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What is a Local Area Network (LAN)?

The term LAN, once heard mainly in the corporate or academic environment, is increasingly becoming common when discussing small business or indeed home computing needs. What do the initials LAN stand for, and more importantly what does it actually mean?

What is a LAN?

A LAN, short for Local Area Network, is a computer network that connects devices within a limited physical area, such as a building, office, or home. It can be large such as an enterprise network with thousands of users and devices, or as small as a home network with a single user.

A LAN’s defining characteristic is that of a single, limited area. Larger networking types, such as Wide Area Networks (WAN) or Metropolitan Area Network (MAN), can cover multiple locations or indeed cities. WAN and MAN networks may be used to connect the smaller, single location LANs together.

What is considered a Local Area?

There is no single definition of what Local Area means when describing a LAN. Typically, the area connected by a LAN might be contained within one square kilometre, but there are exceptions. A LAN can span more than one physical building, for example on a school site or University campus.

History of LAN

The concept of networking local computers and devices together is not new, and was certainly evident in the sixties.

In 1974, the Cambridge Ring was developed at Cambridge University, connecting computing devices across the campus. In the same year, Xerox developed an early version of the Ethernet networking protocols, which became the basis of the de facto networking standards used today.

In 1977, Datapoint Corp installed the first commercial LAN in Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, and in 1979, a LAN was used to connect more than 400 microprocessor-based voting terminals for the European Parliament.

The 1980’s saw various companies fighting to make their proprietary networking offerings the must-use solution, including IBM with their Token Ring system, which required a perhaps over-engineered cabling system.

By the early 1990’s, Ethernet had won the battle-of-the-LANs, in part by embracing the use of much cheaper and faster twisted pair cabling.

The 1990’s also saw the start of the development of a wireless LAN protocol, or Wi-Fi as it became known when in 1997, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) published the 802.11 (Wi-Fi) standard.

What is a LAN made up of?

A LAN is not a single thing, rather a collection of IT equipment including cables, access points, switches, routers, and other components to connect to internal and external devices and services. The exact composition of a LAN will depend on the physical topography of the location, the number of devices to be attached and the services they wish to share. A simple home LAN may consist of no more than the wireless router sent by the Internet Service Provider (ISP), with computers and printers connected wirelessly also. Physical cabling is more often found in larger LAN installations, with cabling often being built into the infrastructure of a building, along with power and water services etc.

The different types of LANs

Broadly speaking there are two types of LANs, ‘client-server’ and ‘peer-to-peer’.

A client-server LAN consists of several clients (devices) connected to a central server. The server manages file storage, software, and device access, along with network traffic. The client is any connected device that accesses those services. Connection to the server can be cabled or wireless. Users access databases, email, documents, printing, and other services via applications running on the LAN server, with security access managed by a network administrator. Most midsize and large organisations use client-server LANs.

The increased use of virtualisation technologies has enabled the creation of virtual networks, sometimes known as VLANs, where network administrators can create the appearance of multiple distinct LANs on a single physical network. This makes it easier to create department level LANs, for example, allowing the needs of say a finance department to be distinguished from those of those in sales or manufacturing.

A peer-to-peer LAN doesn’t have a central server and so cannot handle the heavy workloads of a client-server LAN. Each LAN attached device shares the functioning of the network. Again, wired or wireless connections are used. Most home and small-office networks are peer-to-peer.

What are the benefits of a LAN?

Local Area Networks allow devices to connect, send and receive information between them. The benefits of LAN technologies include:

  • Allowing users to access centralised data and applications, held securely on a central server.
  • Enabling the sharing of resources such as printers, scanners, and smart devices.
  • Allowing multiple users to share a single connection to the internet and access Cloud resources.
  • Providing a consistent and appropriate level of access and security to all users.

At Mintivo, we love all things networking, including a well-designed LAN! Our network and infrastructure services include design, monitoring, virtualisation projects, audits, capacity planning, consultancy, performance improvements as well as disaster recovery and business continuity. If you want to know more about LANs and networking, or indeed any of the other services we offer, please get in touch. We would love to hear from you.

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