The world of computer technology is so rife with technical jargon and acronyms (the three-letter variety being the favorite) that regular users can easily get lost and confused. But since computers are ubiquitous and necessary nowadays, non-techies will just have to catch up and add all these new terms into their common understanding of things. The following is a brief discussion of the differences between the two general classifications of computer networks, local area networks (LAN) and wide area networks (WAN).
- Coverage area. As can be deduced from their names, the primary difference between LAN and WAN is the size of the coverage area. Local area networks are usually established within a single location. It can be as small as a home or as large as an office building. The number of computers that can make up a LAN can range from two or three workstations to a few hundred. When the set of computers that need to be networked are separated by a great distance, such as from one city to another, one state to another or even one country to another, a wide area network will have to be established. WANs are commonly made up of LANs, but single computers can be connected too.
- Connections. LANs can have either a wired or wireless connection. The wired variety commonly uses the Ethernet. This is simply a set of standards that define the types of hardware and software technology needed to set up a wired local area network. Wi-fi would be the term to describe the technology of the wireless variety of LAN. Wired or wireless, the arrangement of computers in LAN is usually peer-to-peer. This means that an individual computer shares its resources with all the other computers in the network. Other devices that are network capable such as printers and scanners can also be shared. WAN on the other hand uses a client-to-server arrangement. The server is a computer or set of computers that hosts the network. They perform numerous services requested by the other computers connected in the network, such as those associated with email or web browsing. Clients are the individual computers connected to and making requests of the server. They are the end users of the network. Since WAN crosses geographical distances, simple cables are obviously not enough. A WAN makes use of leased telecommunication lines to connect various LANs to each other.
- Cost. WANs have a bigger hardware requirement than LANs and consequently are much more expensive to set up. A big LAN would usually still be cheaper than a small WAN. Only really big businesses such as multinational corporations can afford to have their own WANs.
Knowing a little something about local area and wide area networks can help a regular home user better appreciate the technology he is using. Consider how one gets to browse the Internet: the two or three computers in his home are in a LAN and through a router gets connected to the Internet, which is actually a huge collection of numerous WANs.