What Is a LAN (Local Area Network)?

The definition of and uses for a local area network

LAN stands for local area network. A LAN is a group of computers and devices that are in a specific location. The devices connect to the LAN with an Ethernet cable or through Wi-Fi. Your home may have a LAN. If your PC, tablet, smart TV, and wireless printer connect through your Wi-Fi, these connected devices are part of your LAN. Only devices that you authorize have access to your LAN.

A Brief History of LAN

LANs were first used by colleges and universities in the 1960s. These computer networks were used to catalog library collections, schedule classes, record student grades, and share equipment resources.

LANs didn’t become popular with business organizations until after Xerox PARC developed Ethernet in 1976. Chase Manhattan Bank in New York was the first commercial use of this new technology. By the early 1980s, many businesses had an internet network (intranet) consisting of hundreds of computers that shared printers and file storage at a single site.

After the release of Ethernet, companies such as Novell and Microsoft developed software products to manage these Ethernet LAN networks. Over time, these networking tools became a part of popular computer operating systems. Microsoft Windows 10 has tools to set up a home network.

Characteristics of a LAN

LANs come in many sizes. A group of devices connected through a home internet connection is a LAN. Small businesses have LANs that connect a dozen or a hundred computers with printers and file storage. The largest LANs are controlled by a server that stores files, shares data between devices, and directs files to printers and scanners.

Business office with networked computers
Stefan Schweihofer / Pixabay

A LAN differs from other types of computer networks (like the internet) in that the devices connected to the LAN are in the same building such as a home, school, or office. These computers, printers, scanners, and other devices connect to a router with an Ethernet cable or through a wireless router and a Wi-Fi access point. Multiple LANs can be connected over a telephone line or radio wave.

Illustration of an Ethernet LAN network
T.seppelt / Wikimedia Commons / CC by SA 4.0 

Two Types of Local Area Networks

There are two types of LANs: client/server LANs and peer-to-peer LANs.

Client/Server LANs consist of several devices (the clients) connected to a central server. The server manages file storage, printer access, and network traffic. A client can be a personal computer, tablet, or other devices that run applications. The clients connect to the server either with cables or through a wireless connection.

Illustration of Client/Server LAN network
Silver Star / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.5

Peer-to-Peer LANs don’t have a central server and cannot handle heavy workloads like a client/server LAN. On a peer-to-peer LAN, each personal computer and device share equally in running the network. The devices share resources and data through a wired or wireless connection to a router. Most home networks are peer-to-peer.

Diagram showing the basic topology of a Local Area Network
Javier E. Fajardo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Doman 

How to Use a LAN in the Home

A home LAN is a great way to create a connection between every device in your home including PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, printers, fax machines, and gaming devices. When your devices are connected to your Wi-Fi, you can share files privately with family members, print wirelessly from any device, and access data on other connected devices.

Example of a home LAN network
Home Network Median Associates / Cartoon Networks

A home LAN can also be expanded to include home security systems, smart TVs, home environment controls, and smart kitchen devices. When these systems are added to the LAN, every system can be controlled from any device and location in the home.

If you have Wi-Fi internet in your home, you’re ready to set up a wireless home LAN network.

  • What is a LAN cable?

    A LAN cable is also known as an Ethernet cable. You use Ethernet cables to connect devices to a router in a local area network. Ethernet cables also have specific distances over which they function effectively. For example, for CAT 6 Ethernet cables, that distance is 700 feet. Therefore, any device farther away from the router must connect wirelessly.

  • What is a wireless LAN adapter?

    If a device doesn't have built-in wireless capability, a wireless LAN (Network) adapter makes it possible to wirelessly connect the device to a router.

  • What is a LAN port?

    A LAN port is the same thing as an Ethernet port. Devices that are not wireless-enabled must connect to the router using an Ethernet cable in an Ethernet/LAN port.

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