Computers can communicate with other computers through a series of connections and associated hardware called a network. The advantage of a network is that data can be exchanged rapidly, and software and hardware resources, such as hard-disk space or printers, can be shared. Networks also allow remote use of a computer by a user who cannot physically access the computer.
One type of network, a local area network (LAN), consists of several PCs or workstations connected to a special computer called a server, often within the same building or office complex. The server stores and manages programs and data. A server often contains all of a networked group’s data and enables LAN workstations or PCs to be set up without large storage capabilities. In this scenario, each PC may have “local” memory (for example, a hard drive) specific to itself, but the bulk of storage resides on the server. This reduces the cost of the workstation or PC because less expensive computers can be purchased, and it simplifies the maintenance of software because the software resides only on the server rather than on each individual workstation or PC.
Mainframe computers and supercomputers commonly are networked. They may be connected to PCs, workstations, or terminals that have no computational abilities of their own. These “dumb” terminals are used only to enter data into, or receive output from, the central computer.
Wide area networks (WANs) are networks that span large geographical areas. Computers can connect to these networks to use facilities in another city or country. For example, a person in Los Angeles can browse through the computerized archives of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The largest WAN is the Internet, a global consortium of networks linked by common communication programs and protocols (a set of established standards that enable computers to communicate with each other). The Internet is a mammoth resource of data, programs, and utilities. American computer scientist Vinton Cerf was largely responsible for creating the Internet in 1973 as part of the United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 1984 the development of Internet technology was turned over to private, government, and scientific agencies. The World Wide Web, developed in the 1980s by British physicist Timothy Berners-Lee, is a system of information resources accessed primarily through the Internet. Users can obtain a variety of information in the form of text, graphics, sounds, or video. These data are extensively cross-indexed, enabling users to browse (transfer their attention from one information site to another) via buttons, highlighted text, or sophisticated searching software known as search engines.