A network consists of two or more computers that are linked in order to share resources (such as printers and CDs), exchange files, or allow electronic communications. The computers on a network may be linked through cables, telephone lines, radio waves, satellites, or infrared light beams.
Two very common types of networks include:
You may also see references to a Metropolitan Area Networks (MAN), a Wireless LAN (WLAN), or a Wireless WAN (WWAN).
Local Area Network
A Local Area Network (LAN) is a network that is confined to a relatively small area. It is generally limited to a geographic area such as a writing lab, school, or building.
Computers connected to a network are broadly categorized as servers or workstations. Servers are generally not used by humans directly, but rather run continuously to provide "services" to the other computers (and their human users) on the network. Services provided can include printing and faxing, software hosting, file storage and sharing, messaging, data storage and retrieval, complete access control (security) for the network's resources, and many others.
Workstations are called such because they typically do have a human user which interacts with the network through them. Workstations were traditionally considered a desktop, consisting of a computer, keyboard, display, and mouse, or a laptop, with with integrated keyboard, display, and touchpad. With the advent of the tablet computer, and the touch screen devices such as iPad and iPhone, our definition of workstation is quickly evolving to include those devices, because of their ability to interact with the network and utilize network services.
Servers tend to be more powerful than workstations, although configurations are guided by needs. For example, a group of servers might be located in a secure area, away from humans, and only accessed through the network. In such cases, it would be common for the servers to operate without a dedicated display or keyboard. However, the size and speed of the server's processor(s), hard drive, and main memory might add dramatically to the cost of the system. On the other hand, a workstation might not need as much storage or working memory, but might require an expensive display to accommodate the needs of its user. Every computer on a network should be appropriately configured for its use.
On a single LAN, computers and servers may be connected by cables or wirelessly. Wireless access to a wired network is made possible by wireless access points (WAPs). These WAP devices provide a bridge between computers and networks. A typical WAP might have the theoretical capacity to connect hundreds or even thousands of wireless users to a network, although practical capacity might be far less.
Nearly always servers will be connected by cables to the network, because the cable connections remain the fastest. Workstations which are stationary (desktops) are also usually connected by a cable to the network, although the cost of wireless adapters has dropped to the point that, when installing workstations in an existing facility with inadequate wiring, it can be easier and less expensive to use wireless for a desktop.
See the Topology, Cabling, and Hardware sections of this tutorial for more information on the configuration of a LAN.
Wide Area Network
Wide Area Networks (WANs) connect networks in larger geographic areas, such as Florida, the United States, or the world. Dedicated transoceanic cabling or satellite uplinks may be used to connect this type of global network.
Using a WAN, schools in Florida can communicate with places like Tokyo in a matter of seconds, without paying enormous phone bills. Two users a half-world apart with workstations equipped with microphones and a webcams might teleconference in real time. A WAN is complicated. It uses multiplexers, bridges, and routers to connect local and metropolitan networks to global communications networks like the Internet. To users, however, a WAN will not appear to be much different than a LAN.
Advantages of Installing a School NetworkUser access control. Modern networks almost always have one or more servers which allows centralized management for users and for network resources to which they have access. User credentials on a privately-owned and operated network may be as simple as a user name and password, but with ever-increasing attention to computing security issues, these servers are critical to ensuring that sensitive information is only available to authorized users. Information storing and sharing. Computers allow users to create and manipulate information. Information takes on a life of its own on a network. The network provides both a place to store the information and mechanisms to share that information with other network users. Connections. Administrators, instructors, and even students and guests can be connected using the campus network. Services. The school can provide services, such as registration, school directories, course schedules, access to research, and email accounts, and many others. (Remember, network services are generally provided by servers). Internet. The school can provide network users with access to the internet, via an internet gateway. Computing resources. The school can provide access to special purpose computing devices which individual users would not normally own. For example, a school network might have high-speed high quality printers strategically located around a campus for instructor or student use. Flexible Access. School networks allow students to access their information from connected devices throughout the school. Students can begin an assignment in their classroom, save part of it on a public access area of the network, then go to the media center after school to finish their work. Students can also work cooperatively through the network. Workgroup Computing. Collaborative software allows many users to work on a document or project concurrently. For example, educators located at various schools within a county could simultaneously contribute their ideas about new curriculum standards to the same document, spreadsheets, or website. Expensive to Install. Large campus networks can carry hefty price tags. Cabling, network cards, routers, bridges, firewalls, wireless access points, and software can get expensive, and the installation would certainly require the services of technicians. But, with the ease of setup of home networks, a simple network with internet access can be setup for a small campus in an afternoon. Requires Administrative Time. Proper maintenance of a network requires considerable time and expertise. Many schools have installed a network, only to find that they did not budget for the necessary administrative support. Servers Fail. Although a network server is no more susceptible to failure than any other computer, when the files server "goes down" the entire network may come to a halt. Good network design practices say that critical network services (provided by servers) should be redundant on the network whenever possible. Cables May Break. The Topology chapter presents information about the various configurations of cables. Some of the configurations are designed to minimize the inconvenience of a broken cable; with other configurations, one broken cable can stop the entire network. Security and compliance. Network security is expensive. It is also very important. A school network would possibly be subject to more stringent security requirements than a similarly-sized corporate network, because of its likelihood of storing personal and confidential information of network users, the danger of which can be compounded if any network users are minors. A great deal of attention must be paid to network services to ensure all network content is appropriate for the network community it serves.
