As the number of connected personal and IoT devices skyrockets across the world, the demand for high-speed, high-performance networks continues to climb and transform how people and businesses connect.

Over the years, this technological growth has triggered the development of different types of networks to meet shifting demands, and it’s likely that with future technological advancement, more network topologies will continue to emerge.

We’ve put together a list of common network types and provided some guidance about choosing one. After reading this article you’ll:

  • Learn about the most common network topologies and terminologies
  • Understand how to choose between different types of network connections

Let’s jump right in!

What are the different types of networks?

Local Area Network (LAN)

When your laptop or mobile phone is connected into your home or office network, you’re using what’s known as the local area network (LAN).

A LAN is a proprietary computer network that enables designated users to have exclusive access to the same system connection at a common location, always within an area of less than a mile and most often within the same building. By doing so they’re able to share devices, share resources such as printers, and exchange information as if they were all working from the same system. Resource sharing is possible with a network-aware operating system.

Originally used in universities and research labs, today LANs are in use everywhere, including in the home and business. With the use of coaxial cables, optical fiber cables, or twisted wire pair, different types of network topologies, such as bus, star, and branching tree are used to fulfill specific goals. Information sharing and communication between devices over different topologies is possible with Wi-Fi or TCP/IP Ethernet.

types of networks LAN local area network diagram

Source: Auvik

When to use a LAN:

  • If you have many users needing to connect at a single location.
  • When devices and resources need to communicate directly with one another within a small geographic area.

When not to use a LAN:

  • Connecting users across vast distances, such as in separate cities.
  • If you don’t have control over the assets connecting to your network, you may want to be cautious on setting up a LAN for them to communicate.

Personal Area Network (PAN)

A personal area network (PAN) is a short-range network topology designed for peripheral devices (usually 30ft) used by an individual. The purpose of these types of networks is to transmit data between devices without being necessarily connected to the internet.

PANs can also be connected to LAN and higher level network types where one device acts as a gateway. An everyday example of PAN is a Bluetooth keyboard that’s connected to a smart TV, where the interface allows you to surf the internet, view recorded programs, and configure personal preferences.

Personal area networks can either be wireless or wired. Wireless PANs are called WPANs and use close-range connectivity protocols such as Wi-Fi, ZigBee, infrared, and Bluetooth for data-centric applications. In the case of Bluetooth, network configurations can be piconet—involving a master and one or more slaves—or scatternets, which are interrelated piconets.

Wired PANs, on the other hand, use universal serial bus (USB) and ThunderBolt. Like other network types, each connectivity protocol within a PAN is typically not directly compatible with other protocols.

network types PAN diagram personal area network

Source: Auvik

When to use a PAN:

  • You’re looking to connect accessories or peripherals to laptops, cell phones, etc.
  • The devices generally don’t need to connect directly to the internet.

When not to use a PAN:

  • You’re looking to share resources between different users.
  • The distance between the devices is more than a few feet.

Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN)

Wireless technologies have been a major breakthrough in commercial and personal connectivity, opening up numerous possibilities ranging from mobile wireless, fixed wireless, portable wireless, or IR wireless. Connected devices on these configurations communicate over what’s known as a wireless local area network (WLAN).

WLANs use high-frequency signals, lasers, and infrared beams to enable devices (also known as clients) to communicate with each other without the need of electrical conductors (wires) to transmit data. This type of flexible data communication makes it easy for users to move around a coverage area without the need of cables to maintain network connectivity.

WLAN provides a high data transfer rate and most often works in the 2.4 GHz band or 5 GHz band. Some examples of devices that operate in the 2.4 GHz band over a WLAN include Bluetooth devices, cordless telephones, Wi-Fi radios, and garage door openers. If you’re looking to sacrifice some signal strength for better speed in a WLAN, laptops can be connected to the 5 GHz band.

network types WLAN wireless area network

Source: Auvik

When to use a WLAN:

  • Mobility of devices while connected to the network is important.
  • Your devices don’t support a type of wired network connection.
  • You need to connect devices not physically close to existing network infrastructure.
  • There are more devices you need to connect than the number of ports on your router or switch and you can’t add an additional switch or router.

When not to use a WLAN:

  • Consistent unwavering performance is important.
  • Security is the only priority.
  • Data transfer rates exceed those available through wireless technologies.

Wide Area Network (WAN)

Private lines, virtual private networks (VPNs), multiprotocol label switching (MPLS), wireless networks, cellular networks, and the internet allow LANs and other types of networks in different geographical regions to communicate and transmit data. This type of computer networking is known as a wide area network (WAN), a telecommunication network that’s not limited to any particular geography, providing access to various forms of media through a designated provider.
WANs can be basic or hybrid with point-to-point or packet-switched networks over shared circuits. In the case of a hybrid WAN and SD-WAN, different connection types are used that can range from virtual private networks (VPNs) and multiprotocol label switching (MPLS). Communication channels within a WAN often feature a wide range of different technologies, ranging from routers, FSO links, and I/O interfaces to fiber optics.

