How to set up a local area network (LAN)

Phil Wilkinson-Jones | June 6th, 2023

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If you're looking for ways to maximise the potential of your home network, especially if you work from home or have multiple laptops or desktop computers in the household, you may want to consider setting up a LAN. But how would one go about such a thing, what equipment do you need and what even is a LAN anyway?

Have no fear, we will talk you through the LAN basics, to tell you why you might want to build a LAN at home and to briefly explain how to go about doing that.

What is a LAN?

A Local Area Network (LAN) is a group of computers in the same physical location that are connected in a network. When we say the computers are in the same location, this can be the same room or building, such as a home or office, or a larger space such as an entire office block or school. There may be two or three computers connected to the network, or there may be hundreds or even thousands – as long as they are located within the same limited physical location, it's still a LAN.

It's this definition that sets LANs apart from Wide Area Networks (WANs) and Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs). WANs and MANs (and you may see the term Campus Area Network or CANs used) are essentially multiple LANs connected together over a larger area, such as a city or a university campus.

Two types of LAN

There are two types of Local Area Network – client/server LANs and peer-to-peer LANs. A client or server LAN consists of a number of computers connected to a central server. All network devices like printers or hard disks are managed via the server. Each computer connects to the server via either an ethernet cable or a wireless signal. The presence of a central server means client LANs are capable of handling heavy workloads.

Peer-to-peer LANs do not have a central server, instead each computer in the network shares in the running of the network itself. The computers are all connected to the internet via the same router – this is how the majority of household LANs are set up.

Why build a LAN at home?

There are a number of reasons why you might want to build a LAN at home, which we'll get into now. The advantages are pretty much the same as they are in business, where LANs are used all the time.

  • Shared network devices – Connecting your computers all up to one network means each of those devices has access to the same network devices, such as printers, scanners and hard disks
  • Shared internet connection – A LAN in your home or office requires only one internet connection, as long as there is enough bandwidth to go around. If your current connection isn't good enough, check out these great broadband deals
  • Shared software – If you've ever bought office software, whether it's for design, accounting or anything else, you'll know it doesn't come cheap. So being able to buy one software licence and share it across multiple devices can bring significant savings
  • Security – Using a LAN means you have control over where your data is stored, bringing obvious security benefits
  • Easy transfer of data – Computers on a LAN can easily send and receive data and messages between each other
  • Privacy – LANs are private networks and are not controlled by outside regulatory bodies
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How to set up a LAN at home

The first thing to do is to make sure you have all the equipment you're going to need. To kick things off, you'll at least need a computer, a router or network switch and an ethernet cable. You'll need an additional ethernet cable for every extra device you want to connect to the network, unless you choose to connect a device wirelessly.

Next, it's time to connect the first computer to your router or network switch. This is pretty simple to do, just navigate to the network settings on your PC/Mac/laptop and choose the option to set up a new connection or network. Connecting additional computers to your LAN is simple – just plug one end of an ethernet cable into the computer and the other end into your router or network switch.

For devices such as smartphones, tablets and streaming sticks, you're going to want to connect these wirelessly. For this to work you'll need to make sure WiFi is enabled on your network switch or router (the manual for each should explain how to do this, you may also find our guide to router settings helpful). Of course, your router will also need to be connected to the internet. If you're setting up a new router, your broadband provider will explain how to do this.

On each device, enable WiFi and connect to your home network. Some devices connect to each other, becoming a LAN, simply by connecting to the same WiFi network. These include the Chromecast and certain Apple devices.

To add printers and other external hardware, use the network settings menu on your computer and follow the set-up wizard. To enable easy file sharing, on a Windows PC you'll need to create a Homegroup – this can be found in the 'network and internet' settings. On a Mac, you'll need to enable file sharing. You can do this by going to system preferences then sharing preferences.

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A brief history of LANs

LANs were developed in the 1960s and 1970s to connect computers together at college and university campuses and at research facilities including NASA. Ethernet was developed at Xerox PARC, a computer development lab in California, in the early 70s while other experimental LAN technologies were being developed elsewhere.

The use of LANs in homes and offices took off in the 1980s as personal computers started to become affordable for many. The development of wifi in the late 1990s made it even easier to connect devices together as ethernet cables were no longer the only option.

The development of powerline networking, which transmits signals over a building's electrical wiring, also makes it easier to set up a LAN at home as you don't need to trail long ethernet cables into separate rooms to group devices together.

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Frequently asked questions

What are WANs and MANs?

WAN, or Wide Area Network, is a number of LANs connected together over a large area such as a town, city or university campus. A MAN is a Metropolitan Area Network, which is the same thing but covering an even bigger area.

What is a virtual LAN?

A virtual LAN, or VLAN, is a type of subnetwork that groups together LANs in separate physical locations. This allows devices that often communicate with each other – such as those in different parts of the same large company – to be grouped together.

Is a LAN connected to the internet?

LANs do not have to be connected to the internet – you could just use one to connect multiple computers running word processors to a printer – but as most tasks do require some form of internet access, the majority of LANs do use a router with a broadband connection.

How are devices connected together in a LAN?

Ethernet cables are typically used to connect each computer in a LAN to a router or network switch. Wifi can also be used to group devices together wirelessly.

Are WAN and WLAN the same thing?

No. WAN stands for Wide Area Network, a collection of LANs across a wider area. WLAN stands for Wireless Local Area Network, basically an extension of a LAN that uses wireless signals to connect to devices.