What is a Local Area Network, and do I need one?

January 28, 2018 - 4 minutes read

A Local Area Network (LAN) facilitates the connection of computers and devices in a ‘local area’ (i.e. physically close to each other). Traditionally this has been a physical system which involves some type of hub or ‘switch’, plus cables running to each device. The cables nowadays are almost always Ethernet cables of one type or another (e.g. Category 5e or Category 6), though in it’s early days most LANs used coaxial cable – occasionally, you may still see the remnants of a coaxial cabling system in an old, musty office.

A LAN can also be extended over a wireless (Wi-Fi) network to allow both wired and wireless devices to connect on one ‘virtual’ network. This allows any wi-fi enabled device, including computers, tablets, phones, and even some printers and audio speakers, to participate in the network and share data with other devices on the network.

Network devices and cablesPhoto by Thomas Kvistholt on Unsplash

Usually a LAN is connected to the Internet via a single router (or in the case of a mission-critical environment, several routers to provide redundancy and increased capacity). Only the communications which need to reach a computer outside the LAN are passed through the router to and from the Internet.

Why do you need a LAN?

The benefits of having a LAN include:

  • providing every device on the LAN with access to the Internet via a single broadband connection
  • secure transmission of data between devices on the LAN – packets of data intended for other local devices never leave the LAN
  • access to shared resources such as printers, network-enabled scanners, file servers, mail servers, and network attached storage

Although the term ‘Local Area Network’ can sound complex, in it’s most basic form it’s often up and running within a few minutes – when you subscribe to an ISP and they provide you with a modem/router, you unpack the modem/router from the box, plug it into the power, connect a couple of cables and connect to the wi-fi from you wireless devices, and you already have a network.

So, in answer to the question “Do I need a LAN?”, the answer is probably that you already have one if you have a broadband internet connection. The question should really be, how big a LAN do I need?

If you want to put a small team into an office, chances are you’re going to want at least a half dozen ‘ports’ on your LAN – four or five for computers, one for a printer, perhaps another for some Network Storage, and probably a few for telephones – yes, nowadays one of the best ways to set up phones in your office is to use VoIP phones from a company like MyNetFone, Engin, or Exetel – you typically order your handsets from the VoIP provider and, when they arrive in your office, you simply plug them into the internet and you’re up and running.

In more complicated scenarios, you may also want to host various data in-house, in which case you could have to do some more configuration. Topics like file servers, mail servers, firewalls, port forwarding, and static IP addresses are a topic for a more technical article – but if you’re reading this article, those things are not likely to be a current concern for you.

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