While the name might sound simple, networking tends to be incredibly complex.
Modern businesses rarely run without some sort of network, and enterprise-level corporations rely on the power that networks bring. Companies will either have their own dedicated internal networking team, or they’ll contract network upkeep to a third party. The structure and technicality that goes into building, managing and monitoring a network tends to be so involved that entire certification programs—not to mention the numerous dedicated network management and network monitoring software options available—are built solely for understanding those ins and outs.
This article doesn’t discuss that level of complexity. We’re here to create a foundation of knowledge on which you can further build.
What is a network?
Let’s get the basics down.
Computer network definition
A computer network is a system of computing devices (e.g., computers, servers, mobile devices) communicating by physical and/or wireless connections. These connections allow computing devices to share data both locally and across locations.
Think of a spider web. A spider web transmits vibrations from one point on the web through the rest. Spiders then interpret that vibrational information and respond. (Usually, that means eating.)
The spider web is a network. It facilitates information being sent from one point to another. The spider represents a computing device connected to the network and looking for information to receive and respond to.
Types of networks
While not exhaustive, the following sections describe the most common networks that most end users and businesses deal with on a day-to-day basis. (They’re a little more complex than your average spider web.)
What is LAN?
Local area networks (LANs) connect computing devices within a short distance on a small network. You’re probably familiar with LANs in some sense already: You’re likely reading this on one. The majority of homes and businesses run on LANs.
Typically, LANs come in two types: wired and wireless (WLAN). Wired, or Ethernet, connections are the faster and more stable connectivity type of the two. Wired connections connect computing devices directly to the network via Ethernet cables, which transmit data much more quickly than wireless connections. This makes wired connections ideal for data centers, servers and any other computing devices that require both speed and stability for optimal business function.
Wireless connections — the most typical being wireless fidelity or Wi-Fi — use radio waves to transmit data from the network to computing devices. While not as fast as Ethernet, Wi-Fi connection can be significantly more convenient for both homes and businesses because devices don’t need to be hardwired into a network to use it.
A WLAN does have issues at times because of the short distance from a device to the network transmission source (a router, for example), so many businesses use access points to boost connectivity for users that are farther away from the source.
What is WAN?
Wide area networks (WANs) are huge data transmission networks built to span regions, countries or even the globe. They are designed to bring multiple LANs together, allowing data sharing between non-proximal locations. That may seem complex, but all it means is that WANs bring computing systems together that aren’t already in the same physical location.
You’re already more familiar with WANs than you think. For that matter, you’ve probably got an axe to grind about them. Your ISP (internet service provider) is nothing more than a WAN with a paywall.
WANs are a necessity for modern business. In 2018, e-commerce — using internet portals for buying and selling – amounted to 10% of all commerce in the U.S. alone, and that number is growing globally. This, of course, doesn’t even include how heavily the internet is relied upon to communicate, research, educate, organize and conduct daily workflow.
A WAN isn’t just your internet connection, though. WANs can also be built privately for businesses or organizations to use as direct connections between site LANs. You’ll find private WANs are typically used by enterprise-level businesses due to the cost of constructing that extent of infrastructure.
Diving down the networking terminology rabbit hole can be pretty time-consuming, and honestly, if you aren’t active in the field, you don’t need to know most of it. That said, there are some basic networking terms for the layperson to know, including the following:
Network topology geometrically describes the way computing devices on a network connect with each other. Topologies are useful for describing how many connections a device has and the priority those connections and devices have on the network. Common topologies include bus, ring and star, but tree and mesh topologies are also used within businesses.
Network protocols define the rules for how devices can communicate with each other over a network. Some protocols are designed specifically for world-wide web connections, while others define connectivity rules for devices on intranets. Common protocols include IEEE 802, Ethernet, wireless LAN, and TCP/IP.
Network architecture, in many ways, is the aggregate of topology, protocols, and more; it’s the broad design of how a network is built. Network architecture provides the framework of specifications for how a network’s physical devices, network drives, protocols, configurations, operational procedures, and more interact to create a functional, efficient network.
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