end to the other. Smaller networks using this type of topology often use a coaxial or RJ45 cable to link devices together.

Advantages

Bus topology works well for smaller networks and keeps the layout extremely simple and easy to understand. It’s reliable, flexible, and expandable. In a bus topology, it’s easier to connect and remove devices without affecting the others in the network. And, it’s cost effective, as it uses a single cable for data transmission.

Disadvantages

Bus topologies are highly vulnerable to network failures and slowdowns. One of the major disadvantages of this topology is it uses a single cable for data transmission, which can lead to various issues. If the cable fails to work, the entire network goes down, which is time consuming to fix and expensive to restore. During high traffic, the network performance decreases as the data travels through one cable. These limitations make this topology suitable for smaller networks. Moreover, bus topology is half-duplex, which means data cannot be transmitted in opposite directions simultaneously—a drawback for organizations with an extensive network where high-level data transmission is a regular practice.

Ring Topology

In ring topology, devices are connected in a loop forming a ring. The data packets circulate from one computer to another in a single direction to reach their destination. Ring topology is also known as half duplex for this reason. Ring topology can be converted into dual ring topology or full duplex, meaning the data can flow both clockwise and anticlockwise with the help of two concentric rings or cables connected to each node. Dual ring topology is used as a backup if the primary ring fails.

Ring topology follows the token passing principal. The tokens are passed from one computer to another based on which way the data is transmitted. Once the computer receives the token, it transmits data and sends the token back with an acknowledgment signal. Within the topology, one node is chosen to configure the network and monitor other devices in the loop. This type of network configuration is mostly used in small businesses and schools.

Advantages

The circular flow of data and the token-based protocols minimize the chance of packet collision. The unidirectional nature of ring topology provides high speed. Ring topology is capable of handling high volumes of nodes in a network and heavy traffic compared to bus topology. Troubleshooting errors like cable faults in the ring network is easier and more convenient. It provides excellent communication over a long distance and is cost effective compared to other topologies such as mesh, hybrid, and tree. Dual ring topology offers an extra layer of data security as it’s more resistant to failures due to its dual network connection. If one network fails, the other takes over.

Disadvantages

The failure of one node can take down the entire network. The nodes in ring topology need to be continuously monitored to ensure they’re in good health. Transmission line failure is another drawback of ring topology. This type of network configuration also raises scalability issues. The addition or removal of network devices can lead to communication delays.

Star Topology

A star topology is the most commonly used network configuration. In this type of topology, nodes are connected to a central device like a switch or a hub with the help of coaxial cable, optical fiber, or twisted pair cable. The node layout in star topology is done such that the central device acts as a server and the peripheral devices are treated as clients. The central device is responsible for data transmission across the entire network and performs its job repeatedly.

Advantages

Star topology has several advantages that make it the most-used network configuration. The use of a central server greatly reduces the chances of network failure and data loss. If a node stops functioning, it doesn’t impact others in the network. Unlike ring topology, new computers and devices can be added, removed, and modified in star topology without taking the entire network offline. Moreover, this type of topology is simple to set up and manage and requires fewer cables to connect the nodes with the central device.

Disadvantages

In star topology, if the central device fails to operate, the entire network goes down at once. Administrators need to monitor and maintain the central device carefully to avoid errors. The performance of the entire network solely depends on the central device’s configurations, speed, and performance.

Mesh Topology

Mesh topology is a point-to-point connection in which infrastructure nodes are connected directly, non-hierarchically, and dynamically to as many nodes as possible to transmit data. The web-like structure of the network configuration offers two methods for data transmission: routing and flooding. Routing refers to the way nodes use a routing logic to find the shortest distance to the destination of the packet. Flooding refers to the way the data is transmitted to nodes within the network. It doesn’t require a routing logic.

Types of Mesh Topology

Partial Mesh Topology

In a fully interconnected mesh network, when some nodes are connected to one or two nodes (peripheral nodes), the setup is known as partial mesh. If the network or primary nodes fail, the rest of the nodes remain unaffected.

