A network consists of two or more computers that are linked in order to share resources (such as printers and CDs), exchange files, or allow electronic communications. The computers on a network may be linked through cables, telephone lines, radio waves, satellites, or infrared light beams.
The two basic 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. Rarely are LAN computers more than a mile apart.
In a typical LAN configuration, one computer is designated as the file server. It stores all of the software that controls the network, as well as the software that can be shared by the computers attached to the network. Computers connected to the file server are called workstations. The workstations can be less powerful than the file server, and they may have additional software on their hard drives. On many LANs, cables are used to connect the network interface cards in each computer; other LANs may be wireless. See the Topology, Cabling, and Hardware sections of this tutorial for more information on the configuration of a LAN.
Wide Area Network
Wide Area Networks (WANs) connect 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 network.
Using a WAN, schools in Florida can communicate with places like Tokyo in a matter of minutes, without paying enormous phone bills. A WAN is complicated. It uses multiplexers 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.
- Speed. Networks provide a very rapid method for sharing and transferring files. Without a network, files are shared by copying them to memory cards or discs, then carrying or sending the discs from one computer to another. This method of transferring files (referred to as sneaker-net) can be very time-consuming.
- Cost. Networkable versions of many popular software programs are available at considerable savings when compared to buying individually licensed copies.
- Security. Files and programs on a network can be designated as “copy inhibit,” so that you do not have to worry about illegal copying of programs. Also, passwords can be established for specific directories to restrict access to authorized users.
- Centralized Software Management. One of the greatest benefits of installing a network at a school is the fact that all of the software can be loaded on one computer (the file server). This eliminates that need to spend time and energy installing updates and tracking files on independent computers throughout the building.
- Resource Sharing. Sharing resources is another advantage of school networks. Most schools cannot afford enough laser printers, fax machines, modems, scanners, and CD players for each computer. However, if these or similar peripherals are added to a network, they can be shared by many users.
- Electronic Mail. The presence of a network provides the hardware necessary to install an e-mail system. E-mail aids in personal and professional communication for all school personnel, and it facilitates the dissemination of general information to the entire school staff. Electronic mail on a LAN can enable students to communicate with teachers and peers at their own school. If the LAN is connected to the Internet, students can communicate with others throughout the world.
- Flexible Access. School networks allow students to access their files from computers throughout the school. Students can begin an assignment in their classroom, save part of it on a public access area of the network, then go to the media center after school to finish their work. Students can also work cooperatively through the network.
- Workgroup Computing. Collaborative software allows many users to work on a document or project concurrently. For example, educators located at various schools within a county could simultaneously contribute their ideas about new curriculum standards to the same document, spreadsheets, or website.
Disadvantages of Installing a School Network
- Expensive to Install. Although a network will generally save money over time, the initial costs of installation can be prohibitive. Cables, network cards, routers, and software are expensive, and the installation may require the services of a technician.
- Requires Administrative Time. Proper maintenance of a network requires considerable time and expertise. Many schools have installed a network, only to find that they did not budget for the necessary administrative support.
- File Server May Fail. Although a file server is no more susceptible to failure than any other computer, when the files server “goes down,” the entire network may come to a halt. When this happens, the entire school may lose access to necessary programs and files.
- Cables May Break. The Topology chapter presents information about the various configurations of cables. Some of the configurations are designed to minimize the inconvenience of a broken cable; with other configurations, one broken cable can stop the entire network.
- Must Monitor Security Issues. Wireless networks are becoming increasingly common; however, security can be an issue with wireless networks