Computers are great things, but they truly shine when they are part of a network. When a device is connected to a network, it can accomplish so much more, including web surfing, communicating and collaborating with colleagues, looking up information, storing data, and conducting a financial transaction, among other things.

But, exactly what is a computer network? The term gets a lot of traction, but how do we define it? This article is your one-stop source of information relating to computer networks. We will explain what a computer network is, the critical components of a computer network, computer network types, key objectives involving creating and deploying a computer network, and computer network-related best practices.

Let’s begin by defining the subject, or what a computer network is.

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What Is a Computer Network?

Ask five separate people this question, and no two answers will be exactly alike. So, let’s create a definition of our own. A computer network is an interconnected system of two or more computing devices to transmit and share data, applications, and other resources. These devices can be everything from laptops to desktops to mobile phones to servers. These devices are typically connected with physical wires (e.g., standard cables, fiber optics), but they can also be connected via wireless technology.

Examples of computer networks include a company's private computer network, a utility company's network, and even the whole Internet itself! This whole idea is not to be confused with computer network types, which we'll cover soon.

We’ve already briefly mentioned the elements that make up a computer network, but it’s time to dive deeper into the topic.

What Is a Computer Network: Key Components of a Computer Network

Most computer networks include all the following components.

Network Devices

This is a catch-all term that’s further divided into sub-groups.

  • End devices: This covers computers, smartphones, and other peripheral devices (e.g., printers, fax).
  • Servers: These are the machines dedicated to storage and applications, where all the computations, data processing, and storage happens.
  • Routers: These devices forward packets of data between networks until they reach their destination.
  • Switchers:Switches are multi-port bridges. Bridges, in turn, are more intelligent hubs that send data to the destination port. Hubs are repeaters equipped with multiple ports, and repeaters are devices that clean and strengthen received network signals.

Links

Links are the methods used to transmit data. They break down into:

  • Wired links. These links include phone lines, coaxial cable, and fiber optics.
  • Non-wired links. Wireless connections include cellular networks, satellites, or other forms of radio or electromagnetic signals.

Communication protocols

Communication protocols are sets of rules that all the information-transferring nodes follow. Typical protocols include TCP/IP, wireless LAN, IEEE802, Ethernet, and cellular.

TCP/IP is the predominant model for today’s Internet structure and presents this standard layer configuration for communication links:

  • Network access layer: Defines how the data gets physically transferred.
  • Internet layer: Packages the data into understandable packets so it can be sent and received.
  • Transport layer: Allows the network devices to maintain conversations.
  • Application layer: Establishes how high-level applications access the network for purposes of data transfer.

IEEE802 belongs to the set of IEEE standards and covers local area networks (LAN), and metro area networks (MAN). Wireless LAN is the most recognizable member of the IEEE family and is better known as Wi-Fi.

Network Defense

This vital element covers everything needed to keep the network safe. Defenses include firewalls, content filters, load balancers, and intrusion detection and prevention systems.

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What Is a Computer Network: Computer Network Types

Computer networks come in all types, as we’re about to see:

LAN (Local Area Network)

These networks connect devices in a limited area, like a school or an office setup.

PAN (Personal Area Network)

Yes, you can have a one-person network, and here it is! One person uses a PAN to connect with various devices, such as their laptop, printer, scanner, etc.

  • Examples Of Personal Area Network

Not only are PANs a thing, but there are also several types.

  • Body Area. This PAN travels with you. This network could theoretically describe you when you have your smartphone and Fitbit on you.
  • Offline. If your home devices (e.g., television, phone, video camera, refrigerator) are linked into one network but NOT connected to the Internet, that’s an Offline or Home PAN.
  • Small Home/Office. This example uses a VPN to connect your devices to the Internet and your workplace’s network.

MAN (Metropolitan Area Network)

MANs take the LAN model and greatly expand its range. In fact, it typically takes a series of LANs and connects them into one network, usually via a phone exchange line. MANs are typically a government network created to connect with businesses and citizens.

  • Uses Of Metropolitan Area Network. MANs are typically used for:
    • Education. Connecting a university inside a city.
    • Military. Facilitating armed forces communication.
    • Financial. Allowing banks and other financial institutions to talk.

WAN (Wide Area Network)

Finally, there's the most extensive network available, the Wide Area Network. WANs cover a substantial geographical area such as a state, province, or even an entire nation, using phone lines, satellite links, or cables.

Examples of Wide Area Network

  • Mobile broadband networks. This category includes 4G Networks.

  • Private networks. A company with many offices in one region can be linked together via a WAN.

  • Last mile networks. Telecommunication companies can use fiber-optic connections to provide customers with Internet access and services.

Advantages of a Wide Area Network 

Here’s why people turn to WANs.

