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What is a LAN Network?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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A local area network (LAN) links computers in relatively close proximity in order to share files, printers, other resources, and online access. LANs are used at home and in business and can be either wired or wireless. Due to the ubiquitous use of acronyms that have become virtual words, many use the term “LAN network” even though redundant. Attaching “network” to the acronym can remind people new to networking what the acronym refers to. This article will use the term while noting for the reader that the correct usage is LAN.

A LAN network will allow computers in a home or office to talk to one another, pass files, use a common database, and share a printer or fax machine, to name a few advantages. A high-speed Internet account can also be shared on a LAN to provide online access to all computers connected to the network. So how does a LAN work?

In network architecture one main computer is designated as a server, and all other computers are called clients. The server and clients must all be connected to an external hub, a kind of box that acts as a junction. Now that the computers have a junction to operate through, they need a traffic cop to route traffic. Thus, every hub contains what is known as a router.

In order to route traffic across the LAN network, each computer on the network must have a unique address. This unique address is supplied by a network card, commonly installed inside each computer. The network card not only supplies a unique address, but also uses a language or protocol to speak to the hub/router. The hub/router and network cards must all speak the same language or be compatible with the same network protocol or standard to work.

With the hub/router in place, and all network cards installed, the LAN network is ready to be configured for use in order to share files or resources. If online access is desired, the hub/router must be connected to a high-speed modem. Alternately, one can purchase a high-speed modem with a hub and router built-in.

A LAN network can be wired or wireless. If setting up a wired network, all computers must be connected to the hub/router using Ethernet cabling. This can get expensive if cabling must be run through walls or ceilings. The alternative is a wireless LAN, which communicates via radio waves.

Before purchasing network devices, one must decide if the LAN will be wired or wireless. Wired network cards feature an Ethernet port for cabling, while wireless network cards and hub/routers contain radios for sending and receiving radio transmissions.

If the LAN network is to be wireless, it will operate using a set of standards known as IEEE 802.11. Within the 802.11 standards there are different flavors, with the newest being 802.11n. This standard is replacing the older 802.11g standard, with 802.11n being faster and broadcasting over a wider range.

It’s wisest to build a wireless LAN network using the newest standard to future proof the investment. As of spring 2009, that means all network devices should be 802.11n compatible. A network card or router that only supports the older 802.11g standard will not work in an 802.11n network, unless the hub/router supports both 802.11g and 802.11n protocols.

The packaging or specifications of wireless network devices should clearly state which protocols are supported. Some devices carry a Wi-Fi® certification issued by the Wi-Fi Alliance, the organization responsible for overseeing wireless standards. These products are guaranteed to be fully compliant, having undergone testing. Products that do not carry the certification will still state which protocols they support and might be less expensive, as the certification process adds to the cost of the product. If setting up a business LAN, certified network devices might be more desirable.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By FrogFriend — On Dec 02, 2010

I have decided that my household is ready to meet the new generation of technology by introducing a home server to our local area network. By using this home server we are able to share pictures and music and media between our computers. In order to try and reduce overall cost for information technology systems, I have been used in the home server as an actual media player in our entertainment center. This means that if I decide I want to watch a video that I've downloaded onto my laptop while at work, I can then bring my laptop into our local area network at home and then play the file from my computer but on our TV, through the home server. This may sound complicated, but the reality is that technology is allowing for the ease of sharing of information to become more and more popular. Only when this ease-of-use for technology advanced such as this becomes ubiquitous in our society we truly realize the benefits of the local area network and its influence it has in our daily lives.

By Burlap — On Dec 01, 2010

Beyond wireless Internet connectivity, there are many other uses for home local area networks. The ability to share information among members of the family can be critical in keeping cohesion within the technical realm of how that family shares things like media, music, movies and pictures.

For instance, is your son or daughter goes away to college and comes back with a digital camera. Pictures that they wish to share with you, they can load these pictures onto their individual computer or laptop and then share them over your local area network to other computers that are connected. That way, if you decide there are images that you wish to keep or have printed at a later time, you can get these images from your son or daughter and still be able to not have to load the actual camera onto the individual computer that you want pictures on. This form of media sharing at a local level will become more and more influential in our daily lives as the digitalization of media becomes more popular.

Another major benefit to having a local area network within your household is the ability to cut down on equipment cost because you are able to share the actual pieces of equipment. Perhaps the prime example of this beneficial effect of the local area network is the use of the shared printer within a household. Instead of having to purchase multiple printers for each computer workstation for every family member, you can share a single printer and therefore cut on the costs of toner or ink depending on what kind of printing technology that you are using. This method of sharing the computer and information technology equipment has become so popular that many models of printers that are available on the market today actually include ethernet or wireless Internet connectivity to be able to share the printer more easily without the use of additional print servers.

By youbiKan — On Nov 30, 2010

Is becoming more and more common to see local area network within a household in the United States and many other countries in the world. Because of LAN network type technology has become cheaper, we are now able to see the benefits that this technology brings to computer systems into our actual homes were we enjoyed the information technology for things such as entertainment, schoolwork, and home business. The truth is, that many people have a local area network within their home if they simply have a high-speed Internet connection being delivered within the house. A local area network can be assembled to define as the Wi-Fi network that you have set up to deliver Internet access wirelessly throughout your location.

This means that the router you have at home that is serving the wireless Internet connection is actually the main part of your local area network and all the computers that connect to it are also part of this local area network. The flexibility within your local area network simply depends on the type of technology that you are using and the means in which you connect to it. Usually routers and switches will have a limited number of ports but wireless connectivity will greatly increase the amount of computer systems that you can connect to your local area network. They're still however, limitations on the types and amount of computers that you can connect via the wireless connection.

By CoffeeJim — On Nov 28, 2010

@anon80322, It is very possible to have many different local area networks within a specific building. These networks are simply defined by the types of electrical connections that they have between the computers. Because of this, you can have many different LANs within a specific location. All it would take to have multiple local area networks is to have different routers or network switches to control the traffic. You can actually have multiple local area networks that interconnect between themselves but are still considered individual local area networks. This may sound confusing but it is simply a definition of terms. If you decide that one specific network located in a specific area is a local area network, you can make this distinction between another local area network within the same area. They are simply separated by the means in which they are connected up by the router or switch.

This actually will allow for higher organization within your information technology systems if you separate out the different local area networks within a larger building. For instance, one department can have a local area network that serves just that department while still having connectivity to a central server within another area of the building. This means that one department can share a printer among themselves but not have to share the printer to another area of the building. Information technology administrators will use these kind of organizational skills to help better improve the performance and efficiency of their information technology systems.

By anon80322 — On Apr 27, 2010

Can you have more than one LAN?

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