A local area network (LAN) is a collection of devices connected together in one physical location, such as a building, office, or home. A LAN can be small or large, ranging from a home network with one user to an enterprise network with thousands of users and devices in an office or school.
Regardless of size, a LAN's single defining characteristic is that it connects devices that are in a single, limited area. In contrast, a wide area network (WAN) or metropolitan area network (MAN) covers larger geographic areas. Some WANs and MANs connect many LANs together.
The advantages of a LAN are the same as those for any group of devices networked together. The devices can use a single Internet connection, share files with one another, print to shared printers, and be accessed and even controlled by one another.
LANs were developed in the 1960s for use by colleges, universities, and research facilities (such as NASA), primarily to connect computers to other computers. It wasn't until the development of Ethernet technology (1973, at Xerox PARC), its commercialization (1980), and its standardization (1983) that LANs started to be used widely.
While the benefits of having devices connected to a network have always been well understood, it wasn't until the wide deployment of Wi-Fi technology that LANs became commonplace in nearly every type of environment. Today, not only do businesses and schools use LANs, but also restaurants, coffee shops, stores, and homes.
Wireless connectivity has also greatly expanded the types of devices that can be connected to a LAN. Now, nearly everything imaginable can be "connected," from PCs, printers, and phones to smart TVs, stereos, speakers, lighting, thermostats, window shades, door locks, security cameras--and even coffeemakers, refrigerators, and toys.
A LAN comprises cables, access points, switches, routers, and other components that enable devices to connect to internal servers, web servers, and other LANs via wide area networks.
The rise of virtualization has also fueled the development of virtual LANs, which enable network administrators to logically group network nodes and partition their networks without a need for major infrastructure changes.
For example, in an office with multiple departments, such as accounting, IT support, and administration, each department's computers could be logically connected to the same switch but segmented to behave as if they are separate.
In general, there are two types of LANs: client/server LANs and peer-to-peer LANs.
A client/server LAN consists of several devices (the clients) connected to a central server. The server manages file storage, application access, device access, and network traffic. A client can be any connected device that runs or accesses applications or the Internet. The clients connect to the server either with cables or through wireless connections.
Typically, suites of applications can be kept on the LAN server. Users can access databases, email, document sharing, printing, and other services through applications running on the LAN server, with read and write access maintained by a network or IT administrator. Most midsize to large business, government, research, and education networks are client/server-based LANs.
A peer-to-peer LAN doesn't have a central server and cannot handle heavy workloads like a client/server LAN can, and so they're typically smaller. On a peer-to-peer LAN, each device shares equally in the functioning of the network. The devices share resources and data through wired or wireless connections to a switch or router. Most home networks are peer-to-peer.