What Is WAN? Wide Area Networks Defined

WANs, or wide area networks, allow organizations and businesses to easily communicate and share information across a great geographical area. As organizations grow and spread out, wide area networks are more important than ever; learn how they work and how they relate to your own digital connections in this article.

What is WAN?

A wide area network (WAN), by definition, is a computer network comprised of smaller local area networks (LANs) that communicate across geographical distances.

Essentially, a wide area network is a large network made up of smaller, connected networks. It’s not tied to a single location. In fact, the Internet itself is a wide area network.

How does a WAN work?

Wide area networks function by connecting smaller networks together to reach a larger network and share data across distances. They are either point-to-point or operated across packet-switching networks.

Point-to-point WANs work by directly connecting two sites using a leased line, like a telephone line. These lines ensure secure data transfer across distances.

A wide area network operating across a city

Packet-switched network WANs work by breaking transferrable data into packets that can be efficiently transferred across a network. Data is sent in blocks rather than in one long continuation. 

Types of wide area network connections

There are various types of wide area networks that serve different purposes. They use varying networking technologies, but most use packet switching as the technological basis for the connections.

Leased line

Leased lines become dedicated point-to-point connections with fixed data bandwidth. They are typically leased from Internet service providers (ISPs). They’re reliable and provide a lot of bandwidth for high speeds, but they can be costly and inflexible given that they’re ultimately anchored to permanent physical spaces.           

Tunneling with VPN

This type of wide area network operates over the Internet, using multiprotocol label switching (MPLS). In order to secure the connections, this type of network uses a technique called tunneling. With tunneling, private data sent from network to network encrypts in IP packets and then routes over the Internet using IP addresses.

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, are the most commonly used tunnels to create wide area networks. They encrypt data that travels over the Internet. Many companies use VPNs to allow their employees to securely connect to corporate WANs and LANs.

SD-WAN service

SD-WAN service, or a software-defined wide area network, makes implementing wide area networks significantly easier by relying on virtualization. Virtualization allows for increased efficiency and lower costs, as it ultimately requires less hardware to build a large wide area network.

SD-WAN solutions work by monitoring the performance of the network's connections to allocate data into the right types of connections for the type of traffic sent over the network. For instance, a company might use a WAN for file sharing, VoIP, email, and more. The software defined network software increases the efficiency of the network and reduces bandwidth by funneling different types of data transfer to different channels. 

Benefits of a wide area network connection

Wide area networks allow users to send data to and from locations across the world. Companies often use these networks to allow employees and various headquarter locations to connect across distances. With WANs, you can send data and it will be completely secure, protected against anyone who’s not in your own organization.

WANs are far more secure than the Internet. Using a wide area network to share data or files rather than doing it online helps protect your information and your privacy. Wide area networks offer dedicated connections to send data, which removes opportunities for data to be monitored or intercepted by cybercriminals.

Furthermore, with a wide area network, you won’t need to worry about competing for bandwidth. Your network will be far more efficient.

Comparing a WAN network vs. a LAN network

WANs and LANs are related but separate concepts. Local area networks, or LANs, are limited by geographical space.  Outside of that space, devices cannot connect or communicate with each other.

Take, for example, your home network – devices can communicate with each other on that network, but they can’t individually reach the Internet. For example, if your Internet is disconnected from your router, you can still print to a locally network-connected printer.

WANs, on the other hand, are not bound by geographical limitations. For example, college library databases provide access to their resources to students across the globe by using a wide area network. WANs connect LANs together across greater distances and then, together, these two networks provide access for all users.

WAN security

If you use a wide area network, it's important to make sure you're securing the network properly to protect against external threats. To improve WAN or SD-WAN security, keep the following suggestions in mind.

  • Use a virtual private network. Virtual private networks, or VPNs, protect and encrypt network connections. This, in turn, protects your network.
  • Encrypt the network. You can also encrypt the wide area network itself or protect it with firewalls.
  • Keep the network and its related software up to date. Make sure to stay on top of updates for antivirus software, firewalls, VPNs, and any other protection you have on your network. These updates protect the network against malware and other external threats.

Frequently asked questions

What is a WAN example?

An example of a wide area network is the public Internet.

Where is WAN used?

Wide area networks are used in situations where a network needs to cover a large geographical distance. Wide area networks are used across the world to connect smaller networks together; in fact, many companies and large businesses use them to link their smaller locations and networks together.

What is a WAN in Internet?

The term “WAN” when dealing with your Internet refers to a wide area network, or a network of smaller, local networks connected together over a geographical area. For example, the Internet is a WAN.

What is a WAN port?

A wide area network port is the socket on your router, switch, or other network device that's wired to the Internet or an external network. On most routers, it's an RJ-45 Ethernet port wired to DSL, cable, or some other form of Internet.