Difference between WAN and LAN
When it comes to network design, scale is everything. The planning and technology that service a small, five-person office are considerably different from those used to maintain Apple’s Cupertino campus. It’s all about scale.
When considering the scale of a network, an easy delineation that helps is determining whether the network is a LAN or WAN. When you understand the differences between these network types, you can better strategize network design and deployment.
What Is LAN?
LAN stands for “local area network,” and it is one of the most common ways to build a network. LAN networks are ideal for any situation where multiple devices are going to share the same connection to the internet.
Any home network is typically a LAN network, as are office networks. You can find LANs at schools, healthcare facilities, government buildings, airports, and anywhere else where you can connect to the internet.
In fact, any time you connect to an internet-enabled network, you’re probably connecting to a LAN.
What Is WAN?
WAN stands for “wide-area network.” It takes things to a larger scale, and there’s an easy way to think about a WAN. A WAN is a connection of multiple LANs. When you link LANs together over a large physical distance, you get a WAN.
The interesting fact is that everyone who has ever connected to the internet has used a WAN because the internet itself is effectively the largest WAN on the planet.
What Are the Key Differences Between the Two?
If a WAN is a bunch of connected LANs, then what is the key difference? Why do the distinctions matter?
Essentially, a LAN turns into a WAN when it spans a large enough distance, but there is no formal distinction. There’s not a magic distance that transforms a LAN into a WAN.
Instead, the easiest way to distinguish is with equipment. If a network is large enough that traditional LAN equipment cannot completely service it, then it is a WAN. There is specialized WAN equipment that includes routers and switches.
WANs also use virtualization techniques like IP tunneling and VPNs. This allows software to control a WAN, essentially serving as a master control suite for the many connected LANs.
Common Use Cases
Perhaps the most effective way to distinguish between LANs and WANs is to consider the leading use cases. Both are deployed everywhere, and seeing when WANs are implemented, in particular, can clarify the differences.
As stated before, a LAN is used to connect multiple devices together. Typically, a LAN is used to share a single internet access point with many devices in an area. Every home network is a LAN. Most office and small business networks are also LANs.
Any time you connect to a Wi-Fi network, you are connecting to a LAN. Any time you plug a device into an internet port, you are connecting to a LAN.
The best example of a WAN is a cellular carrier network. Your phone can connect to that network without connecting directly to a LAN. In this case, the nearest cell tower is covering a wide area, and it’s one way that you can use the internet without being on a LAN.
Outside of that, WAN networks are used on campuses. They are also used to connect business networks in completely different locations. A business with an office in Tokyo and New York can still connect those offices via a WAN. Typically, VPNs or IP tunneling are used to create the virtual WAN, but the concept still applies.
LANs and WANs make up virtually all networks in the world. When you clarify which applies to your networking project, you can find the right equipment and build an appropriate system.
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