Wide Area Network (WAN): Definition

If it weren’t for wide-area networks (WAN) it wouldn’t be possible to telecommute, create unified networks for organizations with far-flung locations, or do online anything. But WANs do exist, constantly evolving to carry more and more traffic faster as demands increase and technology becomes more powerful.

What is a Wide Area Network (WAN)?

A wide area network (WAN) is a large computer network that connects groups of computers over large distances. WANs are often used by large businesses to connect their office networks; each office typically has its local area network or LAN, and these LANs are connected via a WAN. These long connections may be formed in several different ways, including leased lines, VPNs, or IP tunnels.

wide area network

The definition of what constitutes a WAN is fairly broad. Technically, any large network that spreads out over a wide geographic area is a WAN. The Internet itself is considered a WAN.

How does WAN work?

WANs can use different types of connectivity and technologies to bridge their various parts. WAN operators often employ virtual private networks (VPNs) to interconnect locations and devices more securely. A virtual private network is important because data handled by IP-based WANs may become vulnerable as it moves across the internet.

As businesses grow, many are faced with aging network infrastructure and convoluted architectures resulting from technologies that were added over the years. To boost productivity and profitability, they may need WANs that use both wired and wireless technologies. Yet implementing both may seem impossible given available budgets and limited technology resources. And businesses may put off potentially game-changing advancements because they are fearful of the risks and costs to their network.

Hybrid, wired and wireless networks can lead to delayed or flawed security updates and implementation of business-critical applications. Think of the work involved in retrofitting equipment, alone. Settings must be changed for routers and servers. Phones, laptops, and tablets may need new setups. They may even need to be replaced.

Software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) technology may be the answer to these challenges.

WAN Optimization and SD-WAN

WAN optimization aims to solve problems with performance, usually related to speed. It is a process whereby WAN network engineers reconfigure the network to ensure that certain applications receive more bandwidth and so can move faster through the network. This could be the case, for example, with a retailer that needs to send transaction data through as quickly as possible to its main data center.

Optimization has become crucial as data traveling through a WAN has increased in volume and complexity. Additionally, corporate WANs have expanded as remote workers who used to connect in an office are now working from home and connecting through the public internet, yet their data must travel further and just as securely.

Software-defined wide-area networks (SD-WANs) have increased in popularity over the last several years. They remove the manual labor required to optimize a WAN and instead rely on software to manage its connections, whether they are MPLS, 3G/4G, or broadband. SD-WAN solutions increase an organization’s efficiency by tracking application performance and using automation to select the best connectivity option.

Because the software does the job of choosing the best connection, it is not uncommon to have teleconferencing use a dedicated circuit and email use the public internet. User experience is key, especially as users may be accessing their organization’s network in different environments via different applications. While considered a challenge for traditional WANs, SD-WANs are adept at supporting intensive, high-bandwidth applications, such as those involving voice or video, offloading such applications to local internet where possible.

SD-WANs also offers the ability to optimize connectivity to such cloud services as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure. With the continued migration to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), organizations and their customers expect their data to travel securely through the cloud.

Further, an SD-WAN has management and reporting features that give a single view of WAN performance.

wide area network

WAN security

The security of WAN should be expanded to wherever end users will be utilizing their devices, including users that work from a device in their home. End users that utilize WAN should also use firewalls and antivirus software to prevent unauthorized access or compromise of their devices.

The use of a VPN helps create connectivity in WAN, but also has the added benefit of encrypting data. Users should be required to connect to a WAN via a VPN, including network devices that are connected to a WAN from a remote site. Additionally, SD-WAN has a key-exchange function that is used to authenticate devices on different endpoints.

Even though a WAN can be as secure, a WAN service provider should not be assumed to give a certain amount of security. Even the use of a VPN does not ensure the total security of a WAN system. In the past, a hacker gained access to Microsoft through gaining access to a user’s home device, which was able to follow the VPN back to Microsoft.

What’s the difference between Wide Area Network (WAN) and Local Area Network (LAN)?

There are many different forms of area networks, but one of the most common networks outside of WANs is the local area network (LAN).

Whereas WANs can exist globally, without ties to a physical location through the use of a leased network provider, LANs exist within a limited area. LANs can be used to access a greater WAN (such as the internet), but only within the area where the LAN’s infrastructure can reach.

wide area network

What Is the Purpose of a WAN Connection?

If WAN connections didn’t exist, organizations would be isolated to restricted areas or specific geographic regions. LANs would allow organizations to work within their building, but growth to outside areas – either in different cities or even different countries – would not be possible because the associated infrastructure would be cost-prohibitive for most organizations.

As organizations grow and become international, WANs allow them to communicate between branches, share information and stay connected. When employees travel for work, WANs allow them to access the information they need to do their job. WANs also help organizations share information with customers, as well as partner organizations, such as B2B clients or customers.

However, WANs also provide an essential service to the public. Students at universities might rely on WANs to access library databases or university research. And every day, people rely on WANs to communicate, bank, shop, and more.


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