Networks are often classified by their physical or organizational extent or their purpose. Usage, trust level, and access rights differ between these types of networks, outlined below.
Personal Area Network (PAN)
A personal area network (PAN) is a computer network used for communication among computer and information technological devices close to one person. Devices used in a PAN include personal computers, printers, fax machines, telephones, PDAs, scanners, and even video game consoles. Home area networks (HANs) are very similar to PANs.
Local Area Network (LAN)
A local area network (LAN) is a network that connects computers and devices in a limited geographical area such as home, school, computer laboratory, office building, or closely positioned group of buildings. Each computer or device on the network is a node. The defining characteristics of LANs, in contrast to WANs (wide area networks), include their higher data transfer rates, smaller geographic range, and no need for leased telecommunication lines. LANs can be connected to wide area networks by using routers.
Wide Area Network (WAN)
A wide area network (WAN) is a computer network that covers a large geographic area such as a city, country, or even intercontinental distances, using a communications channel that combines many types of media such as telephone lines, cables, and air waves. A WAN often uses transmission facilities provided by common carriers, such as telephone companies.
Storage Area Network (SAN)
A storage area network (SAN) is a dedicated network that provides access to consolidated, block level data storage. SANs are primarily used to make storage devices, such as disk arrays, tape libraries, and optical jukeboxes, accessible to servers so that the devices appear as locally-attached devices to the operating system. A SAN typically has its own network of storage devices that are not accessible through the local area network by other devices.
Campus Area Network (CAN)
A campus area network (CAN) is a computer network made up of an interconnection of LANs within a limited geographical area. The networking equipment (switches, routers) and transmission media (optical fiber, copper plant, Cat5 cabling, etc.) are almost entirely owned by the campus tenant or owner: an enterprise, university, government, etc. In the case of a university campus-based campus network, the network is likely to link a variety of campus buildings -- including, for example, academic colleges or departments, the university library, and student residence halls. CANs are similar to metropolitan area networks (MANs), which usually span cities or large campuses.
A backbone network is part of a computer network infrastructure that interconnects various pieces of network, providing a path for the exchange of information between different LANs or subnetworks. A backbone can tie together diverse networks in the same building, in different buildings in a campus environment, or over wide areas. Normally, the backbone's capacity is greater than that of the networks connected to it.
A large corporation which has many locations may have a backbone network that ties all of these locations together -- for example, if a server cluster needs to be accessed by different departments of a company which are located at different geographical locations. The equipment which ties these departments together constitute the network backbone. Network performance management, including network congestion, are critical parameters taken into account when designing a network backbone. Backbone networks are similar to enterprise private networks.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A virtual private network (VPN) is a computer network in which some of the links between nodes are carried by open connections or virtual circuits in some larger network (e.g., the Internet) instead of by physical wires. The data link layer protocols of the virtual network are said to be tunneled through the larger network when this is the case. One common application is secure communications through the public Internet, but a VPN need not have explicit security features, such as authentication or content encryption. VPNs, for example, can be used to separate the traffic of different user communities over an underlying network with strong security features.
Not to be confused with a Virtual Private Network, a Virtual Network defines data traffic flows between virtual machines within a hypervisor in a virtual computing environment. Virtual Networks may employ virtual security switches, virtual routers, virtual firewalls, and other virtual networking devices to direct and secure data traffic.
The Internet, represented in this photo, is an aggregation of the different computer networks spanning the globe.