There's no hotter subject in computing than home networking. When I wrote about it last year, I saved the oh-so-geeky series for August, traditionally when my readers are on vacation, just to avoid boring them. Boy, was I surprised to be buried in mail asking for more details. Meanwhile, I would guess that perhaps half the traffic on broadband newsgroups and mail lists covers home networking.
So this year, as part of our look at broadband, I want to bring last year's series (see www.dolinar.com for links to my archives) up to date. In the last few weeks we've already covered the basics of broadband -- how to buy it, how to set it up, and how to secure it -- so we're ready for the really interesting part -- how to share it with all the computers in your home. There are two steps here: first, create a network; second, connect the network to the Internet.
Networking and connection sharing take some mental adjustment if you've always connected to the Net via a modem and one computer. What you're really doing is extending the "real" Internet into your home, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anyplace you care to place a network connection. Your kids can share music files, and you can install a connection for your laptop outdoors or in the living room for convenience. Everyone in the house can print to the same printer. Because network traffic tends to travel in bursts, you'll rarely see a significant slowdown of the connection, regardless of how many computers you attach.
Can you add extra computers legally? Broadband vendors have so far taken a hands-off approach. They encourage you to buy extra connections, usually at a discount, if you have more than one computer. Most say they won't help you set up or troubleshoot shared connections that you don't pay for. But otherwise they don't block the procedure.
Now, I'm not going into all the gory details of networking this time around. Rather I want to focus on some of the issues broadband raises for home networks.
There are only two standards of interest to home computer users, so-called home phone-line networking and traditional office-style 100BaseT.
The great advantage of home phone-line networking is that it uses the existing phone lines in your house, piggybacking a network signal in the frequency range that the voice connection does not use. You don't have to drill holes in your walls, or custom-fit a tricky eight-wire connector. In the last year, the technology has improved greatly: The original standard allowed for 1 megabit per second, slower than some cable modems; today's systems claim to operate at 10 megabits per second, although your true speed will be less than that.
A typical offering: 3Com's HomeConnect 10X PCI PhoneLine Kit gives you everything you need to hook up two computers, including software, network interface cards that you install inside each PC, and the phone cable that you use to connect to your existing phone jack. I've seen it for as little as $112 via mail order on the Internet.
About the only objection to the phone-line system is speed, one-tenth that of 100BaseT. That's fast enough to share an Internet connection, but can be painfully slow if you're trying to routinely use files on another computer elsewhere across a network.
Thus, if you have the time and inclination to future-proof your network, use 100BaseT. A typical kit for connecting two computers, the NetGear FB104 Networking Kit, costs about $100, and includes software, two network interface cards, cable and a four-port hub. A cable runs from each PC to the hub, and there's thus room for two more computers on this network. Of course you can always add more hubs, and more computers.
Wiring is the only major problem with 100BaseT. True, you can order custom cable, with the neat little RJ-45 connectors on each end, and there's a plethora of wall plates (see www.smarthome.com) and boxes to let you do a neat job. But unless you're comfortable with drilling holes and snaking cable through wall cavities, you may be better off with phone-line networking. Of course wiring problems pale to insignificance compared to the usual hassles of setting up networking software for any wiring standard.
I use 100BaseT to connect the three PCs and one Macintosh I have at home.
Once you've decided on the physical network you're using, you need to decide on a method for connecting that network to the Internet. There are three basic ways to do this:
Option 1: Software Proxy Server or Network Address Translation. You designate one computer on your network as server to the Internet. Your cable/DSL modem installs inside, or is connected to it via an Ethernet card, and all requests for data go through it, even as you use it for your regular Net and computing tasks. The server, in turn, runs special software that routes the data. Users can share Web browsing, newsgroups and all other Web services. About all they don't get is individual mailboxes, although many providers, including Verizon, offer more than one mailbox per Internet account.
Advantage: Cheap or free, if you decide to use Windows 98 Second Edition's built-in connection sharing. More advanced software products can function as firewalls and even screen objectionable sites from children.
Disadvantages: Difficult to configure; usually takes two network cards; security can be troublesome; and it can degrade performance on the server. Systems that use NAT, as opposed to proxies, tend to be a little faster and simpler to set up.
Option 2: Spit and Baling Wire. Hey, I don't know what to call it, except that it can be made to work on some systems, with some modems, some of the time. Forget about any add-on hardware or software. Plug your cable/DSL modem directly into a hub, along with the rest of your computers, and install your provider's software on each computer on the network. This used to work with Cablevision, but no longer does. A fair number of Verizon customers are currently using it.
Advantages: Free and simple.
Disadvantages: Doesn't work, has no security.
Option 3: Hardware Router. Instead of having a PC do double-duty as a proxy or NAT server, you buy a box that is specifically designed to link a network to the Internet, and plug an external cable/DSL modem into it, with the router sitting between the cable modem and the rest of your network. The router functions as a security firewall, and may also serve as a hub. Some independent DSL providers incorporate this function into special modems.
Advantages: Stable, fast, easy to configure and troubleshoot.
Disadvantages: Price, $150 and up. If you opt for phone-line networking, you'll also need to buy a "bridge," about $90, to translate to the 100BaseT standard.
I've tried various systems for sharing an Internet connection, and much prefer my latest find, a $159 hardware router from Linksys. If that seems a little rich for your taste, you might want to start with Windows 98 Second Edition's free Internet Connection Sharing.
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