What is a computer network?

What is a network?

What is a computer network? To answer this question you must first understand what a network is. Put simply a network is a number of things that are connected together in some way. You frequently use networks in everyday life. Two examples of networks you will probably be familiar with are the

  • Railway network
  • Road network

Both of the above networks connect towns and cities.

What is a computer network?

So, we now know what a network is, but what is a computer network? Well it’s nothing more than a number of computers (or computer like devices) connected together in some way.

A diagram consisting of two computers and a printer used to answer the question what is a computer network

What is a computer network – A simple computer network consisting of two computers and a printer.

What are some types of computer network?

By looking at the way computer networks are connected we can be more specific about the way we describe them. For example a wireless network, or a wired network. Taking this further and introducing some terms you might see on some devices in your home, a local area network (LAN), or a wide area network (WAN). Nothing complicated here “local” means over a small geographic area, “wide” means over a very large geographic area.

Networks are governed by rules, and these rules define how things use the network. A road network has speed limits, a railway network has signals. One word you will see used a lot when discussing computer networks is Protocol, Protocol is just another word for rules. Within any network there are devices that add further checks and enforce more rules above and beyond the basic network rules. As an example, considering the road network, the type of barrier that prevents vehicles over a certain height accessing a particular area could be considered an additional rule over and above the basic rules of the network.

In a computer network there are different types of protocols. At a basic level the rule used in your home network will be something called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). The TCP/IP rules can apply to both wired and wireless (WiFi) networks. In fact TCP/IP can operate over a large number of different real world physical connection types. Just like a real world network, there can be additional devices that control the types of traffic that can move in and out of parts of the network, these are typically known as Firewalls.

Some examples of computer networks would be the internet, the network in your home, and maybe the computer network at your office or place of work.

Earlier in this article I mentioned that a computer network is nothing more than a number of connected computers, I also mentioned “computer like devices”. When I say “computer like devices” I mean devices that are TCP/IP aware –  that is they understand the rules of a computer network so are able to be networked.

Computer like devices can be those devices in your home that can connect to your broadband hub/ router by one means or another whether it’s WiFi or by a cable.


Diagram of a simple home computer network

A simple home computer network showing a hub or router with a computer connected by wires and a printer connected by WiFi

Examples of “non computer” network enabled devices could be games consoles, mobile phones, tablet devices like the iPad, iPod touch, even TV’s and set top boxes. Any device that understands TCP/IP is capable of being connected to a computer network.

The internet is a network of computer networks.

The internet is nothing more than a network of computer networks, all following the rules of TCP/IP allowing things to move around the network (email, web pages, apps, games, your voice if you use things like Skype), that’s all there is to it. There isn’t anything magical or difficult. The network in your home (the computers, laptops, games consoles), the network in a friends home (computers, iPads and so on) the computers used by Amazon to run their business are all connected together by one big “network of networks” called the internet. Note we use a cloud to symbolise the millions of pieces of equipment that allow the internet.

Image showing that the internet is a network of networks.

The internet illustrated, think of this and add in billions of connected networks and you’ll be close.

In the diagram above you can see how the internet connects your computer network to Amazon’s, to the computer network at your place of work, and even to your neighbours. This connection allows you to view webpages delivered on machines hosted at Amazon, to send and receive email and so on.

Why would you need to ask the question “What is a computer network?”

Put simply, a little bit of knowledge can go a very long way. The internet is everywhere and understanding what it is is the first step to  understanding safety issues. The information we aim to provide on this website will allow you to take control and improve internet safety for children in your care. There isn’t anything complicated or magical about the internet, all it is is a big network of connected networks, just like the one in your home.