What is a Computer Network?

A computer network is a group of computer systems and other communication hardware devices that are linked together through communication channels to facilitate communication and resource-sharing among a wide range of users.  In other words, a computer network is a set of computers connected together for the purpose of sharing resources. The most common resource shared today is connection to the Internet. Other shared resources can include a printer or a file server. The Internet itself can be considered a computer network. Preciously, internet is network of networks.

A computer network is a set of connected computers. Computers on a network are called nodes. The connection between computers can be done via cabling, most commonly the Ethernet cable, or wirelessly through radio waves.

Types of Network Connections

Computer networks can be broken down historically into topologies, which is a technique of connecting computers. The most common topology today is a collapsed ring. This is due to the success of a network protocol called the Ethernet. This protocol, or network language, supports the Internet, Local Area Networks, and Wide Area Networks.

Star Topology

A star topology is a design of a network where a central node extends a cable to each computer on the network. On a star network, computers are connected independently to the center of the network. If a cable is broken, the other computers can operate without problems. A star topology requires a lot of cabling. If central device is broken, then all connections will be down. All connections are separate from each other.

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Bus Topology

A bus topology is another type of design where a single cable connects all computers and the information intended for the last node on the network must run through each connected computer. If a cable is broken, all computers connected down the line cannot reach the network. The benefit of a bus topology is a minimal use of cabling. Disadvantage is single broadcast and lots of collision.

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Ring Topology

A similar topology is called a ring. In this design, computers are connected via a single cable, but the end nodes also are connected to each other. In this design, the signal circulates through the network until it finds the intended recipient. If a network node is not configured properly, or it is down temporarily for another reason, the signal will make a number of attempts to find its destination.

A collapsed ring is a topology where the central node is a network device called a hub, a router, or a switch. This device runs a ring topology internally and features plugins for cables. Next, each computer has an independent cable, which plugs into the device. Most modern offices have a cabling closet, or a space containing a switch device that connects the network. All computers in the office connect to the cabling closet and the switch. Even if a network plug is near a desk, the plug is connected via a cable to the cabling closet.


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Two very common types of networks include:

You may also see references to a Metropolitan Area Networks (MAN), a Wireless LAN (WLAN), or a Wireless WAN (WWAN).

Local Area Network

A Local Area Network (LAN) is a network that is confined to a relatively small area. It is generally limited to a geographic area such as a writing lab, school, or building.

Computers connected to a network are broadly categorized as servers or workstations. Servers are generally not used by humans directly, but rather run continuously to provide “services” to the other computers (and their human users) on the network. Services provided can include printing and faxing, software hosting, file storage and sharing, messaging, data storage and retrieval, complete access control (security) for the network’s resources, and many others.

Workstations are called such because they typically do have a human user which interacts with the network through them. Workstations were traditionally considered a desktop, consisting of a computer, keyboard, display, and mouse, or a laptop, with with integrated keyboard, display, and touchpad. With the advent of the tablet computer, and the touch screen devices such as iPad and iPhone, our definition of workstation is quickly evolving to include those devices, because of their ability to interact with the network and utilize network services.

Servers tend to be more powerful than workstations, although configurations are guided by needs. For example, a group of servers might be located in a secure area, away from humans, and only accessed through the network. In such cases, it would be common for the servers to operate without a dedicated display or keyboard. However, the size and speed of the server’s processor(s), hard drive, and main memory might add dramatically to the cost of the system. On the other hand, a workstation might not need as much storage or working memory, but might require an expensive display to accommodate the needs of its user. Every computer on a network should be appropriately configured for its use.

On a single LAN, computers and servers may be connected by cables or wirelessly. Wireless access to a wired network is made possible by wireless access points (WAPs). These WAP devices provide a bridge between computers and networks. A typical WAP might have the theoretical capacity to connect hundreds or even thousands of wireless users to a network, although practical capacity might be far less.

Nearly always servers will be connected by cables to the network, because the cable connections remain the fastest. Workstations which are stationary (desktops) are also usually connected by a cable to the network, although the cost of wireless adapters has dropped to the point that, when installing workstations in an existing facility with inadequate wiring, it can be easier and less expensive to use wireless for a desktop.

Wide Area Network

Wide Area Networks (WANs) connect networks in larger geographic areas, such as Florida, the United States, or the world. Dedicated transoceanic cabling or satellite uplinks may be used to connect this type of global network.

Using a WAN, schools in Florida can communicate with places like Tokyo in a matter of seconds, without paying enormous phone bills. Two users a half-world apart with workstations equipped with microphones and a webcams might teleconference in real time. A WAN is complicated. It uses multiplexers, bridges, and routers to connect local and metropolitan networks to global communications networks like the Internet. To users, however, a WAN will not appear to be much different than a LAN.

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