Full Mesh Topology

When every node within a network is interconnected, the set-up is known as full mesh. To calculate the number of connections in the network, the following formula can be used:

n(n-1)/2

(n is the number of computers in the network)

Advantages:

Mesh topologies are extremely reliable. They can manage high amounts of traffic as multiple nodes can transmit data simultaneously. The strong interconnections make the topology resistant to failures. Additional devices don’t burden the network or disrupt data transmission.

Disadvantages:

Mesh topology is time consuming, expensive, and sometimes gives redundant connections. The mesh layout is hugely complex and is difficult to set up, manage, and maintain.

Tree Topology

Tree topology is a network structure in which a root node is connected to other nodes arranged in a parent-child hierarchy. Tree topologies need to have at least three levels of hierarchy in which only one mutual connection exists between two connected nodes. The topology is a combination of the star (nodes connected to the central server) and bus (linear) topologies. Due to the flexible and scalable nature of this topology, it’s often used for a wide area network to sustain spread-out devices.

Advantages

It’s easier to add more nodes in this type of topology as it follows a parent-child hierarchy. The hierarchy and the alignment of nodes make it easier for IT teams to find and troubleshoot errors.

Disadvantages

The only point of concern in tree topology is its root node. If it fails to function, it affects all the nodes connected to its branches. Maintaining the network is challenging because when adding nodes, it becomes difficult to manage the entire network and each node in it. Moreover, tree topology requires a considerable amount of cables to connect nodes throughout the hierarchy, which makes the layout more complex.

Hybrid Topology

A hybrid topology is a mix of two or more topologies highlighted above. It’s most commonly used by large enterprises where individual departments have personalized network topologies to suit their network usage requirements. The capabilities and vulnerabilities highly depend on the type of topologies coupled together. The combination of star-bus and star-ring network configurations are the most common examples of the hybrid network topology.

Advantages

Hybrid topologies offer flexibility, reliability, and scalability by combining the strongest aspects of different topologies in a single hybrid setup. Hybrid topologies can be modified according to an organization’s needs.

Disadvantages

Hybrid topologies are highly complex. Each type of technology has its own drawbacks. Therefore, administrators need to manage each topology involved in a hybrid setup as per its unique requirements.

Which Topology to Consider?

Choosing a topology depends on a range of factors such as length of the cable, cable type, cost of setting up, and scalability. If a business’s priority is keeping the setup simple, bus topology is the most lightweight and easy-to-install network configuration, in terms of cable needs. All topologies generally use three types of cables: twisted pairs, coaxial cables, and optical fiber cables. The cost of installing the network configuration is also an important consideration. The more complex topology the organization chooses, the more it has to pay for the resources and the time invested in creating their setup.

If the organization plans to upscale the network infrastructure later, teams should consider choosing a scalable topology unaffected by adding devices. Star topology is an ideal choice for this requirement as it shows minimal disruption when adding nodes.

Top 5 Network Topology Software

Due to variations in network topology and its behavior, including pressure points, unique security issues, and management challenges, it’s crucial to automate configurations and management tasks using a reliable and efficient network topology software. Topology software uses various methodologies and integrations to locate connected devices. It helps IT administrators identify network inefficiencies and bottlenecks and conduct root cause analyses of network problems.

  1. SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper
  2. Intermapper
  3. Lucidchart
  4. Net-Probe
  5. Spiceworks Network Mapping Tool

1. SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper

screenshot of solarwinds network topology mapper's map overview

SolarWinds® Network Topology Mapper offers automated mapping and on-demand device discovery. The tool helps teams automatically scan new devices and the entire organizational network using SNMP, ICMP (Ping and Traceroute) protocols, and scheduled scanning to ensure an accurate, up-to-date record of your network. Based on the data collected, the tool generates comprehensive reports and topology maps, saving valuable resources, bandwidth, and time. These maps can be exported into Microsoft Office Visio, PDF, and PNG formats for distribution purposes. The tool is FIPS 140-2 compliant and meets compliance requirements for PCI, SOX, and HIPAA.

