What is a Network Protocol? - Types & List

Instructor: Luis Cruz

Luis is an IT executive with over 18 years of experience and has a master's degree in Management Information Systems.

Network protocols. You use them every day. Some even every minute, yet most people wouldn't know it. Network protocols are simply the rules the internet lives by. In this lesson, we'll learn what network protocols and look at the different types.

Network Protocols

So you need to get to your aunt Gretchen's house for a Sunday dinner. You get in your car, put your seat belt on, and start your car. Turn the lights on if it's already dark. When you get to the stop sign, you make a full stop, look left, right, then left again. No one is coming, so you go. You drive down the street, not to exceed the 40 MPH speed limit, and approach a red traffic light as you get in the left turning lane. You wait for the left turn signal to turn green, then you are on the highway and off to your aunt's house.

You arrive safely and on time because most of us are law-abiding citizens. We follow traffic laws. Good thing too! She made your favorite corn soufflé. Computers, and virtually any device that communicates on the internet, are law-abiding citizens as well! Network Protocols are traffic laws in the cyber-world. They define the rules and specifications for how communication happens on the information super-highway.

Network Protocols are Traffic Laws for the Internet
Network Protocol Traffic Laws

On a network, the cars on the road are called data packets, and there are literally hundreds of trillions of them. Imagine the traffic jam that would result from not following the laws-of-the-road on the network. Whether it's the largest network in the world, the internet, or a small home network, Network protocols ensure that devices can communicate with each other over a network.

To ensure safe roadways, drivers follow the same set of traffic laws. Likewise, devices on a network must use the same network protocol to communicate. If drivers followed different rule sets, there may be life-threatening accidents. Can you imagine a London driver driving using UK traffic laws in the United States? Yikes!

Without network protocols, instant messages wouldn't get to your friends, emails wouldn't get to their destinations, and websites wouldn't popup on your screen. Also, Google would be useless, and half the world would be lost.

Network Protocols: Basic Layers

Network protocols are broken up into categories called layers. Discussing the various layers is beyond the scope of this lesson, but suffice it to say that the first layer is closest to the electrical components, like the network cable of a computer. The last layer is closest to what a person interacts with, such as reading your email on the screen.

The Basic Network Layers
Basic Network Layers

Standard vs. Proprietary Network Protocols

Standard Protocols are some of the most commonly used protocols. Standard protocols are vetted by organizations such as the Internet Society, who's mission it is 'to promote the open development, evolution, and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world'.

Standard Protocols are freely usable by people who make gadgets that communicate on a network. They don't have to worry about acquiring permission or paying royalties to use them. It's like driving your car on public roads. You don't have to pay for the framework (at least not directly) that supports traffic laws, such as traffic lights, signs, or painted traffic markings on the road.

Occasionally companies will create their own private network protocols. These are called proprietary protocols. These protocols are usually owned by a company or individual, and becomes the Intellectual Property of the creator. If you wanted to use one you would have to obtain permission and pay a royalty.

Standard vs. Proprietary Example

The iMessage protocol is a proprietary protocol from Apple. If two people have Apple iPhones, they can send text messages using the iMessage protocol. This shows up as a blue bubble on the iPhone. However, an iPhone and a Android phone would have to fall back to the SMS standard protocol that both devices understand. Your messages shows using the green bubble on the iPhone.

Proprietary iMessage Protocol
Proprietary iMessage Protocol

Standard SMS Protocol
Standard SMS Protocol

Many companies choose to design a proprietary network protocol when they feel that it will make their product function more efficiently or give them a competitive advantage. This would be similar to driving on a turnpike or express lane with tolls. You'll have a nicer ride, and get to your destination faster, but you will pay extra for it.

List of Common Protocols

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