IT Computer Support | The Difference Between Domain and Workgroup Environments - SENTEC

The difference between a domain and a peer-to-peer network comes up a lot in conversation when it comes to network management and designs /re-designs.  I am going to cover most of the key differences between a workgroup and a domain network to help alleviate some questions you may have about them. 

A peer-to-peer is the default network of any machine when powered on.  When you pick up a new computer, install it, and get it running, it is most definitely on a peer-to-peer workgroup.  In a workgroup, no computer has control over another computer.  While you can have multiple workgroups under 1 peer-peer network, there is typically only one workgroup so that all machines in that workgroup can share resources.  One of the most common mistakes when setting up a workgroup is misspelling the workgroup name.  If you create a workgroup called ‘MyNetwork’ on a few machines and then misspell it on one machine as ‘MyNework’, that computer will be isolated in its own network until it is removed and re-added with the proper spelling. 

All user management, application management, and basic computer management happen straight on each computer on the network.  User accounts and their settings are controlled individually on each machine.  That means if you create a user account called ‘Joe’ on a machine, that user account is only existent on that machine.  To be able to log in as Joe on another machine, you would have to go on each machine and locally create a user called Joe.  This applies to any administrator accounts that are created as well.  Those administrators only have access to the machines that they were created on.  In workgroup or ‘peer-to-peer’ networks, in order to access another machine on the same network, you would need to create or know the user account on the computer you want to access.  For example; If Joe is on PC1 and Bob is on PC2, for Joe to access PC2, Joe would need to know Bob’s user credentials in order to access files on Bob’s machine.  While this may work for a small network of 5 – 10 machines, this becomes inefficient for networks greater than 10 machines that share files daily.  On a workgroup, all connections to the network are strictly managed by your router.  If your router drops the connection, loses power, or becomes unavailable, you lose all access to the other network machines.  This is also the case if a machine you are accessing files on goes offline.  With a machine offline in a workgroup, you no longer have access to those files until the machines boots back up.   

IT Computer Support | The Difference Between Domain and Workgroup Environments

On a domain network, one computer is assigned as the domain controller server.  This computer acts as a ‘boss’ essentially and tells every computer connected to it what to do and how to act.  All user accounts are managed by the domain controller alone.  That means that the user accounts ‘Joe’ and ‘Bob’ are first set up on the server before they are signed into individual workstations.  Because the user accounts exist on the server and not locally on individual machines, Joe and Bob can use their user accounts to sign into any machine that is on the domain because all machines look to the server for user access instructions.  A domain also enables security groups so that users can be classified with specific security access to files or other features.   

On a domain, network and internet access go through the domain controller first before reaching all the machines under it.  Typically, DHCP and DNS are handled by the server as opposed to a workgroup where the router handles it.  That means that on a domain if the router goes down, all computers still have local network access if the server is up.  While the internet may be down for each machine on the network, access to network files and applications will still be available despite the router being down. 

Regarding file sharing, this too is typically handled by a domain server as well.  All files that are intended to be accessed by more than 1 person are stored on the server.  Shared folders are created on the server that is then pushed out to each machine on the domain through a function called group policy.  For example, Joe and Bob both need access to all engineering files in their business.  A folder would then be created on the server called ‘Engineering’ and a security group would be created with the same name and Joe and Bob would be added to this security.  In this security group, you can determine whether these users are only able to read the files or read and write.  Once these permissions are in place, group policy is used to push this ‘Engineering’ folder to all machines that have the users with appropriate permission signed in.  When Joe and Bob work on these files, they are essentially working on the files on the server, not their local machines.  That means when Joe is done working on a file and hits ‘save’, it is being saved on the server and not the machine Joe is working on.  As you can see, a domain is efficient for medium to large-sized businesses running 10+ machines.  As all machines under the domain are managed by one machine; the domain controller. 


There are many other differences and pros and cons to each type of network that I did not mention here such as application management.  But I hope this sheds a little light when the conversation of a domain vs peer-to-peer (workgroup) comes up.  DNS and DHCP will be explained in another article so keep an eye on that if you want to know more about these functions. 


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