A Quick Introduction to Home & Small Business Networking

Let us begin with a level set on expectations. When one is setting up a Personal Computer network, one needs to consider the time and money involved.  Normal hourly pricing for computer specialists doing service and software consulting and support is usually in a broad price range of $30 to $50 per hour. Prices for network specialists frequently draw well above $70 per hour. In larger cities, $100 to $150 is common. Computer communications, the ability to make a group of computers share resources among each other, is a highly technical specialty. Before it can be attempted, the user must have more than an introductory working knowledge of Windows 9X.

Useful background in several areas suggests whether you feel you can qualify as an above average user. Do you have?
(1) Understanding above the average user of Windows?
(2) Above average knowledge of the most popular Windows applications?
(3) Above average knowledge of the hardware comoponents inside your PC and their configuration?
If you are not there yet, then please use a specialist for your networking demands. Attempting to “do it yourself” will ultimately result in frustration, confusion, and occasionally damage to your hardware and/or critical configuration data files.

Currently, high speed Internet access and the use of more than a single PC in your home or office has led to frequent requests for quick primers on networking. Sadly a quick primer is probably so useless it only frustrates and confuses customers and wastes the time of both the questioner and the teacher. The person who is quite PC knowledgeable and has usually spent years learning computer networking does not do it for his/her health. Learning this speciality can be a humbling, long drawn-out process.

With that behind us, and assuming you still want to get involved with “Networking,” please continue reading. Right now the most popular and easiest way to network computers is called “Peer Networking” using Client for Microsoft Networks. It allows a user to share files and some hardware resources, mainly printers, to other “peer” computers on a single physical network. There is no one computer more influential than another in the network. Each user determines what files or resources s/he will share with the other PCs (peers) in the network.

In a Client/Server environment numerous “clients” run programs remotely on a powerful “Server” with the resulting output available to the requesting and authorized client. The Client/Server environment is well beyond the scope of any introductory text about networking and will not be pursued here.

Putting it all together... This link may be useful.
       Configuring your network hardware

First, consider the logical layers of networking. At the bottom is the physical hardware. It can be an analog modem or NIC card (Network Interface Card). There are many different types of MOdulator/DEModulators and different types of NIC cards. Ethernet is the most popular today.

Just above this hardware layer is the Protocol Layer. A protocol is not unlike a language with which computers communicate. Some languages, like NETBEUI, are used by computers in close proximity to each other as in a LAN. By definition a LAN is any group of computers which communicate with each other but do not cross any ‘public’ thoroughfare such as a street. Other languages, like TCP/IP, are used by a WAN (Wide Area Network). These cross public mediums.

An example is the Internet which is no more than a VERY big WAN. All these computers on the internet, no matter how big or small, are peers to each other. The only difference is the speed at which they share their resources. Which protocol is used is determined mostly by a given computer's flexibility or speed in a specific environment.

NETBEUI is a simple and very fast protocol. It is preferred over limited distances with only a few machines. TCP/IP is much more complex and flexible and is preferable when used with different types of hardware and communicating in a Wide Area environment with numerous LANs or individual machines tied together as in the Internet. TCP/IP, although not as fast as NETBEUI, because of its flexibility, can be used by virtually any type of hardware and can cross many different types of networks, bridges, and routers used by the Internet. These popular protocols are usually supplied by the Operating System you choose to be running.

At the top layer are the Network Services. These are the programs that serve up the data that other users may need. Microsoft's “File and Printer Sharing” is such an example. It allows a machine owner to share specific resources on his/her machine. It passes this data to the protocol layer which passes it to the hardware layer then ultimately to the end user at the other end of the wire connecting the two machines.

Let us say you have a small office with two to eight computers running Windows 9X. This is a very common environment. The office will benefit greatly by being able to share common data used by all users, share two or three printers to all the users, and share a single common Internet connection available to each PC.

How such a network is physically established varies with the expense and complexity involved. Usually the less expensive way is more complex and requires a more knowledgeable person to maintain it. Slightly more expensive environments require less knowledge resources “in house.” With current technology a ten megabit LAN can use existing phone lines and limit the cost of separate wiring of the LAN. The NIC cards are more expensive but the savings in being able to use existing wiring between the computers (existing phone lines) may result in bigger savings since the data flows over the same phone lines as voice concurrently. Simply put, voice and data both share the same phone line and neither interrupts the other.

A standalone LAN requires separate wiring between all the computers to a common HUB but the NIC cards are less expensive and the network can handle much higher volumes of data which are frequently necessary with audio and video streaming or large file transfers. Separate “in house” wiring is usually quite expensive if done neatly and correctly. As you may see, both have their benefits and drawbacks. A decision must be made for each LAN environment, depending on the specific needs of the users.

If you are at home with 2 or 3 computers, I recommend using a hub and plugging a Cable Modem into it. This is, by far,  the simplest way to share the Internet since it requires no "Gateway" software to share the Internet to other machines. This is the way most Cable companies recommend since it requires much less technical expertise and it also allows limitations (controlled by the company) in the amount of devices connected to the Cable Modem. By controlling the number of devices (computers) connected to the Cable Modem they can price accordingly and limit their bandwidth use.

If you have many computers and good technical support, you may want to use "Gateway" software. When cable is connected the Cable Company can see only one computer connected to the cable modem. However, the Gateway software on that computer can share the Internet to all the other computers on the network.
PERSONAL NOTE:  If only E-mail and occasional Web use are being used, a 512k cable modem should be able to share to 20 or more computers with little problem. If you implement more functions such as "Voice over Net" or "Audio/Video Streaming" or numerous large downloads the bandwidth requirements go up sharply.

Bandwidth is EXPENSIVE! Remember, there is only so much allocated at each step along the Internet path to the other end of the connection. The more YOU use, the less is available to the other people trying to use the same "pipe." Don't expect to run a 50-system office on a single cable modem defined and funded for home use. Expect to pay more if you are going to use more bandwidth. You can squeeze the company a little; but when you do, others on the cable network suffer. Don't be too greedy!

There has been much discussion on Internet security when using DSL or Cable Modems (high speed Internet). There are a couple of excellent sites that discuss "always on" internet connections. One is at http://Cable-DSL.home.att.net./ This site discusses Internet security and Internet performance with broadband connections like Cable Modems. Another site discusses network security. Go to the "Shields Up" link at http://www.grc.com. Gibson Research will probe your computer and give you the results making recommendations.

At this site you will find detailed and technical directions that give solutions to "open" security risks. If you elect to implement these recommendations, do so carefully and re-check your work at every step along the way. (Review the technical background recommended at the top of this discussion.)