  • They cover a wide area
  • It allows easy sharing of data processing resources
  • It permits the rapid exchange of messages
  • Data is centralized
  • Updates occur almost immediately
  • It expands the users’ reach to a worldwide scope

Disadvantages of a Wide Area Network

There are downsides to WANs, however.

  • The startup costs are high
  • Since WANs cover large areas, troubleshooting can be complex, mainly if resources are spread thin
  • WANs have extensive security issues, requiring firewalls and anti-virus software.

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What Are the Key Objectives of Creating and Deploying a Computer Network?

Now that we’ve answered “what is a computer network,” let’s explore why you want to create one. Here are eight vital objectives associated with building and running a computer network.

  1. Cost Savings: Computer networks steer clear of huge expensive mainframes, preferring to employ processors at selected points. Processors are cheaper and faster, so users save time and increase efficiency.
  2. Error Reduction: Since all the organization’s data comes from one source, there is an element of consistency and continuity, which in turn reduces the likelihood of mistakes.
  3. Increased Storage Capacity: In these days of big data, organizations need all the data storage they can get.
  4. Performance Management: The more a company grows, the heavier its data-related workload. By adding additional processors, the IT department boosts performance.
  5. Resource Availability and Reliability: Networks give users access to resources via multiple access points, not stored in inaccessible data silos. Also, multiple machines provide an excellent backup in case one piece of hardware fails.
  6. Resource Sharing: Users can now share data and services regardless of where they are. Geography is no longer an issue.
  7. Secured Remote Access: This objective has gained an additional level of importance thanks to the global pandemic. As a result, users can safely access their work from home.
  8. Streamlined Collaboration and Communication: Computer networks make it easier for staff from different departments to talk, plan, share, and collaborate.

Top 10 Best Practices for Managing Your Computer Network This Year

If you want your computer network to be as reliable, efficient, and cost-effective as possible, check out these ten best practices you should be involved in going forward for the rest of the year.

1. Automate wherever you can: By their very nature, networks contain many devices, and it’s a chore to keep track of them all. Automation takes some of that burden off your shoulders and prevents human error.

2. Consider using honeypots and honeynets: This has nothing to do with Winnie the Pooh. Honeypots and honeynets are cybersecurity assets, decoys that catch threats from within and without.

3. Define baseline network and abnormal behavior parameters: A consistent baseline lets administrators measure network performance and see when things are running normally. Admins can set up alerts when those parameters aren’t being met.

4. Employ centralized logging: Centralized logging captures immediate, real-time views of your network, making it easier for IT teams to spot suspicious activity or overworked network systems.

5. Keep documenting and updating: Speaking of consistent baselines, solid, up-to-date documentation helps things run smoother and takes the pain out of compliance audits. Make sure documentation is current in these areas: firmware, hardware, equipment specs, software, and policies and procedures.

6. Pick a suitable topology: Network topology is the hierarchy or pattern that shows how the nodes are connected. The correct topology can make things run faster; the wrong topology can slow down or even break a network. Your data network architects should consider what type (bus, mesh, star, tree, etc.) works best for your organization.

7. Protect the network from in-house threats: Threats to your network aren’t limited to mysterious, hoodie-wearing strangers with exotic accents. Cybercriminals can target an organization’s employees and make them unwitting accomplices. As a result, networks need robust authentication mechanisms and least-privilege models for access control and management.

8. Segregate your network: Segregation uses routers, switches, and virtual LAN solutions to divide your network into smaller units known as zones. Segregation improves security and lets you classify your networks by function.

9. Use the right tools: A network is only as effective as the tools it uses. Therefore, your network needs the right tools deployed at the right locations. The following tools are a must for every network:

  • Configuration management tools: These tools keep track of all the parameters of every component in the network, and there are plenty of them! These network-wide tools manage these components and ensure that the organization meets all compliance requirements.
  • IP address managers: This tool plans, tracks, and manages all information relating to the network’s IP addresses.
  • Network monitoring solutions: Admins need these solutions to gauge network performance, monitor traffic, and spot errors.
  • Security solutions: This category covers firewalls, content filters, intrusion detection and prevention, anti-spam, anti-virus, and anti-phishing. But see the next section.

10. Use tools from multiple vendors for even more security: No single security vendor is a master of all facets of cybersecurity. Consider using one vendor for firewalls, another for anti-spam software, and still another for anti-virus purposes.

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About the Author

John TerraJohn Terra

John Terra lives in Nashua, New Hampshire and has been writing freelance since 1986. Besides his volume of work in the gaming industry, he has written articles for Inc.Magazine and Computer Shopper, as well as software reviews for ZDNet. More recently, he has done extensive work as a professional blogger. His hobbies include running, gaming, and consuming craft beers. His refrigerator is Wi-Fi compliant.

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