Gateway vs. Router: What’s the Difference?

metropolitan area networks

Gateway vs. Router: What’s the Difference?

Key Points

  • Gateways and routers have different functions and uses in a network, with minimal overlap.
  • Routers are used for shaping and routing data, while gateways allow communication between different protocols.
  • Routers are essential for any network, while gateways are more commonly used in industrial settings or with older hardware.
  • There isn’t a clear winner between gateways and routers; the choice depends on the specific needs of the network.

Which option is better for your needs: gateway vs. router? The world of computer networking is filled with a variety of devices that serve different needs. The humble router is one such example, being one of the primary means of shaping and configuring network traffic.

You could be forgiven for thinking a gateway operates in a similar fashion. However, these devices couldn’t be more different in scope. This distinction gets blurred by home gateways, which operate in a similar fashion to a router. So, let’s take a little time and tear both of these devices down to see how they really differ, as well as what their best uses might be.

Gateway vs. Router: Side-by-Side Comparison

GatewayHome GatewayRouter
FunctionCommunication between differing protocolsEstablishing wide area connections, routing traffic to the best possible route, translating data from a different protocolAnalyzing and forwarding data across all connected devices on a network
OSI Layer UsedLayer 5Layers 2, 3, and 5Layer 3
Routing and Switch CapabilitiesNoYesYes
Secondary FunctionsNetwork access control, protocol conversionWireless networking, static routing, network address translation, network access control, protocol conversionWireless networking, static routing, network address translation, and some switching functions, depending on the router
Dedicated ApplianceNo, it can best hosted virtually or with a physical applianceYes, home users will generally have a dedicated appliance to administer their devices.Yes, generally a fully dedicated physical component on a network
Protocol ConversionYesYesNo

Both of these device types couldn’t be more different in regard to their overall implementation in a network.

Gateway vs. Router: What’s the Difference?

As you can tell from the above figure, these network devices have vastly differing functions and uses. Their installation on a network isn’t an interchangeable task, and there is minimal overlap if any to speak of.

OSI Layers Used

gateway vs. router
Both routers and gateways operate using the OSI Model.


All network hardware uses the OSI model to communicate. Both gateways and routers are no different in this regard. Most network routers function on Layer 3 of the model itself. Layer 3 is the network layer, and is concerned primarily with establishing and moving data between and across networks. Devices utilizing this layer are often concerned with the actual shape and flow of data across a network.

Gateways utilize Layer 5 or the Session Layer, in addition to Layers 2 and 3 for home gateways. Session layer usage corresponds directly to how the end user’s machine interprets data. Now, all layers in the OSI model have their own data types that they utilize. Industrial gateways by default aren’t going to be concerned with network traffic, but how the data itself is conveyed. However, home gateways serve as a router, modem, and gateway in one compact unit.

Core Functionality

Routers are used for shaping, routing, and ultimately determining the best possible path for data to be transmitted. You’ll typically see routers in use with switches or modems, depending on the scope of the network as well as the functionality of the device.

Routers play an invaluable part in any network, with routing being a crucial cornerstone to any dedicated network engineer’s skill set. Simply put, networks don’t function effectively without ideal routing conditions to help shape the traffic. Gateways play a different role and allow intercommunication between differing protocols.

Now, on the surface, this seems a bit nebulous. However, consider network transmissions from something in an industrial application, like a bit of heavy machinery. Heavy machinery is updated infrequently, as that means downtime for production. However, the primary means of communication for such a device might be something like a serial bus. Serial bus transmissions aren’t readily converted to a format for most workstations.

The gateway allows for that heavy machinery to communicate with modern computer hardware to receive communications and effectively interpret them as needed. Home gateways play a similar role to routers in the home. You’ve generally got the functions of a modem and router built into the unit itself, which is helpful if you’ve got a fiber internet plan for example.

Usage in a Network

gateway vs. router
Routers serve a vital function in any network. Such devices are often the backbone of any network’s interconnectivity in a local area.

©kasarp studio/Shutterstock.com

Any computer network is going to have a router as the central point. Routing and switching, as previously stated, are what make interconnected local area networks a possibility. Typically, each floor in a larger office is going to have its own individual router. This will be fed by a switch and subsequently routes traffic to each connected computer on the network.

