A wireless local-area network (WLAN) is a group of colocated computers or other devices that form a network based on radio transmissions rather than wired connections. A Wi-Fi network is a type of WLAN; anyone connected to Wi-Fi while reading this webpage is using a WLAN.
By allowing work to happen anywhere, wireless networks don't simply increase productivity and provide convenience. They can redefine enterprise goals and how they are achieved—not just in offices but also in factories, healthcare facilities, and schools.
Like broadcast media, a WLAN transmits information over radio waves. Data is sent in packets. The packets contain layers with labels and instructions that, along with the unique MAC (Media Access Control) addresses assigned to endpoints, enable routing to intended locations.
A WLAN can be configured in one of two ways:
A home or office Wi-Fi network is an example of a WLAN set up in infrastructure mode. The endpoints are all connected and communicate with each other through a base station, which may also provide internet access.
A basic infrastructure WLAN can be set up with just a few parts: a wireless router, which acts as the base station, and endpoints, which can be computers, mobile devices, printers, and other devices. In most cases, the wireless router is also the internet connection.
In this setup, a WLAN connects endpoints such as computer workstations and mobile devices without the use of a base station. Use of Wi-Fi Direct technology is common for an ad hoc wireless network. An ad hoc WLAN is easy to set up and can provide basic peer-to-peer (P2P) communication.
An ad hoc WLAN requires only two or more endpoints with built-in radio transmission, such as computers or mobile devices. After adjusting network settings for ad hoc mode, one user initiates the network and becomes visible to the others.
A WLAN is more vulnerable to being breached than a physical network. With a wired network, a bad actor must gain physical access to an internal network or breach an external firewall. To access a WLAN, a bad actor must simply be within range of the network.
The most basic method of securing a WLAN is to use MAC addresses to disallow unauthorized stations. However, determined adversaries may be able to join networks by spoofing an authorized address.
The most common security method for a WLAN is encryption, including Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), with WPA2 as the standard authentication method.
For any sized network, access points can extend the area of access.
Wi-Fi standards are designed to allow a nonstationary user's connection to jump from one access point to another, though some users and applications may experience brief dropouts. Even with nonoverlapping access points, a user's connection is simply paused until connection with the next access point.
Additional access points can be wired or wireless. When access points overlap, they can be configured to help optimize the network by sharing and managing loads.
A mesh network extends a WLAN's reach and performance, through the use of numerous access points that connect with each other wirelessly. A mesh network provides multiple transmission paths; with intelligent algorithms, it can manage routing to improve performance.
Stations are components that connect wirelessly to networks. They are either access points or endpoints, each identified with a unique network address.
A BSS is a group of stations that connects to the network. In ad hoc networks, the group of stations is called an Independent BSS (IBSS). A set of connected BSSs, as in a network with multiple access points, is called an Extended Service Set (ESS).
The distribution system connects access points in an ESS. The connections can be wired or wireless. A wireless distribution system (WDS) can use mesh or its own WDS protocol. Fixed wireless is a specialized form of radio transmission for connecting a geographically distant access point.
The access point is the base station that serves as a hub to which other stations connect. The "access" is that of the stations to the network, but it may also mean internet access, since many routers double as internet modems. In an ESS, access points may be connected with Ethernet cables or wirelessly.
The bridge is used to connect a WLAN to a LAN or to an access point.
The endpoint is any end-user station, such as a computer, mobile device, printer, or Internet of Things (IoT) device.
WLANs enable computing to happen anywhere, even when carrying high data loads and advanced web applications.
A WLAN supports use of a wide range of devices, such as computers, phones, tablets, gaming systems, and IoT devices.
A WLAN requires less physical equipment than a wired network, which saves money, reduces installation time, and takes up less of a footprint in office settings.
A WLAN is easy to scale. Adding users is as simple as assigning login credentials.
Nearly all management of a WLAN can be handled virtually. A single software interface can provide visibility, manage users, monitor network health, and collect data.