The Most Effective Types of Network Topology: A Quick Guide for MSPs

Companies’ IT infrastructures have become more complicated than ever. According to recent reports, the global Bring Your Own Device (BYOD market) was valued at $94,200 million USD in 2018 and is expected to reach $337,500 million USD by the end of 2025. As a growing number of employees bring their own laptops, tablets, and mobile devices into work, it’s become increasingly difficult for managed services providers (MSPs) to gain full visibility into their customers’ networks.

This is where sophisticated network topology comes into play. It describes the logical and physical relationship between all nodes, devices, and connections on your customers’ networks. Put simply, network topology refers to the way a network is arranged. Physical connections are connections between nodes and the network—the physical wires, cables, and so on. Logical connections describe which nodes connect to one another and how data is transmitted throughout the network. Although these connections cannot be seen, they are intrinsic to the overall function of the network.

With the right system in place, MSPs can auto detect if a device is added or removed, quickly troubleshoot network connectivity issues, and get a comprehensive, digestible visual representation of the network and its interconnectivity.

How do you make a network topology map?

Creating a network map begins with network device discovery. Network device discovery is the process of identifying all computers and other devices located on the network. While you can do this manually, many MSPs rely on network mapping software to automate and expedite the process. Network discovery software leverages common discovery protocols—including the Simple Network Management Protocol, Link Layer Discovery Protocol, and ping—to quickly discover and collect information about virtual computers and networks, hardware on a network, software on a network, and the logical and physical relationships between network assets.

Once devices have been discovered, a comprehensive network discovery tool can leverage this information to produce easy-to-understand network diagrams that integrate OSI Layer 2 and Layer 3 topology data, including switch-to-switch, switch-to-node, and switch-to-router port connections.

Which network topology is the most common?

There are several different types of network topology. Each type is designed for its own unique purpose—there is no “one-size-fits-all”. Finding the right layout for your customers’ networks depends on the overall size of each network and your specific objectives. Some of the most common types include star, bus, ring, tree, mesh, and hybrid. Here’s a brief overview of each:

  • Star topology is by far the most common. Within this framework, each node is independently connected to a central hub via a physical cable—thus creating a star-like shape. All data must travel through the central node before it reaches its destination. Because no two adjacent nodes are connected, if one goes down, the others will remain up and running. However, if the central node fails, so will all adjacent nodes within the network.
  • Bus topology—also known as line or backbone—connects all devices via a single cable running in one direction. All data on the network also runs through this cable, following the same direction. Due to the limited amount of equipment needed to construct this layout (a single coaxial or RJ45 cable), bus topology is considered a strong, cost-effective option for many MSPs. As the needs of the network grow, you can add more nodes by joining additional cables. Just keep in mind these topologies can only handle so much bandwidth and if the single cable fails, the entire network will fail in turn.
  • Ring topology, as its name suggests, features all nodes arranged in a ring. Data can travel through the ring in either direction, passing through each node until it reaches its destination. Because only one node on the ring can send data at any given time, the chance of packet collisions is greatly reduced. However, like bus topology, one failed node in a ring layout can take all others down with it. Bandwidth is also limited, bringing scalability into question.
  • Tree topology is set up like a family tree, with a central unit at the top that then cascades into a hierarchy of additional units. The tree option combines the best of star and bus topologies, making it easy to add nodes to the network. If the hub fails, the nodes directly connected to it will fail as well, but connectivity will be maintained within the remaining branch systems. While tree topologies facilitate scalability, they can be costly to manage due to the amount of cabling required to connect all devices.
  • Mesh topologies form web-like structures of interconnected nodes. The nodes then leverage logic to identify the most efficient route for transmitting each data packet. In some cases, the data is flooded and the information is sent to all nodes within the network without the need for routing logic. Mesh topologies often require numerous cables and can be labor-intensive to set up. However, many MSPs consider them worth the effort due to their reliable, failure-resistant nature.
  • Hybrid topology leverages two or more layouts to meet network usage needs. The tree topology is technically an example of a hybrid topology, as it combines star and bus structures. Hybrid technologies offer a great deal of flexibility and are common among large companies—particularly those broken down into many different departments. Because these topologies are so complex, they require a great deal of experience to manage.

Each of these network topologies boasts its own set of benefits, as well as some unique drawbacks. It’s up to MSPs to listen to the needs of their customers and find the best fit.

The benefits of network device monitoring and mapping

Network topology empowers MSPs to conduct in-depth network assessments and get to the root of network issues with greater efficiency. With the right network device monitoring and mapping software in-hand, MSPs are empowered to:

  • Automatically discover devices: Rather than manually taking inventory of all devices on a network, MSPs can leverage a comprehensive platform to automatically discover all devices on the network in mere minutes. After these scans, detailed network maps can be created to provide MSPs with a bird’s-eye view of their customers’ IT infrastructure. Many platforms even boast scheduled network scanning to ensure new devices are automatically added to the network without MSPs having to lift a finger.
  • Maintain regulatory compliance: Maintaining regulatory compliance is an absolute must for any MSP. Many compliance standards, including PCISOXHIPAA, and FIPS 140-2, require maintenance of an up-to-date network diagram. A comprehensive and accurate map created by top-of-the-line software streamlines the compliance process for MSPs. If topology maps need to be exported for any reason, truly robust network mapping programs will even allow MSPs to export maps into Microsoft Office Visio, PDF, and PNG formats.
  • Quickly troubleshoot network issues: Network issues can bring productivity to a standstill, putting your reputation and your customers’ bottom line in jeopardy. When issues on the network arise, it’s your responsibility to quickly identify and resolve them with minimal disruption. Leveraging a highly detailed network map, you can easily view your customer’s network layout—which helps you locate the network issue to facilitate faster troubleshooting and minimal downtime.
  • Conduct comprehensive network inventory management: Comprehensive network mapping software provides more than maps—it also creates detailed reports to track hardware inventory, switch port data, device ARP cache, and VLANS and subnets. These reports allow MSPs to keep track of inventory and network information, so they can have a better grasp of all available inventory and existing device capacity. Some reports even identify security vulnerabilities and provide patch statuses of endpoints and servers across multiple client sites.
  • Increase the efficiency of your operation: Platforms that allow MSPs to build multiple network maps without having to rescan save MSPs valuable time, bandwidth, and resources. These solutions often support multiple discovery methods, including SNMP v1-v3, ICMP, WMI, CDP, VMware, Hyper-V, and beyond. Some network management platforms are also part of service suites that offer remote access software for business. This further helps increase operational efficiencies for many MSPs by allowing them to manage their customers’ networks in real-time.

It’s easy to see that the benefits of network topology software are vast and varied. Leveraging the right tools can take your operation to new heights, helping you deliver better results for your customers.