Computer Network

What Does Computer Network Mean?

A computer network is a broad term for one of the biggest technological advances in computer science over the last 40 years. The basic definition of a computer network is that a computer network connects parts of a distributed architecture, whether those parts are made up of hardware, or virtual or logical resources.


Networks are commonly categorized based on their characteristics.

Techopedia Explains Computer Network

We’ll talk more about how this distinction is made in the evolution of computer networking step-by-step, from the early mainframe computers onward.

The earliest computers had no networks — they were monoliths that crunched numbers through basic mechanical and electrical components.

Then, slowly, as the technology evolved, we figured out how to link one physical computer to another.

Early Computer Networks

Early simpler computer networks were situations where individual computers and workstations and servers got connected one by one, first by Ethernet and other cabling, and later through wireless connection technologies.

In the beginning, those machine-to-machine connections were the only kinds of networking that were available. The traditional computer network saw each physical hardware piece as a node in a connected infrastructure.

In order to affect these kinds of early networks, engineers used a range of physical network topologies. A bus topology connected all of the nodes to a single dimensional channel. A star topology sent traffic to and from each node, to a central hub in the middle.

Ring topologies sent a token laterally among a circle of nodes, with or without a hub. All of these topologies presented different control methods and connectivity models for the same types of hardware networks, where computers first learned to “talk” to each other and share data and resources.

In the 1990s, the types of cutting-edge computer networks adopted by wealthy institutions like corporations and universities features a set of “virtual drive” identifiers, where a user at a workstation could click into, for example, “drive Z” to access data resources housed on another connected computer’s hard drive.

Over time, the hardware developed — for instance, pioneers like Cisco created sophisticated network switches and advanced node handling setups.

Then the technology world exploded with the rise of virtual networking.

Virtual Computer Networks

In newer virtual types of networks, the hardware that was connected to each other is replaced by structural resources handled by software programs that create widespread networks independent of hardware.

The tools used to orchestrate all of these resources are different than those topologies used for earlier networks. Instead of computers cabled together, the network data traffic moves in packets, through a wireless or distributed virtual environment, and often, through the web to and from vendor services, like AWS.

Virtualization resources include containers and other models where engineers clone an operating system to various nodes and synchronize activity between them.

Cloud and Software as a Service Computer Networks

Cloud and Software as a Service (Saas) technologies further abstracted networking, which is now an extremely diverse industry. New developments include the rise of network segmentation, where parts of the network are walled off with firewalls for security purposes, and edge computing, where data transfers take place at strategic points in a sophisticated network, also for security purposes.

Other key network security tools involve defenses “beyond the perimeter,” where, for instance, advanced monitoring algorithms look for errant or unusual network activity in order to identify a threat.

A modern computer network professional doesn’t just need to know how to tether computers together, but they have to understand the difference between a LAN (local area network) and a WAN (wide area network).

They have to understand the emergence of the software-defined WAN or SD-WAN.

All of this contributes to the modern computer networking field, where there is so much progress, and so much rapid evolution.


Related Terms

Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.