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Gateways and routers: A head-to-head comparison

Gateways and routers are two terms you’re likely to hear often in the networking world. Often, they are seen as synonyms, but in reality, they are anything but synonyms. In this article, let’s take a look at what gateways and routers are, their similarities and differences, and when to use which.

What is a gateway?

A gateway, as the name suggests, acts as a “gate” for the network. It is a piece of hardware or device that allows traffic to enter a network, thereby enabling communication among networks.

Generally speaking, different networks and devices may use different protocols for communication, and the gateway is responsible for converting protocols to ensure that the devices can seamlessly communicate with each other. In this sense, you can imagine a gateway to be a translator helping two people who speak different languages communicate with each other.

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In large enterprises, a gateway is used to route traffic from the workstation to the outside network, while in homes, a gateway is often used to access the Internet.

What is a router?

A router, on the other hand, is a network layer device that controls the traffic that flows through a network. In other words, a router is a device or a piece of hardware responsible for accepting and forwarding the packets to the next router, so the packets reach their destination in the fastest time possible.

It analyzes the IP destination of a packet and comes up with the optimal path to reach it. In fact, the data sent from one router to the next optimal router lays the basis for a network like the Internet.

Every router decides the next best router for a packet using routing protocols. Typically, a router looks up the source and destination IP addresses in a routing table and decides the optimal path. Today, WANs and LANs have a dynamic routing table for quicker decision-making.

Needless to say, implementing routers and routing tables are expensive.

Now that we have a basic idea of gateways and routers let’s look at its similarities and differences.

Similarities between a gateway and a router

At the heart of it all, both routers and gateways are hardware components in a network that regulate traffic and determine its flow between two or more networks. Sometimes, a network may use routers both as end-point and access-point, and in such situations, the router becomes a gateway.

Lastly, network cards have to be inserted into both devices to facilitate this communication.

A gateway often works with a router and a switch to complete the routing process. When a gateway receives a packet, it translates the protocol, and the router directs it to the next router.

Differences between a gateway and a router

There are many differences between a gateway and a router. The most important is that a router decides and sends packets to the next router while a gateway acts as a translator to connect two networks using different protocols.

Here are some more differences:

Function

Gateway

Router

Dynamic routing No Yes
Core function Connecting two networks using different protocols Switching data packets to the right destination
Additional features VoIP to PSTN, other protocol conversions, network access control, and more DHCP, wireless routing, NAT, static routing, and IPv6 address
OSI layer Layer 5 Layer 3 and 4
Hosting Hosted on dedicated applications, virtual applications, and physical servers. Only on dedicated applications
Basic working Differentiates between what is inside a network and what is outside it and connects the two. Provides the most optimum route to a destination for various networks.
Networks Connects two dissimilar networks Routes packets through similar networks
Deployment It is deployed on a virtual application or a physical server It is deployed on the hardware of a dedicated appliance
Aliases A proxy server, gateway server, and voice gateway Wireless router and Internet router

So far, we have seen the similarities and differences. Next, let’s see which of the two is ideal for different situations.

Real-time scenarios

Though gateways and routers work hand-in-hand, sometimes you’ll have to choose one implementation over another, and let’s take a look at such scenarios.

Working with similar networks

Let’s say you have a Windows network using TCP/IP as the main protocol. You want to ensure that the local traffic network doesn’t go to the Internet, and the traffic on the Internet that’s not meant for your local network doesn’t enter it by mistake. Routers are the best way to achieve both the objectives because both the networks are similar as they use the TCP/IP protocol to communicate.

Joining dissimilar systems

Use a gateway if you have two dissimilar systems that have to communicate with each other. For example, if you want a PC to communicate with a mainframe system or a Windows network to communicate with NetWare, use gateways.

Connecting different systems within the same network

Use a router when you want different systems within the same network to communicate with each other. Since all the systems use the same protocol, you can use a router with a routing table to determine the fastest way for data transmission between different systems.

Segmenting traffic

Sometimes, you’d want to segment your traffic, especially in big corporate networks, to reduce the flow of traffic. Typically, you’d want the data and traffic of one department to stay within its network and not leak to the general corporate network. In such a case, use a router to divide the network into smaller segments, so traffic flows only within it.

Security

The security of your network is not impacted when you remove a router because the packets will be dynamically routed to the next available one. But when you remove your gateway, the entire network goes down because your gateway is a single access point for the flow of data to and from your network to another one. In this sense, you have more flexibility with the router than the gateway. From a security standpoint, your gateway takes precedence, so you should secure it well to prevent cyberattacks. Routers are also subject to cyberattacks, which is why you must always make sure they are patched.

Gateway vs. router: Which is better?

Now comes the big question. Which of the two is better?

Since gateways and routers perform entirely different functions, both are necessary for a network. To recap, a gateway acts as a single access point and a translator to join dissimilar networks using different protocols while a router determines the fastest route for your data packets to travel from source to destination.

You can compare the gateway to the door of your house and a router to the staircase you use to navigate to different parts of your house. Since both are required to complete a house and make it livable, likewise, a gateway and a router are necessary for your network, especially for large corporate ones.

Do share your experience in using both gateways and routers for your network setup.

Featured image: Pixabay / TechGenix photo-illustration

Lavanya Rathnam

Lavanya Rathnam is a professional writer of tech and financial blogs. Creative thinker, out of the boxer, content builder and tenacious researcher who specializes in explaining complex ideas to different audiences.

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Lavanya Rathnam

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