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A computer network is fundamental to the successful daily operation of businesses and organisations of all sizes, across all industries — but it’s easy to be confused by what your ‘network’ actually is, what it does and how it does it.

With over 20 years of experience in providing network solutions for home and business, we thought we would explain in simple terms what a computer network is and why it is important to your business.

What is a computer network?

A computer network refers to interconnected devices (such as a computer, printer, scanner, file storage, etc) that exchange communications and resources with each other. To communicate, these devices transmit information between each other using communications protocols — a system of rules.

From the user’s perspective, computer networks enable the sharing of resources and communications. For businesses, your computer network is the spine of your IT infrastructure through which everything else communicates.

How does a computer network work?

There are two key building blocks in the function of a computer network — nodes and links.

  • Nodes include physical pieces like modems, personal computers and file servers. They are connection points, able to send, receive or forward information.
  • Links are what connect the nodes and allow them to transmit to each other. These can be either wired, optical or wireless.

Within a network, these interconnected nodes are identified by a network address and often have hostnames that are more human friendly to identify. The nodes follow a set of rules — called communication protocols — that define how they receive and send data, dictated and specified by the design of the network infrastructure.

There are many types of communication protocols. One common example in modern computer networks is packet-mode transmission — a network packet is a unit of data.

As mentioned, the links that transmit information between nodes can be wired, optical or wireless radio frequency. These interconnections can be configured and arranged in many different ways, logically and physically. This is called network topology — referring to how the links and nodes relate to each other.

What does a computer network do? Why are they so important for business?

A computer network enables endpoint users to communicate (whether that’s over phone, email, instant messaging or video call), share resources (like printers, storage devices and software), share files as well as access increased storage capacity.

When designed, implemented and maintained well, the use of these internal networks clearly has the potential to drive big efficiencies in any organisation! Shared access makes work faster and more consistent, since there’s only a single source (which also simplifies backup procedures). Centralised administration can make IT support more streamlined, too.

With the advent of faster internet speeds, a business’ computer network can be spread over a wide geographical location (known as a WAN, or wide area network). The links, in this instance, are the internet connection, your home or business modem and then any internal devices such as your WiFi access point or hard cabled data points.

In summary, your computer network can now be cloud based, utilising platforms such as Microsoft SharePoint or Google Workspace.

Important things in a modern network

The earliest types of networks arrived in the 1950s, transmitting information over telephone lines, mainly for use in defence and the military.

The first commercial modem for computers was released in 1958 by American telecommunications company AT&T, allowing data to be transmitted at a breakneck speed of only 110 bits per second! Bear in mind an average internet connection is now 50 megabits per second (52,428,800 bits per second, to be precise!).

Since then, and the advent of the internet, computer networks have become incredibly more widespread, powerful, functional and necessary. They’re critical to modern-day business operations and have become more secure, programmable and automated. 

A modern day network service should be…  

  • Data secure — modern networking solutions often have built-in security features and can be integrated with third-party anti-malware solutions.
  • Adaptable — modern computer networks are usually software-defined, meaning they can be controlled centrally quickly.
  • Scalable — networking services can be optimised, scaled up or down based on need. They can be integrated on a large scale.
  • Virtual — a physical network infrastructure can be partitioned, creating ‘overlay’ networks in which your nodes are virtually linked and data can be communicated. Many large-scale networks are overlaid on the internet.

What are the different types of business computer networks?

Business computer networks can be classified in many ways, most commonly by geographical extent.

Smaller businesses will usually function with local area networks (LAN). This is a collection of devices in one physical location, like an office, warehouse or shop. Traditionally, the premises would be cabled. More recently, the advancement of WiFi and portable technology has meant that wireless connectivity is preferred.

There are two types of LAN: peer-to-peer and client-server. The technology of these networks can be wired or wireless.

Peer-to-peer networks

These involve two or more computers pooling together, with shared resources available to everyone on the network. Computers are equally privileged and act as both the client and the server, communicating directly with each other. A printer on one computer could be used by anyone else in the network, for example.

  • Pros — Very simple and easy to set up.
  • Cons — Devices shared by a computer are reliant on that computer being operational — remove the computer and you remove access to any connected devices, files or folders. Poor security and scalability.

Client-server networks

These involve multiple workstations connecting to one or more servers, where the shared files and resources are kept. Clients — also known as service requesters — access these from the server.

The server does the work of ‘serving’ the clients with information they need to function.  This could be security, user permissions, file access, printer resources, email, software updates and so on.

  • Pros — A robust system that is scalable and efficient.
  • Cons — Initial costs can be expensive. Requires more expertise to set up, manage and maintain. They can be quite insular to the business.

A client-server network is by far the best choice for your business, but before you consider this type of network, read on. The internet and connectivity has changed this landscape providing an alternative option for your business.

Cloud-based computer networks

The traditional client-server network has become prohibitive and out-dated. Remote and ‘hybrid’ working behaviours have grown drastically in popularity, as has the tendency for businesses to operate nationally or internationally.

For those businesses embracing this ‘new normal’, there is now a third type of network choice available to you.

This type of network can be seen as a mixture of LAN and WAN (wide area network) systems.  You will possibly know this type of arrangement through products such as Microsoft SharePoint and Google Workspace.

These types of cloud-based services provide businesses with the functionality of a LAN without being tied to a single location; we’ve explored them in another Learning Hub post about cloud services for business.

What sort of computer network solution does my business need?

Cloud-based systems have transformed the way we can work. For any business starting out or looking to improve their IT, we would say that this type of network is where you should be focusing your investment.

They can provide businesses with a scalable, secure network that will allow your users to collaborate, share information and work from almost anywhere in the world — just as if they were in the office.

Like the traditional LAN, these types of networks need to be set up, managed and maintained correctly and shouldn’t be attempted if you’re not familiar with them. They may sound relatively simple, but if set up wrong, they can hinder your business.

We recommend that partnering with a professional IT specialist is by far your best way to get the most from a network like this. Once you and your team are enjoying the benefits of a cloud-based business network, you’ll never go back.

Sign me up — sounds great. Almost too great. What’s the catch? 

The Achilles’ heel of this type of network is the internet connection. Simply put, no internet, no access to your network. Investment in a high-quality internet connection is paramount. In the ‘new normal’ of hybrid working behaviour, this applies equally to the home user as well as the business premises.

Looking to level up your IT infrastructure?

No two businesses are the same. A carefully-considered network solution will allow for maximum performance, security, efficiency and scalability.

For over 20 years, we’ve been delivering integrated, innovative and future-proofed network solutions for organisations of all sizes and sectors. From consultation to design, delivery and fully-managed ongoing support, we’re here to help.

For a flavour of what our team of tech experts could do for your business, feel free to take a look at our case studies for Abingdon Health plc and The Environment Bank.

Get in touch by clicking the button below, by phoning 03303 800 100 or by emailing contactus@weareyourit.co.uk.

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