Computer Networks Explained: LAN vs MAN vs WAN

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Computer Networks are essential to the productive running of most businesses, as well as our day to day lives. However, computer networks and how they work can be difficult to understand, particularly on a large or even global level!  

You may have heard the terms WAN, LAN, MAN and even CAN thrown around? This isn't just technicians playing what sounds like a never-ending rhyming game! These terms are the foundations of networking. We will cover each network type, what they are and how they work in this article to give you a better understanding of computer networks and infrastructure.  

What is a computer network?  

The simple definition of a computer network is multiple computers connected together to share resources and communicate with one another. By using communication protocols, the connected devices are able to transfer data between each other, allowing information to be accessed on multiple computers. This data can be transferred via wireless or physical connections depending on the technology used, the size of the network and the distance between connected devices.  

Technology is connected through the use of nodes and links; nodes are devices that are used to connect computers together, for example, switches, servers, printers, surveillance technology, or even the computers themselves. Links, in comparison, are the media of transmission used to connect the computers, such as cables or optical fibres (for wired connection) and free space (for wireless networks).  

The different types of networks are determined by the size and the geography over which they span. 

PAN (Personal Area Network)  

A PAN is the smallest network available and tends to be established between a single person’s two devices. A good example would be the Bluetooth connection between headphones and a cell phone, or between a printer and your computer. PAN connections are generally no larger than a several feet and can be created via USB, Bluetooth or WIFI (to name a few).  

You probably use a PAN connection every day without realizing that you are essentially creating a network! The major differences between PAN and the larger networks out there are geography, connected devices and power.  

LAN (Local Area Network) 

LAN or Local Area Network is any network established between two or more computers within the same building or in close proximity to one another. LANs can be both wired and wireless depending on the IT infrastructure in place and the size or complexity of the network.  

Local Area Networks are the optimal choice for a household network or for small businesses looking to connect devices within a single office or building. Due to the small size, LANs are the cheapest option, however, despite this, they are also generally the fastest and most efficient of the network types. However, LAN connections are limited by geography and so for a larger network, with a wider connection, it may be worth considering investing.  

MAN (Metropolitan Area Network)  

MAN or Metropolitan Area Network, in comparison, is a network that covers a metropolitan area; this could be anything from a single large city or large area containing multiple buildings, to multiple cities or towns. This having been said, the metropolitan in the title refers more to the size of the network rather than the number of buildings it contains; MAN is larger than a LAN network but smaller than WAN.  

Academic institutions will have their own form of Metropolitan Area Network, however, this becomes known as a CAN (Campus Area Network) when referring to a school or university campus.  

In general, MANs are comprised of networks from multiple organizations rather than being solely managed by a single company, and they usually function using fibre-optic cables between LAN networks or with what is known as dark fibre.  

Dark fibre is formerly unused fibre optic cables that are able to carry traffic. This infrastructure can be leased out to companies in order to establish and run a MAN connection. They are generally owned by private sector internet service providers.  

MAN, again thanks to its reduced size, is more efficient than a WAN connection, making it a great choice for medium to large businesses with multiple offices or buildings within a fairly small radius. If MAN is available to you, it is often the more productive and cheaper choice when establishing a network for larger companies.   

WAN (Wide Area Network) 

WAN, or Wide Area Network, is the largest network connection currently available and is capable of providing global connections to businesses with international facilities. No single location is at the core of a WAN; therefore, devices can be accessed, and information can be shared, globally. Due to its size and capabilities, a WAN network is the most expensive network currently available to companies around the world.  

WAN is established by service providers and leased to companies, government, or the public. It is maintained by certified networking professionals, as well as critical IT infrastructure.  

Access to a WAN network can take many forms, however, usually, we are granted access via VPN wireless network, cellular network, or internet access. 

Whilst WAN may be the most expensive network available, it is integral to international business and so for companies with multiple facilities around a specific country or even the world, it is worth considering whether the cost may be a necessary one for the sharing of information between employees and departments globally.  

LAN vs MAN vs WAN  

We have spoken about cost and efficiency throughout this article –yet the benefits or downfalls of each have to be considered on an individual case-by-case basis. If your company operates from a single facility, establishing a LAN connection will be the best course of action. However, it is when your organization is dealing with multiple facilities that MAN and WAN can become important to the effective running of your business.  

Techbuyer’s Network Switch Selector 

Looking to establish your own computer network for your business? Techbuyer launched its network switch selector in 2021 to help you buy with confidence and make an informed decision on your ideal device. Head to this tool here to give it a go for yourself or get in touch for any further support or questions. 

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