While they often go unnoticed, WANs are embedded everywhere in modern life, connecting cities, countries, and even space. From providing remote access to a corporation’s head office, allowing students to communicate with other students in different continents, to teleconferencing in real time, these and many other examples show how far-flung WANs have become.

network types WAN wide area network diagram

Source: Auvik

When to use a WAN:

  • You have devices spread over a wide geography that need to communicate directly with each other.

When not to use a WAN:

  • Cost is the only priority, as some WAN technologies such as leased lines can become cost prohibitive.
  • Consistent performance is a primary requirement, as some WAN technologies can vary in performance.

Metropolitan Area Network (MAN)

In today’s world of computer networking, efficiency and speed are top priorities. Some technologies manage to deliver both, while others have only one feature or none at all. A metropolitan area network (MAN) ticks both boxes by using technologies such as fiber optics, dense wavelength division multiplexing, and optical packet switching.

Typical layout of a metropolitan area network (MAN) Source: Science Direct
Often referred to as medium-sized networks, MANs covers an area larger than a LAN, but smaller than a WAN. They consist of different LANs interconnected with point-to-point high-capacity backbone technology and can span several buildings or a metropolis.
Through shared regional resources, MANs can take the form of cable TV network, or even telephone networks that provide high-speed DSL lines.

types of network MAN metropolitan area network diagram

Source: Auvik

When to use a MAN:

  • You have devices spread over a regional geography that need to communicate directly with each other.
  • You have the ability to provide connectivity, wired or wireless, between each location.

When not to use a MAN:

  • Cost is a primary requirement, as less costly solutions to connect sites may exist.
  • Devices to be connected are spread out over a larger geographic area.

Campus Area Network (CAN)

With a campus area network (CAN), universities, colleges, and corporate campuses connect different LANs from various departments sharing a common area. This transforms otherwise scattered networks into a collective network that provides access to information at breathtaking speeds while ensuring the necessary authentication to prevent privacy loopholes.

CANs are similar to LANs in operational approach, but differ in size to these types of networks. Users who access a CAN with different devices often do so with Wi-Fi, hotspots, and Ethernet technology.

types of networks CAN diagram campus area network

Source: Auvik

When to use a CAN:

  • You have devices spread over campus that need to communicate directly with each other.
  • You have the ability to provide connectivity, wired or wireless, between each building.

When not to use a CAN:

  • Cost is a primary requirement, as less costly solutions to connect sites may exist.
  • Devices to be connected are spread out over a larger geographic area, not isolated to just the campus.

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

With cyberattacks lurking in every click and the risk of having sensitive information mined, intercepted, or even stolen, a virtual private network (VPN) offers users an encrypted connection that effectively hides data packets while using the internet.

This is achieved with a VPN tunnel that’s created between two communicating devices, encapsulating and encrypting the data transferred between the two devices. Typically a VPN is used when the two devices are connected over a public network, such as the internet. The extra protection offered by the VPN tunnel prevents sensitive information such as IP addresses, surfing history, communication with a corporate office, or even travelling plans from being exposed online.

The level of security surrounding a data packet depends on the type of VPN tunnel used. Typical VPN tunnels include point-to-point tunneling protocol (PPTP), Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP), L2TP/IPsec, and OpenVPN.

Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) which uses the Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) protection typically does so with AES-256 bit encryption, an advanced encryption standard considered to be the strongest available for all types of network connections.

There are different types of VPNs, which can generally be split into two categories: remote access VPN and site-to-site VPN. With remote access VPNs, users securely connect their devices to the corporate office. With site-so-site VPN, connection is done from a corporate office to branch.

network types VPN diagram

Source: Auvik

When to use a VPN:

  • You need to facilitate secure communications between two locations but don’t have any direct connectivity between the two locations.
  • You need to provide remote access to resources at a central location to remote users.

When not to use a VPN:

  • Speed is your only concern. The encryption process adds slight overhead to communications.

Enterprise Private Network (EPN)

Bandwidth-intensive applications use a huge chunk of company network resources, slowing down data transfer and leading to bottlenecks in business operations. An enterprise private network (EPN) is a custom-design network, built and operated by a business to share company resources. It connects a company’s offices across different geographic regions and is optimized to ensure that bandwidth-centric applications run smoothly without burdening the network.

