In the broadest sense, a network is any interconnected group of people or things capable of sharing meaningful information with one another. In a technology context, network is usually short for “computer network” or “data network” and implies that computers are the things sharing the meaningful information. At a conceptual level, all data networks consist of nodes, which refers to any computer or digital device using the network and links, the physical connections (either wired or wireless) that carry messages between nodes.
Data networks are important to all contemporary organizations because they provide faster, easier access to any message or data that can be represented and stored in digital format. For example, when your colleagues and predecessors research an issue relevant to your organization and share their data and conclusions with you in a data format your computer recognizes, you can copy key information from their report into your own, saving yourself significant amounts of time (of course, you’re always sure to give credit where it’s due). If the colleague whose work you’re relying on works in the same cubicle as you and they remember where they’ve stored the relevant report, a network may not offer significant advantages since you can turn to him or he and ask for the file on a CD or USB flash drive. However, in many organizations, large distances separate co-workers, and data sharing becomes a significant logistical problem in the absence of a network.
In addition to data sharing, computer networks also enable resource sharing, an important consideration in all budget-conscious charities and organizations. Rather than buying one printer for every employee and replacing them when they wear out, an organization with a network can buy a single printer, connect it to the network, and configure it in such a way that every computer user in the organization can print to it. The initial cost of a networked printer is usually more than the cost of a single desktop printer, but when considering costs on a per-user basis, the average cost of the networked printer is often much less than the cost of buying a printer for every employee. While some networked devices such as printers, scanners, and fax machines have predetermined, specialized functions, you can also network and share generic, unspecialized computing power in the form of servers. Servers are large, powerful computers that can handle resource-intensive tasks more efficiently than desktop computers. As with the networked printer, the initial outlay for a server is more than that for a desktop computer, but across the organization, it’s often cheaper to run the server-based version of a program since individual users won’t need expensive, high-performance desktop and laptop computers. Servers can also deploy software to other networked machines at a lower cost.