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Terms such as LAN and WAN are commonly used, but what is the difference between them?

People working in the IT industry love to use jargon and acronyms, so it’s not surprising that when it comes to networking, things can seem a bit confusing. Terms such as LAN, WAN and WLAN are now in common usage, but what do they actually mean?

Local means local

The ‘L’ in LAN stands for local, so a LAN is a local area network. This means that it serves users in a small area such as an office, factory or Typically LANs use Ethernet, this is the most common method of connection for computer devices, using twisted pair cable to link them together, usually via a hub or switch that controls the traffic.

Now we know what a LAN is, let’s take a look at WLAN. Adding the ‘W’ simply makes it a wireless local area network. This is the technology most of us are now familiar with at home, connecting computers and other devices using wireless signals from a router or access point.

What is the Difference Between LAN and WAN - Local serverWhile LANs are predominantly local, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are restricted to just one site. Larger businesses often extend their LANs to multiple sites in the same area using leased lines. This effectively extends the network over a wider area but still keeps it private. This is also sometimes referred to as a campus network where all of the sites involved are in a fairly close proximity.

LANs, whether wired or wireless, are now common and it’s rare for a business, or indeed a home, to not have some form of local network installed. LAN technology can also be used to provide an intranet to enable employees to access and share business information.

Wider and wider, still

What then is a WAN? Here the W stands for wide. A wide area network uses public or private links to cover a larger area, potentially worldwide. In fact, the biggest example of a wide area network is the internet. WANs allow local area networks to connect to each other over leased lines or over a public connection.

The technology involved is broadly similar to that of a LAN, using hubs and routers to control the flow of data around the network. The speed over wide area networks tends to be slower due to the greater distances involved as well as the cost compared to local networks, although the latest fibre technology enables a gigabit-capable connection of up to 10 Gbps to be more affordable.

As a subset of WANs, you may also encounter the MAN. Despite the name, this is not a network option just for blokes, but rather a metropolitan area network. In other words, it’s a network that covers a larger area than a LAN, but a smaller one than a WAN. It can also mean the linking of LANs in several buildings using backbone connections such as leased lines.

Changing technology

The differences between LAN and WAN have narrowed in recent years. Improved technologies such as fibre have allowed leased lines and internet connections to become faster, meaning the difference in speed between connecting to the next office or to a remote location can be almost unnoticeable.

The technology is continuing to evolve too. SD-WAN (software-defined wide area networking) now allows network infrastructure to be defined and managed from the cloud. This eliminates the need for expensive multiprotocol label switching (MPLS), proprietary routing hardware which therefore reduces the cost of setting up and maintaining a private WAN.

What is the Difference Between LAN and WAN - MultisiteIt also makes it easier to adapt the network to the needs of the business as it changes or expands, with waiting times reduced for new networking hardware. The flexibility and cost advantages of SD-WAN is likely to see its use become more widespread.

SD-WAN comes with virtual private networking (VPN) technology. This can be used to allow employees working remotely to connect securely to a corporate WLAN.

As we’ve seen, the difference between LAN and WAN is dependent on the size of the area that they cover with some grey areas and overlaps between the two. If you need help in understanding what type of network is best for your business, our friendly team are available to offer expert advice and find a solution tailored to your needs.