Mesh topology is a method of wireless connectivity that involves devices feeding off of one another’s connections through nodes, or points at which lines or pathways intersect.
Devices on a mesh topology are connected similarly to flies caught in a spider’s web. Like the web weaving to form a connection between these unfortunate insects, mesh networks form a transparent connection between devices. Through this invisible system, computers are able to share a trusted connection and communicate in order to perform tasks and help with business operations.
According to an article by Link Labs, mesh topology is nothing new, although it may be a new term for some. It has been around for more than 30 years and was originally created for military applications. It has since evolved from its original purpose, and is used for more commercial and, in some instances, individual or residential purposes.
Mesh topology can be distributed in one of two ways: a full mesh topology, or a partially connected mesh topology.
The explanation of mesh topology and Wi-Fi is riddled with techie talk, so bear with me as we try to break this down in common terminology — mostly for my sake. I know you’re already a genius on all things mesh.
Mesh topology can be distributed in one of two ways: a full mesh topology, or a partially connected mesh topology. Full mesh topologies are very reliable because they offer a number of paths for data to travel, so if one node were to fail, it could self-repair and simply “drop” that defective node.
Partial mesh, on the other hand, has some nodes in a mesh topology, while others are part of peripheral networks that connect to the mesh (imagine it like a small offshoot cluster of nodes/devices that is then connected to the mesh network). Partial mesh tends to be less expensive and less complex than a full mesh topology. Neither runs the risk of one failure impacting the whole; both partial and full topologies should be self-healing.
“In Partial mesh topology, nodes are allowed to connect with more than one node present in the network through the uses of a point-to-point link,” reads an article on Networking Basics. “The point-to-point link advantage is that the redundancy provided by full mesh topology can be taken to its maximum capability without the complexity required for the node in the network.”
The diagram above shows how mesh networks function. Signals are passed to and from each individual node, or connected device, creating a web of connected devices. If one node is removed or has an outage, the mesh network is self-healing and wireless signals are sent to another device.
Most mesh networks send and receive tasks to devices via a router. A routing table is kind of like the traffic director of the system. It communicates with the nodes and devices and tells them how to communicate with the access point and how to direct other nodes to the access point. Data routing basically sends information down a predetermined path, from one device to another, until it reaches its endpoint. With mesh networks these routes can also be self-healing, so if a device in the path isn’t functional, the data can be easily passed to another node/device connected to the network.
Data flooding is different from data routing, but remains an important option for mesh operations. The flooding method continually sends data through the network and has the correct device grab onto it once it passes through. Devices check the address of a certain piece of data and, from that, can determine whether to keep it or send it on. Flooding is a less complicated method than routing.
Like any method of connectivity, mesh topology has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s important to consider both sides of the story before jumping into something complex or new. Let’s go through a list of the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of mesh networking and mesh topology.
Mesh topology advantages
— Mesh topology is scalable. Administrators or network managers can add or remove devices with minimal disruption. This is a positive feature for companies that wish to grow in size, but also those that wish to adapt and change their workflows or processes. For example, a manufacturer can easily add additional intelligent equipment without interrupting production.
— Within a mesh topology, it is not difficult to find the root of an issue. Issues are more easily diagnosed because data is so transparent.
— Mesh topology is, thus far, known to be a more private network. They don’t route packets through one main monitoring point, meaning information is only sent to the device it belongs to.
— One or more devices can fail while others continue working as usual. Because all devices are not dependent on the success of one object, such as a traditional wireless router, one shutdown does not take down the whole system. This is advantageous for any use case.
— Mesh topology is not intimidated by a large amount of traffic. While some networks slow down with overuse, mesh topologies are able to skirt around this scenario. The computers and devices are continually sending data back and forth at the same time, and each device can carry its own weight. This takes pressure off of the network as a whole, spreading the responsibility out among devices.
Mesh topology disadvantages
— Mesh topology may be a more expensive solution, and implementation is known to be complex. There are other genres of topology that can be implemented at a lesser price. It also consumes more energy to have that many nodes functioning, which could add to your costs. A fully connected topology is more expensive than a partial connection.
— Mesh topology, even after setup and initial deployment, is a more complex system to maintain. If issues arise, an IT professional may have to consider network planning, which is the strategic deployment of nodes that exist to accomplish a specific task. This will be even more difficult for companies or residences that have little understanding of how topologies work.
Mesh topology is known to some as an investment. By this, I mean companies may put money down on this system without ever knowing if it will be worth the trials and effort. Some informed sources, such as the aforementioned article on Networking Basics, assert that mesh topology will “definitely give back the invested capital.”
As with any technological decision, it’s up to the organization or the individual to determine what’s worth it in the end. Mesh topologies are unlike any strategies many companies have ever implemented. It takes a knowledgeable and ambitious team to not only set it up correctly, but to maintain it over time. But perhaps mesh topologies have a mainstream future, and over time and with adaptations, their disadvantages will be but a glimmer in our memories.
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