After a physical connection has been established, network protocols define the standards that allow computers to communicate. A protocol establishes the rules and encoding specifications for sending data. This defines how computers identify one another on a network, the form that the data should take in transit, and how this information is processed once it reaches its final destination. Protocols also define procedures for determining the type of error checking that will be used, the data compression method, if one is needed, how the sending device will indicate that it has finished sending a message, how the receiving device will indicate that it has received a message, and the handling of lost or damaged transmissions or “packets”.
The main types of network protocols in use today are: TCP/IP (for UNIX, Windows NT, Windows 95 and other platforms); IPX (for Novell NetWare); DECnet (for networking Digital Equipment Corp. computers); AppleTalk (for Macintosh computers), and NetBIOS/NetBEUI (for LAN Manager and Windows NT networks).
Although each network protocol is different, they all share the same physical cabling. This common method of accessing the physical network allows multiple protocols to peacefully coexist over the network media, and allows the builder of a network to use common hardware for a variety of protocols. This concept is known as “protocol independence,” which means that devices which are compatible at the physical and data link layers allow the user to run many different protocols over the same medium.