What’s the difference between local and wide area networks?

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No matter the industry or size of an organization, in the current landscape, the network often represents the lifeblood of a business or institution, underpinning critical digital activities required for daily operations. Everything from voice traffic to email, video conferencing, and data center application access relies on the network, making it a critical part of overall technology infrastructure.

Within the University of Alabama at Birmingham Collat School of Business Online Bachelor of Science in Information Systems program, students learn about an array of different aspects pertaining to overall information systems infrastructure, and the network in particular. One course that IS students will take as part of their Information Systems core curriculum is IS 302: Business Data Communications. This course delves into the different communications technologies utilized by today’s businesses, including the local and wide area networks that support them.

We’re taking a closer look at local and wide area networks, including what they are and the activities they enable, the distinctions between them, and how IS professionals are involved with their deployment and management.

Digital abstract with arrows, gears and binary code.

What is a local area network (LAN)?

As leading technology research firm Gartner noted, there are certain challenges of LANs to be aware of, including the fact that these networks are limited networks in terms of their geographical or regional reach. For this reason, LANs are usually utilized within a single building or campus to connect users with systems and assets at the data center. Most often, LANs are owned and managed by a single organization, and separated from public internet by firewalls.

Overall, while more limited in their connectivity, LANs still represent a beneficial part of communications infrastructure. A LAN connection could be used to support intranet-style communication within a business’s building or a college campus, for instance. LANs are usually a lower-cost option that can enable faster communications over short distances.

What is a wide area network (WAN)?

As technology provider Citrix explained, wide area networks, or WANs, on the other hand, support communication and access to data center-supported assets over a much larger geographic area. This includes connecting regionally dispersed branch locations to the main data center within a business setting, for example, ensuring that all users have access to the key applications and communications capabilities enabled by the data center.

There are several benefits of wide area networks. Because WANs are more geographically dispersed, they can include several different network links to support bandwidth, including Ethernet, MPLS or traditional internet. Similar to the way LANs are utilized to support internal communications within a business or campus, WANs are an increasingly popular way for enterprises with several office locations to enable connectivity and access to data center-supported applications or cloud environments.

As Citrix pointed out, however, the more expansive reach of WANs can present some challenges when compared to LANs. Because WANs are often included in business infrastructure and support communication and access among employees and support service delivery to customers, elements including availability, reliability, security, and performance are imperative. Enabling coverage across a larger area can result in performance problems like latency, jitter or dropped connections. For users, these translate to an inability to open and access apps, distorted voice or video calls, and a poor user experience.

Enterprise WAN users work to avoid these challenges by adding bandwidth building out network links, leveraging a WAN failover solution, and optimizing WAN traffic routes through prioritization.

Current trends in WAN and LAN usage: SD-WAN

Overall, both wide area and local area networks enable connections and access to the data center, and the software applications, platforms and cloud services supported there. However, as noted, LANs are utilized on a smaller scale, whereas WANs span larger, more expansive and geographically dispersed offices or locations.

In recent years, the WAN, in particular, has seen rising use. As more organizations and businesses look to support communications and user access across different locations – or even different countries – WAN connections will be required. This doesn’t mean, though, that smaller LANs do not still represent a valuable part of critical information systems infrastructure.

As WANs become more popular, though, users including those in the enterprise space have looked for more advanced solutions to help combat the type of latency, jitter and other performance issues that can emerge within WAN connections. As Network Computing contributor Andrew Froehlich noted, SD-WAN (software defined wide area network) solutions have emerged to address these needs.

An SD-WAN decouples traditional WANs from physical infrastructure, making them software defined. This provides greater opportunity to prioritize traffic types and support centralized network management for performance improvements. SD-WANs can also support an array of network links, enabling WAN users to leverage more cost-efficient broadband links as opposed to more expensive MPLS or Ethernet circuits. Use of SD-WAN technology is on the rise, and IS professionals must be aware of and understand this trend.

IS 302: Business Data Communications, WAN and LAN

Wide area and local area networks will continue to play a major role in enterprise and organizational communication and data center access. In this way, it’s important that IS students and professionals understand how these networks work, the differences between them and how to deploy and manage these connections.

UAB students taking part in the online Bachelor of Science in Information Systems program can build their knowledge of WANs and LANs during course 302: Business Data Communications. This course, worth three credit hours, delves into the details and specifics of WANs and LANs, as well as how these networks are used to support communications and telephony. Students should leave the course with an in-depth understanding of wide and local area networks, as well as their management and security.

To find out more about course 302, or other areas of UAB’s Bachelor of Science in Information Systems curriculum, visit our website and reach out to one of our advisors today.

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