Understanding the differences between computer networks is important when setting up a system for an office, the home or a larger contract. The two main types of computer networks are a Local Area Network (LAN), and a Wide Area Network (WAN). LANs are typically used as a way of connecting together computers within a single or small location, while WANs cover a larger geographical area. The differences between them consequently come down to purpose, average speed, configuration and devices, networking standards, and data usage. In general terms, a LAN is more commonly the network used by offices and organisations, while a WAN can be as large as a regional or international network.
1 – Purpose
A Local Area Network connects together different computers around a single network through the use of switches, hubs and routers. This is most commonly the case in offices, where the same Internet connection is used to support a set of computers, which can then share files and access the same virtual systems. A LAN might be layered to include video conferencing facilities, Internet telephony, and the fast exchange of sensitive data. By contrast, a Wide Area Network can be the Internet connection and system bringing together multiple LANs. An example might be a network used to connect together all of the smaller LANs in a corporation. Due to their size, a WAN tends to be more expensive to set up and run than a LAN.
2 – Speed
Due to only covering a limited number of computers, a LAN can reach speeds of 1000 Mbps, ensuring real time connections between users and fast upload and download rates. By contrast, a WAN might only generate 150 Mbps of network speed, and has a lower bandwidth as it connects together a larger number of devices. A LAN interface affects this speed by connecting a network through switches and hubs around hardware, while a WAN provides a connection through a central system.
3 – Configuration and Devices
A LAN is better for sharing individual devices within a single network covered by the same hardware and cabling, as well as by a wireless signal. In this context, a LAN is able to support a shared printer or printers in an office, which a WAN cannot do. A WAN is more concerned with handling Internet traffic, rather than the close connections of a LAN between desktops, laptops and on site drivers. The physical interface of a LAN includes signal repeaters and an Ethernet connection, while a WAN makes use of multiple common carriers.
4 – Networking Standards
A LAN uses Ethernet standards to connect together computers, while a WAN typically uses a T1 connection, as well as Frame Relay and Asynchronous Transfer Modes. WAN protocols include Packet over Synchronous Optical Networking, while LAN employs more of a peer to peer system. WAN systems are more likely to use multilayered switches and Layer 3 devices for more public networks.
5 – Usage
A LAN is expected to handle a high volume of traffic within a fixed network, as well as being able to share data between printers and other devices. A WAN is expected to spread out a large amount of data, and is consequently slowed down by the higher level of traffic it has to handle. Data transmission errors can be more common for a WAN, which requires multiple ownership and maintenance to maintain optimum performance levels.
Liam Ohm writes about technology, social media and IT. For more information about the topic of this article, check out Unified Communications from Redwood Telecommunications. In his spare time he enjoys blogging, reading and networking.