How Do WAN & LAN Servers Work?

By Geoff Whiting

Servers are where companies store and secure their important data.
i Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

Wide are networks and local area networks are used to connect devices within business and homes to each other and the Internet. These networks use servers that allow devices to request and receive data from outside sources. The tasks these servers perform vary because the networks they facilitate, with WANs focused on connecting devices in different locations while LANs typically operate within the same room or office building. While uses are different, the fundamentals of each are the same.

Requesting Data

These networks operate a process called client-server communication where the client computer asks the server for information and the server delivers it. This request determines the information returned, such as when you type a Web address into your browser’s address bar and a Web server delivers all the files that make up this Web page to your Web browser. WANs and LANs do this with locally-stored files so you can request to see all the documents on a networked drive and then access them with a few short clicks.

Receiving Your Data

Servers that receive requests from client computers process the request and return the right information as soon as it is located. While the actual steps a server takes to locate information can differ on the server type, they all essentially function as a search engine that sorts through a company database and responds with the correct file. Servers for large networks are consistently processing a high volume of requests to find, modify and move data, so they are very powerful and often come in racks of multiple servers to support a single network.

Acting as a LAN

For a server to operate a LAN, you’ll typically plug the server directly into the same network as all of the client computers that use the LAN. This setup provides all networked devices the same subnet in their IP address and devices use the subnet to access your server and perform network-based tasks. Initially LANs were developed and deployed by businesses to centrally store data and host tasks, but Internet storage and sharing options have removed much of the need for LAN-based servers and storage.

The WAN Option

Businesses tend to upgrade to a WAN setup when they want to connect people in multiple locations. WANs operate in two ways: wired and virtual. A wired WAN requires a company to physically run a cable between all geographic locations to a central hub, then connected them all similar to a LAN connection -- this is expensive and often reserved for connecting two nearby offices. WANs can also operate virtually by giving users access to protected company files through a virtual private network. These VPNS give access to company data when a client computer requests it, but does not route non-company requests (such as Web browsing) to the company’s network.