The ISO/OSI Reference Model

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The International Standards Organization (ISO) Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) Reference Model defines seven layers of communications types, and the interfaces among them. (See Figure 1.) Each layer depends on the services provided by the layer below it, all the way down to the physical network hardware, such as the computer's network interface card, and the wires that connect the cards together.

An easy way to look at this is to compare this model with something we use daily: the telephone. In order for you and I to talk when we're out of earshot, we need a device like a telephone. (In the ISO/OSI model, this is at the application layer.) The telephones, of course, are useless unless they have the ability to translate the sound into electronic pulses that can be transferred over wire and back again. (These functions are provided in layers below the application layer.) Finally, we get down to the physical connection: both must be plugged into an outlet that is connected to a switch that's part of the telephone system's network of switches.

If I place a call to you, I pick up the receiver, and dial your number. This number specifies which central office to which to send my request, and then which phone from that central office to ring. Once you answer the phone, we begin talking, and our session has begun. Conceptually, computer networks function exactly the same way.

It isn't important for you to memorize the ISO/OSI Reference Model's layers; but it's useful to know that they exist, and that each layer cannot work without the services provided by the layer below it.

Figure 1: The ISO/OSI Reference Model


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