A wide area network (WAN) is a long-range communications network that provides internet access to a geographic area. A WAN could encompass a few cities or an entire country, depending on who owns and operates it.

A WAN is a series of physical connections between locations.

Large enterprises can also contract broadband and internet service providers (ISPs) to construct private WANs. For example, suppose a New Zealand (NZ) business has offices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Each of these locations could use a private WAN to share digital resources and data.

How does a WAN work?

A WAN uses physical connections to deliver internet services over a geographical area.

These connections are established via transmission facilities, fibre-optic cabling, copper wires and other resources engineered to communicate with one another. Three technologies that help unify these assets are listed below:

  • Router: A mediator between a local area network (LAN) and a WAN. It receives traffic from the WAN and redirects it to devices, and vice versa.
  • IP address: A unique number assigned to a computer, server, smartphone or other computing gadget that ensures a device receives the appropriate information.
  • Switch: A device that directs incoming data from multiple input ports to specific destinations.

The purpose of an IP address is pretty straightforward: Whenever a switch receives an order to direct information (an email, instant message, etc) to a computer, the switch locates the machine’s IP address so that it doesn’t transmit data to the wrong machine.

However, it’s easy to regard a router and switch as one and the same. Cisco provides a clear distinction: Switches establish networks, while routers connect networks.

How WAN solutions improve business operations

Whenever a worker accesses a service, such as email or a cloud-based software, he or she is constantly sending and receiving data transmission requests through the office LAN.

However, once these requests reach the WAN, routers will log them into a queue of requests from other buildings, homes and so forth. Ultimately, these minute, yet incremental wait times dictate how well a cloud phone system or email service performs. This is assuming that one business location provides the public network connection, which would require the enterprise to prioritise traffic.

In contrast, by using its own WAN solution, a business can use networking assets (routers, switches, fibre-optic cabling, etc.) that is reserved for its own use. This vastly improves business application access, file sharing and other web-based actions.

Some WAN solutions are better designed than others. Distinguishing the superior from the inferior involves vetting ISPs’ capabilities. ISPs that apply quality of service practices and customise WAN solutions according to specific operations are typically the most reputable firms.