local area network (LAN)

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Essential guide to business continuity and disaster recovery plans
Contributor(s): Diana Hwang

A local area network (LAN) is a group of computers and associated devices that share a common communications line or wireless link to a server. Typically, a LAN encompasses computers and peripherals connected to a server within a distinct geographic area such as an office or a commercial establishment. Computers and other mobile devices use a LAN connection to share resources such as a printer or network storage.

A local area network may serve as few as two or three users (for example, in a small-office network) or several hundred users in a larger office. LAN networking comprises cables, switches, routers and other components that let users connect to internal servers, websites and other LANs via wide area networks.

Ethernet and Wi-Fi are the two primary ways to enable LAN connections. Ethernet is a specification that enables computers to communicate with each other. Wi-Fi uses radio waves to connect computers to the LAN. Other LAN technologies, including Token RingFiber Distributed Data Interface and ARCNET, have lost favor as Ethernet and Wi-Fi speeds have increased. The rise of virtualization has fueled the development of virtual LANs, which allows network administrators to logically group network nodes and partition their networks without the need for major infrastructure changes.

how a local area network works

Typically, a suite of application programs can be kept on the LAN server. Users who need an application frequently can download it once and then run it from their local device. Users can order printing and other services as needed through applications run on the LAN server. A user can share files with others stored on the LAN server; read and write access is maintained by a network administrator. A LAN server may also be used as a web server if safeguards are taken to secure internal applications and data from outside access.

In some situations, a wireless LAN, or Wi-Fi, may be preferable to a wired LAN connection because of its flexibility and cost. Companies are assessing WLANs as primary means of connectivity as the number of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices proliferates.

This was last updated in June 2016

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