With an EPN, companies can choose to have a purpose-built network that’s fully private or a hybrid integrated with a network Communications Service Provider (CSP). EPNs are optimized with tunneling protocols, such as Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) and Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) to ensure privacy across all network operations. Branches are connected with MPLS technology.

network types EPN diagram enterprise private network

Source: Auvik

When to use an EPN:

  • You need to facilitate secure communications between two locations but don’t have any direct connectivity between the two locations.
  • You need to provide users spread across various locations consistent access to resources spread across various locations.
  • There are requirements to scale and grow the network over time.

When not to use an EPN:

  • Your network team is resource-constrained. EPNs require additional time to set up, update, and maintain.
  • Redundant links between locations aren’t possible, as this will introduce additional failure points to the network.

Storage Area Network (SAN)

Network storage is synonymous with business continuity in an increasingly competitive world. Businesses that want to stay ahead, need to find ways to optimize data access and data storage, and ensure that important backups are done on a regular basis. One way to achieve these aims and more is by using a storage area network (SAN).

A storage area network (SAN), or network behind the servers, is a special purpose high-speed computer network that provides any-to-any access to storage. The main purpose of a SAN is to transfer data between different storage devices and between the computer network and storage devices.

Block-level I/O services are characteristic of most SANs. Different components used in a SAN may include fiber channel technologies such as fiber channel host bus adapter (HBA) cards and fiber channel switches and other technologies such as hosts, switches, and disk arrays.

types of networks SAN diagram storage area network

Source: Auvik

When to use a SAN:

  • There are multiple devices that need to share the resources available on one or more storage devices.
  • You require centralized storage for data across all resources.

When not to use a SAN:

  • You’re budget constrained. There may be significant upfront investment to establish a SAN.
  • You’re resource constrained. SANs may require additional maintenance and upkeep compared to local storage.

System Area Network (also referred to as SAN)

A system area network (SAN) is a type of network configuration designed to facilitate communication between nodes in a cluster. It’s designed to provide high bandwidth and ensure low latency by avoiding multiple copies of data and providing direct network access to users in a high performance computing environment.

As a result, SANs ensure high-speed switched environments that facilitate network communication between devices. Interconnections with multiprocessing systems (processor-to-processor) and storage area systems (SANs) are also possible with a SAN.

As SANs are designed to be used in parallel computing environments, typical examples include use in scientific applications, database server clusters, and file server clusters.

types of networks SAN diagram system area network

Source: Auvik

When to use a system area network:

  • You require the data to be transferred with low error rates, high bandwidth, and low latency.
  • You’re not cost-constrained.

When not to use a system area network:

  • The requirements for your network don’t include a sizable investment that may be required to set up a system area network.

Passive Optical Local Area Network (POLAN)

Copper-based connectivity was once widely accepted in local area network (LAN) installations. Today this scenario is changing as passive optical local area networks (POLAN) edge out older installations.

POLAN is a significant upgrade from copper cables, replacing them with fiber-optic telecommunications technology that uses optical splitters to split and combine upstream and downstream signals that are eventually sent on a strand of single-mode fiber.

The fiber bandwidth is divided among different access points and the use of wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) enables bi-directional communication that reduces the number of copper cables.

Examples where POLAN are used include campus buildings where departments share a common network, hospitals that have a shared network with on-site pharmacy and patient needs, and any other LAN network types.

network types POLAN diagram optical network

Source: Auvik

When to use a POLAN:

  • You need a lower cost solution for connecting remote locations and have the ability to install optical fiber between the locations.

When not to use a POLAN:

  • You require a well defined standard for your network. There are currently no accepted worldwide standards that define POLAN installations and this could lead to compatibility issues in the future.
  • You’re budget constrained.

How to choose the right network type for your organization

Network types clearly differ in range and applicability so choosing a network for your business means aligning with your business goals, the long-term outlook, and the physical realities of the devices that you’re looking to connect.

There are four important factors to consider when looking at different types of networks.

  1. Purpose: Networks are purpose-specific and configured to fulfill performance goals. For instance, a system area network (SAN) is better suited for environments with high-performance computing requirements. Combining a SAN with, for example, a CAN on a corporate campus requires a thorough study to understand how these different types of networking topologies can complement each other to avoid high capital costs and idle resources.
  2. Cost: Upfront and long-term costs should be weighed against performance metrics. Is it better to invest in a WAN or would an EPN be better? Maintenance costs are often overlooked during the investment stages and cause great surprises eventually. Knowing how costs will evolve helps build the business case of choosing a particular network over the other.
  3. Availability: Network availability involves more than just being connected. Spare parts, upgrades, and software change are all part of availability. Is a new technology being used? How will spare parts and updates be handled?
  4. Scalability: As more devices connect to a network, changes will need to be made to reinforce security, provide more bandwidth, ensure better speeds, and consider growth. To consider scalability means planning for the future.

No matter what type of network you choose to implement, Auvik can help you manage it efficiently and effectively. Start your free 14-day trial today.