What is a Network Driver?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A network driver is a software program that controls a device used to connect a computer to a network. Computers can have one or more networking devices, including wireless cards or wired ethernet cards, for example. Without network drivers, these devices cannot work properly and may have trouble accessing the network or executing commands from the user.

Network drivers are software programs that control a device used to connect a computer to a network.
Network drivers are software programs that control a device used to connect a computer to a network.

Many operating systems come with a library of drivers for commonly used devices. When a network device is added to the computer, the operating system may recognize it and install the driver automatically. In other cases, discs that come with the device contain the drivers and the drivers can be installed. It is also possible to download a network driver from the website maintained by the manufacturer of the device. This option also provides people with access to the latest drivers.

A wireless card is an example of a computer networking device which may need drivers to function properly.
A wireless card is an example of a computer networking device which may need drivers to function properly.

Sometimes, a driver for a given operating system has not been developed. Skilled programmers can write their own network drivers to make the device work with their computers and there are websites and support forums with information to help people do just that. People may also share the drivers they have written with other users so that people do not have to do the work over again. Sharing also provides access to people who will perform debugging and adjust the code to make it better, leading to improvements everyone can benefit from.

The network driver controls the interface between the computer and the network. It is familiar with the protocol being used by the network, creating a unique identification for the computer that can be used in the system. As information is exchanged between the computer and the network, the network driver converts it into usable formats. The network driver also provides feedback to the user about the network status so that people know when they are connected, at what speed, and if there are any problems with the network.

It is advisable to update network drivers when new versions of the software come out. The new versions can address security and device vulnerabilities that might otherwise become a problem for computer users. They can also expand functionality as much as is allowed by the device. People who are not sure about whether or not they are using the latest driver can usually explore the properties on the network device to see which version of the driver software is in use and compare this information with data available on the manufacturer's website.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Markerrag -- that's not always true. There are a lot of computers out there without built in wireless and that means they have to install a wireless adapter that will almost always require the installation of drivers.

For some reasons, devices like that often "phone home" and inform you that you need an update.

@Markerrag -- it is convenient those drivers are often invisible but that can be a problem. Let's say that a bunch of hackers get together and find an exploit in a common wireless driver. I don't know about you, but my computer doesn't regularly check for updates of network drivers so how would I know about an update unless I manually searched for one from the manufacturer?

While I'm fairly sure a lot of computers search for network and other integral hardware drivers, I know for a fact a lot of them do not. Keeping a driver current is hard for a lot of people unless they work at it. That requires knowing how to update the driver manually and a lot of people either don't know how to do that or don't bother to learn.


What is interesting is that most people with modern computers will never deal with a network driver. Those are typically bundled in with the operating system on a new computer and the same is true if someone upgrades the OS. Those simply load in memory when the computer boots and the user doesn't deal with it all. It's there, it works so why mess with it or even bother learning about it?

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