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A router, in the United States, Canada, and Australia, and in the UK and Irelandmarker (to differentiate it from the tool used to rout wood), is an electronic device used to connect two or more computers or other electronic devices to each other, and usually to the Internet, by wire or radio signals. This allows several computers to communicate with each other and to the Internet at the same time. If wires are used, each computer is connected by its own wire to the router. Modern wired-only routers designed for the home or small business typically have one "input" port (to the Internet) and four "output" ports, one or more of which can be connected to other computers. A typical modern home wireless router, in addition to having four wired ports, also allows several devices to connect with it wirelessly. Most modern personal computers are built with a wired port (almost always an Ethernet type), which allows them to connect to a router with the addition of just a cable (typically a Category 5e type). To connect with a wireless router, a device must have an adapter. This is sometimes, but not always, included with the computer at manufacture. Some electronic games, including handheld electronic games, have an adapter built-in, or one can be added later.

More technically, a router is a networking device whose software and hardware are usually tailored to the tasks of routing and forwarding information. Routers connect two or more logical subnets, which do not necessarily map one-to-one to the physical interfaces of the router. The term "layer 3 switching" is often used interchangeably with routing, but switch is a general term without a rigorous technical definition. In marketing usage, a switch is generally optimized for Ethernet LAN interfaces and may not have other physical interface types. In comparison, the network hub (predecessor of the "switch" or "switching hub") does not do any routing, instead every packet it receives on one network line gets forwarded to all the other network lines.

Routers operate in two different planes:
  • Control plane, in which the router learns the outgoing interface that is most appropriate for forwarding specific packets to specific destinations,
  • Forwarding plane, which is responsible for the actual process of sending a packet received on a logical interface to an outbound logical interface.

Forwarding plane (a.k.a. data plane)

For the pure Internet Protocol (IP) forwarding function, router design tries to minimize the state information kept on individual packets. Once a packet is forwarded, the router should no longer retain statistical information about it. It is the sending and receiving endpoints that keeps information about such things as errored or missing packets.

Forwarding decisions can involve decisions at layers other than the IP internetwork layer or OSI layer 3. Again, the marketing term switch can be applied to devices that have these capabilities. A function that forwards based on data link layer, or OSI layer 2, information, is properly called a bridge. Marketing literature may call it a layer 2 switch, but a switch has no precise definition.

Among the most important forwarding decisions is deciding what to do when congestion occurs, i.e., packets arrive at the router at a rate higher than the router can process. Three policies commonly used in the Internet are Tail drop, Random early detection, and Weighted random early detection. Tail drop is the simplest and most easily implemented; the router simply drops packets once the length of the queue exceeds the size of the buffers in the router. Random early detection (RED) probabilistically drops datagrams early when the queue exceeds a configured size. Weighted random early detection requires a weighted average queue size to exceed the configured size, so that short bursts will not trigger random drops.

A router uses a routing table to decide where the packet should be sent so if the router cant find the preferred address then it will look down the routing table and decide which is the next best address to send it to.

Types of routers

Routers may provide connectivity inside enterprises, between enterprises and the Internet, and inside Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The largest routers (for example the Cisco CRS-1 or Juniper T1600) interconnect ISPs, are used inside ISPs, or may be used in very large enterprise networks. The smallest routers provide connectivity for small and home offices.

Routers for Internet connectivity and internal use

Routers intended for ISP and major enterprise connectivity will almost invariably exchange routing information with the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP). RFC 4098 defines several types of BGP-speaking routers:
  • Edge Router: Placed at the edge of an ISP network, it speaks external BGP (eBGP) to a BGP speaker in another provider or large enterprise Autonomous System(AS).
  • Subscriber Edge Router: Located at the edge of the subscriber's network, it speaks eBGP to its provider's AS(s). It belongs to an end user (enterprise) organization.
  • Inter-provider Border Router: Interconnecting ISPs, this is a BGP speaking router that maintains BGP sessions with other BGP speaking routers in other providers' ASes.
  • Core router: A router that resides within the middle or backbone of the LAN network rather than at its periphery.
:Within an ISP: Internal to the provider's AS, such a router speaks internal BGP (iBGP) to that provider's edge routers, other intra-provider core routers, or the provider's inter-provider border routers.
:"Internet backbone:" The Internet does not have a clearly identifiable backbone, as did its predecessors. See default-free zone (DFZ). Nevertheless, it is the major ISPs' routers that make up what many would consider the core. These ISPs operate all four types of the BGP-speaking routers described here. In ISP usage, a "core" router is internal to an ISP, and used to interconnect its edge and border routers. Core routers may also have specialized functions in virtual private networks based on a combination of BGP and Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS).
Routers are also used for port forwarding for private servers.

