What Is a Workgroup in Computer Networking?

In computer networking, a workgroup is a collection of computers on a local area network (LAN) that share common resources and responsibilities. The term is most commonly associated with Microsoft Windows workgroups but also applies in other environments.

Workgroups in Microsoft Windows

Microsoft Windows workgroups organize PCs as Windows peer-to-peer local networks that exist to facilitate easier sharing of files, printers and other local network resources.

 Each PC that's a member of the group can access the resources being shared by other PCs and in turn can share its own if configured to do so. Windows workgroups can be found in homes, schools and small businesses.

Joining a workgroup requires setting up the PC with a workgroup name matching that of other PCs in the group. All Windows PCs are automatically assigned to a default group named "WORKGROUP" (in Windows XP, "MSHOME"). Users with administrative privileges can change this name from the WIndows Control Panel (the "Change settings" link under System). Note that workgroup names are managed separately from computer names.

To access shared resources on other PCs within its group, a user must know the name of the workgroup that computer belongs to plus the username and password of an account on the remote computer.

Windows workgroups may contain many computers but work best with smaller numbers (15 or fewer).

 As the number of computers increases, a workgroup LAN eventually become very difficult to administer and should be re-organized into multiple networks or a client-server network.

Windows Workgroups vs. Homegroups and Domains

Windows domains support client-server local networks. A specially configured computer called the Domain Controller running a Windows Server operating system serves as a central server for all clients.

Windows domains can scale handle to many more computers than workgroups due to maintaining centralized resource sharing and access control. A client PC can belong only to a workgroup or to a Windows domain but not both - assigning a computer to the domain automatically removes it from the workgroup.

Microsoft introduced the HomeGroup concept in Windows 7. HomeGroups are designed to simply the management of workgroups for administrators,particularly homeowners. Instead of requiring an administrator to manually set up shared user accounts on every PC, HomeGroup enables security to be managed through one shared login. Joining a HomeGroup does not remove a PC from its Windows workgroup; the two sharing methods co-exist. Computers running versions of Windows older than Win7, however, cannot be members of HomeGroups.

Other Computer Workgroup Technologies

The Open Source software package Samba (also referred to as SMB - Session Message Block - technology) allows Apple MacOS, Linux and other Unix-based systems to join existing Windows workgroups.

Apple originally developed AppleTalk to support workgroups of Macintosh computers but phased out this technology in the late 2000s in favor of newer standards like SMB.