TUCOWS ARTICLE

Home Networks: What Do I Need to know?

Is home networking the right option for your household? Start here with Doc's introduction to networking computers, and stay tuned for more in the future.
Published: Dec 20, 2005
Author: Michael E, Callahan

This question submitted by Fred Sauter, Michael Pascali, Vivian Turner, Anita Hoyer, Louis Alden and numerous others

It used to be that only businesses had networks. They used products like Novell or LANtastic and they linked entire offices. Today, however, that has changed. More and more families have more than one computer. With the overall price of new computers dropping, more people are buying new computers sooner. That means their original computer is most often in good working order. Today I'm just going to talk about some of the basics of networking. Then, in the weeks to come I'll do special articles on some of the types of networking. So, lets take a look at networking in general.

Networking

In the simplest terms, networking lets a computer send information to and receive information from, another computer. Networks are all around us -- at the bank, at the airport, and the biggest network is the one you're on right now, which is the Internet. Once you have two computers running Windows, it's relatively simple process to connect them with a cable. Okay, but why? What are the benefits?

One big reason is the ability to share resources. For example, you don't have to buy a printer for each computer. You share the printer on the network and then both computers can use it. Another really popular reason is the ability to share an Internet connection. All of the computers in my office and home are using the same connection to the Internet. Another feature of having a network is the ability to also share files and folders. I install copies of key programs that I use on other computers in my network, and then use software to synchronize them. Why? Because it's another way to have a backup of those programs and their data.

Are there negatives to networking? Well if you look hard enough I suppose you can find negatives for just about anything. Malicious things like viruses, spyware and the like can spread faster over a network. At the same time, if you take adequate precautions, you shouldn't have to worry. Personally, I love having all my computers on a network because it makes everything easier.

For example, I synchronize files between computers and I do that on a daily basis. That way, my wife can sit down at a laptop in the dining room and find the paper she'd started writing on her computer in my office. Next time the computers sync, the changes she made on the laptop copy are now part of the one on her main computer. All of the printers are shared so I might elect to print a picture on the printer that prints photos best. The key thing about a network is that it gives you some flexibility. It can also give you some redundancy. I can have my daughter download a file and then copy it from her computer to mine. Or I can copy it to every computer on the network.

A network doesn't have to be complex and with practice just about anyone can get used to using one. I have access to every computer on the network and I'm automatically connected to those hard drives. So, when I look at the drives in my file manager, I have A, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z, and M and N are a combined 450 gigabytes of Maxtor external hard drives that are used for backups. Sounds like a lot, but once you get used to it you can be copying music files from one computer to another and not think twice about it.

So, what types of networks are there or which are the most popular? At the moment the two most popular are Ethernet and wireless which is also called WiFi. "WiFi" simply stands for "wireless fidelity." So, lets take a brief look at these two basic types of networks.

Ethernet

An Ethernet network utilizes a network card in each computer and computers are joined with a cable. If you have just two computers you can link them directly. The first Ethernet connection was created in 1973 by a researcher at Xerox. In that first Ethernet set-up the idea was that all computers on the network would be attached to one cable. This eventually causes some problems, but we'll talk about those in the feature on Ethernet networks.

Most everyone has heard of a LAN or Local Area Network. Generally, a LAN is contained within one building. So, the network in my home is a LAN. If you have a network that spans two or more remote locations, then it's considered to be a WAN or Wide Area Network. Network technology has continued to grow and press the boundaries of what is possible. An Ethernet network is very secure because all the computers are connected, in one way or another, with cables.

Many of todays computers come with network (Ethernet) cards built right in. That means in order to create an Ethernet network in your home all you need is what's called a CAT 6 Ethernet cable. These come in a variety of lengths. One you've connected two computers running Windows, the rest of the configuration is done primarily through software. Ethernet networks are solid and stable. The cables last forever, and the cards are very durable. An Ethernet network allows you to share files, folders, Internet connections and more. The only problem sometimes is the cables. That brings us to wireless networks.

Wireless Networks

Wireless networking has come to be called "WiFi" which as I mentioned earlier stands for "wireless fidelity." Wireless has one big advantage over Ethernet. What? NO WIRES! In most office settings wires often don't pose a problem, but in a home setting they do. It's not convenient to run CAT 6 cables up from the basement via the stairs through the dining room and into the den. Not only is just running the cable a problem, but so is the length of the cable. For now, suffice it to say that the more cable you have the less efficient the network.

For this reason, Wireless networks have become the rage. And the signals are pretty strong, so you don't have to stay real close to the source of the radio signal. I've used mine up to a couple hundred feet away from the base. WiFi gives you a great deal of flexibility because you don't have to be concerned about running cables. Wireless is also great because it's come to allow us to use laptops and PDAs in places like airports. Again, more flexibility.

Are there problems with wireless? Sure, just as with most other things. Signals can get blocked, you do have a range limitation, and you also have to be conscious of security. On your Ethernet network you don't have to worry about anyone hijacking your cable, but that's not true with a wireless radio signal. Again, with a few basic precautions, Wireless networks are secure and work very well. In our home we have a combination. All of the desktop computers are connected together through a router on an Ethernet, while all of the laptops and PDAs use wireless. Really very handy.

This has been just the most basic introduction to the world of networking. In the upcoming weeks I'll be doing more in-depth articles on both Ethernet and Wireless networks. I hope you'll join us for those.

I'd like to thank Fred Sauter, Michael Pascali, Vivian Turner, Anita Hoyer, Louis Alden and numerous others for asking this question.

If you have a question on any technology topic that you'd like someoneto tell you about you can submit it via e-mail by clicking HERE. You will not receive a reply, but all topics will be considered.


About Michael E, Callahan

Michael E. Callahan, known around the world by the trademarked name Dr. File Finder, is regarded as the world's leading expert on shareware. Dr. File Finder works with software programs and developers full-time, and in the average year he evaluates 10,000 programs. Since 1982 he has evaluated over 250,000 software and hardware products. Mr. Callahan began evaluating software online in 1982 and no one has been at it longer. He currently works doing online PR and marketing for software companies, and is the Senior Content Producer for Butterscotch.Com.

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