What is a WAN network?

A wide area network (WAN) is a communication network composed of computers that are not local to each other, exchanging data over a wide area or great distance. The most common example is the Internet, although a WAN need not be global to qualify as a wide area network. As computer acronyms have become virtual words, the terminology “WAN network” is frequently used in the public sector, albeit redundantly. For those unfamiliar with these acronyms, adding the word “network” might be a reminder of what a WAN is, so while this article uses the common term, the proper term is WAN, pronounced as it ran with a “W.”

A wireless router with a cable connected to the WAN port.

Computers interoperate on a WAN network using a set of communication standards or protocols. Each computer on the WAN is assigned a unique address known as an Internet Protocol (IP) address. When a computer sends a request over the WAN, it is routed to a specific server that hosts the requested information. The server responds by sending the information back to the requesting computer’s IP address.

The architecture of the Internet, the most popular WAN, is not centralized by design, making it nearly impossible to destroy. Like a highway system in a large metropolis, if a highway or information highway is taken down, data traffic is automatically rerouted around the breakdown via alternate routes. The highways, in the case of the Internet, are really leased phone lines and a combination of other technologies and structures, including smaller networks that are connected by the WAN network to become part of the whole.

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Some examples of smaller networks on the WAN include Municipal Area Networks (MANs), Campus Area Networks (CANs), and Local Area Networks (LANs). MANs provide connectivity within a city or regional area for public Internet access, while CANs provide connectivity to students and faculty for on-site resources and online access. LANs can be private or public, but are generally private networks with optional online access. A home or office network is a good example of a LAN.

A LAN can also become a WAN if, for example, a company based in Los Angeles and Chicago connects its two LANs over the Internet. This geographic distance would qualify the network as a WAN. Bonded LANs can use encryption software to keep their communications private from the public Internet, creating a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This technology of creating a secure encrypted channel across the Internet to connect LANs is sometimes called tunneling.

A Personal Area Network (PAN) is created by Bluetooth technology to connect personal devices wirelessly for interoperability. You can use Bluetooth to send print jobs from a laptop to a printer, for example, or to sync a personal digital assistant with your computer. Bluetooth can also be used to share internet access between devices and hence also plays a role in many technologies that can contribute to a WAN network, more properly known as a WAN.

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