Media contention occurs when two or more network devices have data to send at the same time. Because multiple devices cannot talk on the network simultaneously, some type of method must be used to allow one device access to the network media at a time. This is done in two main ways: carrier sense multiple access collision detect (CSMA/CD) and token passing.
In networks using CSMA/CD technology such as Ethernet, network devices contend for the network media. When a device has data to send, it first listens to see if any other device is currently using the network. If not, it starts sending its data. After finishing its transmission, it listens again to see if a collision occurred. A collision occurs when two devices send data simultaneously. When a collision happens, each device waits a random length of time before resending its data. In most cases, a collision will not occur again between the two devices. Because of this type of network contention, the busier a network becomes, the more collisions occur. This is why the performance of Ethernet degrades rapidly as the number of devices on a single network increase.
In token-passing networks such as Token Ring and FDDI, a special network packet called a token is passed around the network from device to device. When a device has data to send, it must wait until it has the token and then sends its data. When the data transmission is complete, the token is released so that other devices may use the network media. The main advantage of token-passing networks is that they are deterministic. In other words, it is easy to calculate the maximum time that will pass before a device has the opportunity to send data. This explains the popularity of token-passing networks in some real-time environments such as factories, where machinery must be capable of communicating at a determinable interval.
For CSMA/CD networks, switches segment the network into multiple collision domains. This reduces the number of devices per network segment that must contend for the media. By creating smaller collision domains, the performance of a network can be increased significantly without requiring addressing changes.
Normally CSMA/CD networks are half-duplex, meaning that while a device sends information, it cannot receive at the time. While that device is talking, it is incapable of also listening for other traffic. This is much like a walkie-talkie. When one person wants to talk, he presses the transmit button and begins speaking. While he is talking, no one else on the same frequency can talk. When the sending person is finished, he releases the transmit button and the frequency is available to others.
When switches are introduced, full-duplex operation is possible. Full-duplex works much like a telephone—you can listen as well as talk at the same time. When a network device is attached directly to the port of a network switch, the two devices may be capable of operating in full-duplex mode. In full-duplex mode, performance can be increased, but not quite as much as some like to claim. A 100-Mbps Ethernet segment is capable of transmitting 200 Mbps of data, but only 100 Mbps can travel in one direction at a time. Because most data connections are asymmetric (with more data traveling in one direction than the other), the gain is not as great as many claims. However, the full-duplex operation does increase the throughput of most applications because the network media is no longer shared. Two devices on a full-duplex connection can send data as soon as it is ready.
Token-passing networks such as Token Ring can also benefit from network switches. In large networks, the delay between turns to transmit may be significant because the token is passed around the network.
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