Small Office Home Office (SOHO) connectivity

Residential gateways (often called routers) are frequently used in homes to connect to a broadband service, such as IP over cable or DSL. Such a router may also include an internal DSL modem. Residential gateways and SOHO routers typically provide network address translation and port address translation in addition to routing. Instead of directly presenting the IP addresses of local computers to the remote network, such a residential gateway makes multiple local computers appear to be a single computer. SOHO routers may also support Virtual Private Network tunnel functionality to provide connectivity to an enterprise network..

Enterprise routers

All sizes of routers may be found inside enterprises. The most powerful routers tend to be found in ISPs and academic & research facilities. Large businesses may also need powerful routers.

A three-layer model is in common use, not all of which need be present in smaller networks.


Access routers, including SOHO, are located at customer sites such as branch offices that do not need hierarchical routing of their own. Typically, they are optimized for low cost.


Distribution routers aggregate traffic from multiple access routers, either at the same site, or to collect the data streams from multiple sites to a major enterprise location. Distribution routers often are responsible for enforcing quality of service across a WAN, so they may have considerable memory, multiple WAN interfaces, and substantial processing intelligence.

They may also provide connectivity to groups of servers or to external networks. In the latter application, the router's functionality must be carefully considered as part of the overall security architecture. Separate from the router may be a Firewalled or VPN concentrator, or the router may include these and other security functions.

When an enterprise is primarily on one campus, there may not be a distinct distribution tier, other than perhaps off-campus access. In such cases, the access routers, connected to LANs, interconnect via core routers.


In enterprises, a core router may provide a "collapsed backbone" interconnecting the distribution tier routers from multiple buildings of a campus, or large enterprise locations. They tend to be optimized for high bandwidth.

When an enterprise is widely distributed with no central location(s), the function of core routing may be subsumed by the WAN service to which the enterprise subscribes, and the distribution routers become the highest tier.


The very first device that had fundamentally the same functionality as a router does today, i.e a packet switch, was the Interface Message Processor (IMP); IMPs were the devices that made up the ARPANET, the first packet switching network. The idea for a router (although they were called "gateways" at the time) initially came about through an international group of computer networking researchers called the International Network Working Group (INWG). Set up in 1972 as an informal group to consider the technical issues involved in connecting different networks, later that year it became a subcommittee of the International Federation for Information Processing.

These devices were different from most previous packet switches in two ways. First, they connected dissimilar kinds of networks, such as serial lines and local area networks. Second, they were connectionless devices, which had no role in assuring that traffic was delivered reliably, leaving that entirely to the hosts (although this particular idea had been previously pioneered in the CYCLADES network).

The idea was explored in more detail, with the intention to produce a real prototype system, as part of two contemporaneous programs. One was the initial DARPA-initiated program, which created the TCP/IP architecture of today.

The other was a program at Xerox PARCmarker to explore new networking technologies, which produced the PARC Universal Packet system, although due to corporate intellectual property concerns it received little attention outside Xerox until years later.

The earliest Xerox routers came into operation sometime after early 1974. The first true IP router was developed by Virginia Strazisar at BBN, as part of that DARPA-initiated effort, during 1975-1976. By the end of 1976, three PDP-11-based routers were in service in the experimental prototype Internet.

The first multiprotocol routers were independently created by staff researchers at MITmarker and Stanfordmarker in 1981; the Stanford router was done by William Yeager, and the MIT one by Noel Chiappa; both were also based on PDP-11s.

As virtually all networking now uses IP at the network layer, multiprotocol routers are largely obsolete, although they were important in the early stages of the growth of computer networking, when several protocols other than TCP/IP were in widespread use. Routers that handle both IPv4 and IPv6 arguably are multiprotocol, but in a far less variable sense than a router that processed AppleTalk, DECnet, IP, and Xerox protocols.

In the original era of routing (from the mid-1970s through the 1980s), general-purpose mini-computers served as routers. Although general-purpose computers can perform routing, modern high-speed routers are highly specialized computers, generally with extra hardware added to accelerate both common routing functions such as packet forwarding and specialised functions such as IPsec encryption.

Still, there is substantial use of Linux and Unix machines, running open source routing code, for routing research and selected other applications. While Cisco's operating system was independently designed, other major router operating systems, such as those from Juniper Networks and Extreme Networks, are extensively modified but still have Unix ancestry.


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