Gateways are a little rarer in network usage, at least with typical offices and the like. They do see frequent use in industrial sites and other locations where outmoded hardware might still be in use. Thankfully, gateways don’t require dedicated physical devices to administer.

You might get away with sending traffic out from a serial bus to a network card through the use of a virtual application, virtual machines, or a dedicated piece of hardware. A gateway is more flexible in its placement and isn’t beholden to the same rules and practices that a router has when designing a network.

Home gateways are administered in a similar fashion to a wireless router or modem. As they serve a similar function, you’ll often have a dedicated app or appliance meant to control and administer the device.

Routing and Network Traffic Shaping

Gateways have no explicit means of shaping network traffic. Instead, this Layer 5 device directly addresses communication and translation between protocols. Your typical network closet isn’t going to have a gateway as the centerpiece. In fact, you might not even see one in most offices.

Home gateways use similar traffic shaping as a router. The routing functionality is generally built into the device itself, but you can opt for an external router if desired. Routers shape traffic by design, that is their explicit purpose. As such, most of the core functions of a router are a necessity when it comes to designing a network.

Traffic shaping is done through a few different principles. Chief among the central functions of a router is the ability to realize the path of least resistance when finding the best possible path for data. This further extends to intercommunication with devices, but it is dependent on the network topology used.

Additional Functions

Despite being dedicated devices for their given purposes, gateways and routers can come with additional functions. Routers are more known to home users for providing wireless network access. The overall concept remains the same, but the routing isn’t provided with cabling, instead using wireless transmissions to complete the network.

Some routers are capable of switching, but these are usually specialized devices that require a fair amount of experience to effectively use. Routers are also able to translate network addresses. Simply put, this means the router is able to take multiple devices on a network and translate their local addresses to more easily interpreted ones for internet access.

Gateways, likewise, have additional functions, but these are generally more limited in scope. You have protocol translation, which is a given since it intercommunicates between different protocols. However, you can also gateways to control the access of devices on a local or wider area network.

Home gateways have a similar function as a router and a modem. You’ve still got network access control, but you also get access to functions like NAT and some switching functionality for traffic flow purposes.

Gateway vs. Router: 6 Must-Know Facts

  1. Gateways are used for translating communications between differing protocols.
  2. Gateways can provide or restrict access to a larger network with its administration utility.
  3. Home gateways share a name but have different core functionality than their industrial counterparts.
  4. Routers help shape and establish the traffic flow of a network.
  5. Routers are a crucial component of any large or small network.
  6. Routers can provide wireless internet access and network address translation functions.

Gateway vs. Router: Which One Wins? Which Should You Choose?

So, which of these devices is better? There really isn’t a winner in a comparison like this. Instead, the overall aim is to educate and illuminate what their place in a network might be.

As such, there really isn’t a better or worse option with these network appliances. Instead, it is more about picking what fits the needs of your network better. Routers are going to be a requirement for any modern network and serve a crucial function.

However, you might find you need a gateway when dealing with older hardware, so they still have a place in some networks. If you’ve got an alternative internet plan than standard broadband, a home gateway might be your only means of connectivity.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a gateway for my home network?

It isn’t likely that you’ll need a gateway with your home network. Dedicated gateways have express purposes that aren’t usually under the same domain as a home network. However, if you have a fiber or DSL internet plan, you’ve likely got a similar device called a home gateway which functions as a router, modem, and gateway rolled into one.

Does every network utilize a router?

Local area networks certainly do. Networks that cover a greater area typically don’t really need to rely on routing, at least when thinking about the sort of cabling running from an ISP to a home or office.

Does a router translate different protocols by default?

In a manner of speaking, that is true to some extent. The different layers of the OSI Model have their own protocols and datatypes. That said, an operating system and network interface card usually handle the duties of a gateway, this is handled with Layers 5, 6, and 7.

Is a router the same as a switch?

No, routers and switches have very different functions. There are routers that act as switches, but those are specialized devices.

Do all business networks rely on gateways?

It really depends on the needs and scope of a network. Your typical small office running Windows computers isn’t a likely candidate, but an industrial manufacturing plant very well could be.

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