A computer network is a group of computer systems and other computing hardware devices that are linked together through communication channels to facilitate communication and resource-sharing among a wide range of users. Networks are commonly categorized based on their characteristics.
Types of Networks
There are several different types of computer networks. Computer networks can be characterized by their size as well as their purpose.
The size of a network can be expressed by the geographic area they occupy and the number of computers that are part of the network. Networks can cover anything from a handful of devices within a single room to millions of devices spread across the entire globe.
Some of the different networks based on size are:
- Personal area network, or PAN
- Local area network, or LAN
- Metropolitan area network, or MAN
- Wide area network, or WAN
In terms of purpose, many networks can be considered general purpose, which means they are used for everything from sending files to a printer to accessing the Internet. Some types of networks, however, serve a very particular purpose. Some of the different networks based on their main purpose are:
- Storage area network, or SAN
- Enterprise private network, or EPN
- Virtual private network, or VPN
Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.
Personal Area Network
A personal area network, or PAN, is a computer network organized around an individual person within a single building. This could be inside a small office or residence. A typical PAN would include one or more computers, telephones, peripheral devices, video game consoles and other personal entertainment devices.
If multiple individuals use the same network within a residence, the network is sometimes referred to as a home area network, or HAN. In a very typical setup, a residence will have a single wired Internet connection connected to a modem. This modem then provides both wired and wireless connections for multiple devices. The network is typically managed from a single computer but can be accessed from any device.
This type of network provides great flexibility. For example, it allows you to:
- Send a document to the printer in the office upstairs while you are sitting on the couch with your laptop.
- Upload the photo from your cell phone to your desktop computer.
- Watch movies from an online streaming service to your TV.
If this sounds familiar to you, you likely have a PAN in your house without having called it by its name.
Local Area Network
A local area network, or LAN, consists of a computer network at a single site, typically an individual office building. A LAN is very useful for sharing resources, such as data storage and printers. LANs can be built with relatively inexpensive hardware, such as hubs, network adapters and Ethernet cables.
The smallest LAN may only use two computers, while larger LANs can accommodate thousands of computers. A LAN typically relies mostly on wired connections for increased speed and security, but wireless connections can also be part of a LAN. High speed and relatively low cost are the defining characteristics of LANs.
LANs are typically used for single sites where people need to share resources among themselves but not with the rest of the outside world. Think of an office building where everybody should be able to access files on a central server or be able to print a document to one or more central printers. Those tasks should be easy for everybody working in the same office, but you would not want somebody just walking outside to be able to send a document to the printer from their cell phone! If a local area network, or LAN, is entirely wireless, it is referred to as a wireless local area network, or WLAN.
Metropolitan Area Network
A metropolitan area network, or MAN, consists of a computer network across an entire city, college campus or small region. A MAN is larger than a LAN, which is typically limited to a single building or site. Depending on the configuration, this type of network can cover an area from several miles to tens of miles.
A MAN is often used to connect several LANs together to form a bigger network. When this type of network is specifically designed for a college campus, it is sometimes referred to as a campus area network, or CAN.
Wide Area Network
A wide area network, or WAN, occupies a very large area, such as an entire country or the entire world. A WAN can contain multiple smaller networks, such as LANs or MANs. The Internet is the best-known example of a public WAN.
One of the benefits of networks like PAN and LAN is that they can be kept entirely private by restricting some communications to the connections within the network. This means that those communications never go over the Internet.
For example, using a LAN, an employee is able to establish a fast and secure connection to a company database without encryption since none of the communications between the employee’s computer and the database on the server leave the LAN. But what happens if the same employee wants to use the database from a remote location? What you need is a private network.
Topologies of Networks
Network topologies are categorized into the following basic types:
More complex networks can be built as hybrids of two or more of the above basic topologies.
Bus networks (not to be confused with the system bus of a computer) use a common backbone to connect all devices. A single cable, the backbone functions as a shared communication medium that devices attach or tap into with an interface connector. A device wanting to communicate with another device on the network sends a broadcast message onto the wire that all other devices see, but only the intended recipient actually accepts and processes the message.
Ethernet bus topologies are relatively easy to install and don’t require much cabling compared to the alternatives. 10Base-2 (“ThinNet”) and 10Base-5 (“ThickNet”) both were popular Ethernet cabling optionsmany years ago for bus topologies. However, bus networks work best with a limited number of devices. If more than a few dozen computers are added to a network bus, performance problems will likely result.
In addition, if the backbone cable fails, the entire network effectively becomes unusable.
In a ring network, every device has exactly two neighbors for communication purposes. All messages travel through a ring in the same direction (either “clockwise” or “counterclockwise”). A failure in any cable or device breaks the loop and can take down the entire network.
To implement a ring network, one typically uses FDDI, SONET, or Token Ring technology. Ring topologies are found in some office buildings or school campuses.
Many home networks use the star topology. A star network features a central connection point called a “hub node” that may be a network hub, switch or router. Devices typically connect to the hub with Un-shielded Twisted Pair (UTP) Ethernet.
Compared to the bus topology, a star network generally requires more cable, but a failure in any star network cable will only take down one computer’s network access and not the entire LAN. (If the hub fails, however, the entire network also fails.)
A tree topology joins multiple star topologies together onto a bus. In its simplest form, only hub devices connect directly to the tree bus, and each hub functions as the root of a tree of devices. This bus/star hybrid approach supports future expansion of the network much better than a bus (limited in the number of devices due to the broadcast traffic it generates) or a star (limited by the number of hub connection points) alone.
Mesh topology introduces the concept of routes. Unlike each of the previous topologies, messages sent on a mesh network can take any of several possible paths from source to destination. (Recall that even in a ring, although two cable paths exist, messages can only travel in one direction.) Some WANs, most notably the Internet, employ mesh routing.
A mesh network in which every device connects to every other is called a full mesh. As shown in the illustration below, partial mesh networks also exist in which some devices connect only indirectly to others.