Routers: Managing the Crossroads of Your Home’s Network

Make Your Home a Haven for Online Safety

With everyone in the family using the internet to engage in social media, adjust the home thermostat or shop for the latest connected toy, it is vital to make certain that the entire household — including children and older adults — learn to use the internet safely and responsibility.

Let’s Talk About Routers

Dr. John Walter
Cyber Readiness Center
Senior Software Developer

Routers: Managing the Crossroads of Your Home’s Network

In the first installment of our series on home network security, we talked about passwords, and why to keep all of yours different, easy to use and difficult to crack.

This article will cover an oft-overlooked piece of cyber-technology that nearly everyone has in their home: your router. A router is a piece of networking equipment that directs network information where it needs to go. It differs from a switch (which also directs information toward its destination) in that a router has the capability of directing messages between two or more networks of computers. Most home routers connect the huge internet network outside the home (commonly called the WAN, for Wide Area Network) with a much smaller LAN (or Local Area Network) of computers within the home. Routers do this by mapping a set of addresses to computers in the LAN so that they may all use the router as a kind of gateway out into the rest of the world.

How does my router work?

Let’s imagine an analogous situation, describing the routing of a letter through the postal system. This letter is sent from:

(Return Address)
John Smith
405 Main Street
Franklin, TX 77856

to John Smith’s cousin:

(Destination Address)
Sue Smith
164 Main St
Franklin, MA 02038

The Post Office routes the letter from zip code 77856 (TX) to 02038 (MA). Once in Franklin MA, the local post office takes the letter to a mail box at the street address (164 Main St.) Finally, someone who lives there presumably collects all the delivered letters from the mail box, takes them inside, an distributes them to their rightfiul recipients.

In this analogy, “the internet” or WAN (for Wide Area Network), is the entire USA collection of mail addresses, not including the individual names of residents at each one. The “home router” service is performed by the person at each address that collects messages from the mailbox and distributes them to the proper final destinations within each address. The rooms with people that live within the house comprise the LAN (Local Area Network).

Note that the router keeps track of whether people in the house switch rooms, or whether someone no longer lives there, a new person moves in, etc. The Post Office just gets the mail from one street address to another. When John Smith in TX wants to contact Sue Smith in MA, he only needs to know the destination address and recipient. He does not care about how to get there, or whether the message takes a more direct or more circuitous route. Routing by the Post Office/WAN takes care of that.

To respond to her cousin’s message, Sue just encloses a response in a new envelope, reverses the original return and destination addresses, and gives it to the person responsible for mail within her house. That person puts the letter in the outside mailbox for pickup by the postal service and away we go again! If Sue wants to message someone in her house, she just gives the note with a name on it to the house postmaster, who directly delivers it to the recipient. No need to get the postal service involved if the message is to stay within the house!

So your home router has a local connection for each piece of networked equipment within your house. Messages that stay within the house (for example, instructions to print a document from your laptop to a networked printer, or to share a file from another networked computer within your home) never leave the LAN. Other messages, like requests for information from an outside website or outgoing email messages, leave your LAN through the home router. They traverse the internet through various powerful high-speed commercial switches and routers until they reach their destination.

Depending on whether you’re sending or receiving messages, your home router is the critical first or last step to transmission success. Needless to say, the security of your router should always be a high priority.

Configuring home routers are the responsibility of an administrator, often the person who originally bought and installed the router. The administrator’s login is protected by a password. When you first install your router, you will be asked to provide a new administrator password to replace the default which was shipped with the router. This new router password should be unique and sufficiently complex to discourage hacking. DO NOT LEAVE IT SET TO THE DEFAULT PASSWORD! Default logins for nearly every router on the market are public and well-known, and your home network will be compromised quickly if your password remains the default. For password hints, see the previous article in this series.

In the past couple of decades, routers have become more powerful and taken over some very useful jobs in the home network. They often provide the address of a Domain Name Service (DNS) which allows computers to look up the digital address for a location that you probably know only by its URL, or text-based website address. They can allow many computers within their LAN to share a single address in the broader WAN by managing Network Address Translation, or NAT. NAT assigns local addresses to machines in the home and keeps track of the various conversations that computers are having with the outside world. NAT ensures that each LAN computer gets only the responses to the messages it has sent.

Finally, most home routers provide a firewall, or secure digital barrier, between the WAN (where all kinds of unregulated and potentially dangerous traffic is constantly flowing) and the LAN inside the home, which presumably is less busy and somewhat less risky. Many of today’s routers also provide high-speed WiFi service, secure Virtual Private Network (VPN) capability, and more.

How often should I upgrade my router?

There are no hard and fast rules about how long your router will last, or conversely how often you should replace it. Electronic devices tend to lose utility before they physically fail. For examples, routers from around the year 2000 had a fraction of the capability of today’s models. They transmitted and received data at about 1% of the speed of routers today. The range of operation of their WiFi transceiver was much less than today’s, and they had much poorer security. And yet, in constant dollars, those old routers were more expensive!

So, as a (VERY rough) rule-of-thumb, I’d consider upgrading to a new router every five years or so. In general, WiFi transmission speeds will continue to increase (provided your connected devices are capable of handling the higher speed). Security will continue to improve, range will increase, and added features will become more prevalent. Of course, if there is a reported security breach to which your brand of router is vulnerable, study the report and either upgrade your router with more secure firmware (if that’s an option) or replace it entirely.

What this about upgrading my router’s firmware?

Routers have allowed the upgrading of their firmware (or embedded operation software) by consumers for over ten years. As a router ages, the manufacturer generally spends less to provide timely upgrades as when the router is new. Partly this is because, as the router ages, there is an assumption that fewer of them remain in service and so the manufacturer spends less resources on them. It is also true that brand-new routers are subject to proportionately more hacker attacks as their vulnerabilities are uncovered, so the manufacturer needs to be vigilant and address their problems more frequently.

Either way, it is ALWAYS good policy to upgrade your router to its latest available firmware as soon as possible after its installation in your home.

What about restarting my router?

Restarting your router may improve the security for the rest of the devices in your home by flushing out any potential malware that is running in the router’s memory. Since routers may be exploited through their network connections, and rogue software may execute without actually being saved in the router’s firmware, periodic restarts that will reset the unit to its power-up settings are a good idea. Restarts may be as simple as pressing a switch on your router or disconnecting it from power for a few seconds. While your router is in the process of restarting, your local network and the wider internet will not be reachable by any of the connected devices in your home. For that reason, a convenient time for a restart is often late at night when the household is asleep and you’re heading to bed. You won’t lose any mail that might be sent to you during that time; your email provider will hold it until your router is available again.

As you can see, routers perform a critical service to all the devices in your home. They are also a potential weakness that, if not properly maintained, can allow access to your devices by intruders from the internet. For that reason, it’s a good idea to understand how they work and ensure that they are secure. I hope this article has provided you with a basic understanding of these important devices.

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