WAN vs. LAN: What Is the Difference?

WAN vs. LAN: What Is the Difference?

Written by Don Schultz, trueCABLE Senior Technical Advisor, Fluke Networks Copper/Fiber CCTT, BICSI INST1, INSTC, INSTF Certified


Quick exercise. Connect your phone to Wi-Fi and then browse over to your favorite website. How did everything go?

Congratulations! You just used a LAN and WAN network and perhaps did not even realize it. How did that happen? You connected first to a LAN and were then forwarded to and from a WAN, which in this example was the Internet.

There are many fancy networking terms thrown around that you may not be completely familiar with. If you are like 99 percent of the world’s population, you don’t actually care what they mean. You just want the LAN and WAN networks to work.

If your Internet surfing brought you to this blog, intent upon finding out exactly what makes a LAN different from a WAN please read on.

LAN and WAN Defined

LAN stands for Local Area Network. WAN stands for Wide Area Network. Let’s start with something everyone is familiar with, the Internet. The Internet is the biggest WAN in the world. It is the perfect example of Wide Area Networking because it allows you to escape your Local Area Network and visit websites that are not inside your home. They may not even be in your country for that matter, and that is why the Internet is a beautiful thing. That all said, the Internet is not the only WAN around. There are corporate and government WANs as well.

Example: This corporate WAN structure is connecting several LANs so each LAN has access to another. This is done for various data sharing reasons. For purposes of this example, let’s assume each LAN is in a different city. In Chicago, the accounting department needs to get information from sales who happens to be on the LAN in San Diego.

Wide Area Network Example

Traits of a Typical WAN:

  • They cover intermediate to large geographical areas.
  • Use public infrastructure to transmit data such as phone lines, cable lines, leased lines, and satellite.
  • Far slower than LANs, the typical WAN speed is 150 Mbp/s. Some WANs can reach 1 Gigabit speeds, but this is not the norm.
  • Expensive to set up and maintain.
  • Not as secure as a LAN because the data is being transmitted over infrastructure the corporation does not own. This is one reason why VPN or Virtual Private Networking was invented.
  • WANs are not as reliable as a LAN. They rely on common public infrastructure while LANs can be controlled from within a corporation. WANs are at the mercy of weather, other companies technical issues, a contractor’s shovel when digging, and possibly gremlins.

What about LANs? Another picture is in order.

Local Area Network Example

Here is the typical LAN, which is found inside a single building like a business, school, or maybe even your home. You have computers, printers, switches, and more. You definitely have something like this inside your home if you pay for a cable modem and WiFi router connection to the Internet. Although it will be more simple than the above picture.

Traits of a Typical LAN:

  • Typically connect using Ethernet cabling.
  • Ethernet cabling is extremely reliable and much faster than WAN speeds.
  • LAN speeds are typically 1,000 Mb/s to 40,000 Mb/s. Contrast that with the typical 150 Mb/s WAN speed and now we have some speed.
  • Easier to maintain and far less costly to construct.
  • More secure than a WAN. LAN equipment is all on-site and controlled by a single company.

Are LANs going to take over WANs or vice versa? Absolutely not. Is one better than another? LAN and WAN networks are not really comparable in this way. LANs and WANs each have their purpose. They have strengths, weaknesses and complement each other. In fact, without LANs you could never have WANs.

So, there you have it. Another burning question answered by the folks at trueCABLE. As always, HAPPY NETWORKING!


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