Teams can use robust reporting tools to get an automated report of inventory and device management. The report helps keep track of inventory and network information, saves time, and increases productivity. Moreover, teams can store topology maps and set auto-discovery features to get real-time information about the new devices added to the network. The tool offers a 14-day free trial with all the standard features.

2. Intermapper

screenshot of intermapper's map overview

Intermapper is a powerful network monitoring tool for Mac, Windows, and Linux. It includes an automated mapping and discovery feature to help teams plan and create their own network topology from scratch. Live and dynamic maps display real-time network health of the organization. The auto-discovery feature helps to assimilate visual representation of all IP-enabled devices such as switches, workstations, laptops, routers, and PCs. It also sends alerts to respective teams to spot and fix errors in the network. The tool also offers several network monitoring functions. It helps in capacity planning, network performance scanning, and SLA compliance reporting. Intermapper is easy to install, deploy, and use. It features simple, predictable device-based pricing models, allowing it to scale with changing environments. The tool offers a 30-day free trial, which can monitor up to 10 devices.

3. Lucidchart

screenshot of lucidchart's class diagram example

Lucidchart is a web-based, user-friendly flow chart or a diagramming application loaded with multiple features to create and share professional diagrams. It helps create flow diagrams, organization charts, wireframes and UML, and more. It has specialized icon libraries for various industries and software, including network topology. Although the tool doesn’t offer an auto-discovery feature, maps can be exported in a range of formats, including Visio, to create a network from scratch. The tool works well with business systems and popular web applications, including Google Apps, Google Drive, Jive, and Atlassian. The tool offers a free version and a 7-day free trial of the paid versions. However, the free version doesn’t include import and export features. To use premium features, teams can choose subscription-based models. Pricing plans are per user account. For larger teams, the team plan lowers the cost of the entire system. The software can be installed on Linux, macOS, Windows, Chrome OS, iOS, and Android.

4. Net-Probe

net-probe's network map overview

Net-Probe is a network monitoring solution deployed at each node for its management. Net-Probe uses plugins to collect network data and network maps to troubleshoot faults. The tool offers an auto-discovery feature to help compile hardware inventory and customize network organization. Live maps display real-time device status on equipment icons and send alerts on a separate screen. The software runs on Windows with a free standard version, which can monitor up to eight devices. However, the free version doesn’t include tools such as Ping, Traceroute, and network scanning. The paid versions can monitor between 20 to 400 devices, depending on the plan you choose (Pro, Deluxe, and Enterprise).

5. Spiceworks Network Mapping Tool

spiceworks showing connected network map

Spiceworks Network Mapping Tool compiles inventory data of the connected devices in a network and generates easy-to-understand topology maps. The design editor tool can be used to edit and modify the generated map. The tool automatically updates the network maps on a schedule. Therefore, it’s essential to turn off this feature when generating customized network maps, as the changes might be deleted. Moreover, the automatic updates display network bandwidth usage of each device, which helps identify bottlenecks in the organizational network. It also gathers information about each existing and new device, including its model number, operating system, and capacity. This free tool can be installed on Debian, Linux, Ubuntu, Windows, and Mac OS.

Which Is the Best Network Topology Tool?

All the above-highlighted tools are exceptionally reliable and scalable for small, medium, and large enterprises. Along with these tools, organizations can also use network configuration tools to automate repetitive tasks and network performance tools to monitor real-time network outages and performance issues. Network configuration management tools help organizations understand the various networking layers. The tools also auto-detect new nodes added to the network, so IT teams can deploy standard configurations required for compliance. They empower teams to secure the entire network by highlighting vulnerabilities. Network performance management tools, on the other hand, send alerts at times of network slowdowns, so teams can efficiently identify and troubleshoot issues. With complex topologies, it’s difficult to determine which part of the network is having issues. NPM and NCM offer standard functionalities to make it easier to identify such issues. Both these tools can be used along with network topology mappers for extended functionalities.

If organizations are looking for network topology tools with specific, reliable, and advanced features, I recommend SolarWinds Network Topology Mapper. It’s specifically designed to create maps, auto-discover devices, and identify network issues while fulfilling regulatory compliance requirements.