Understanding Ethernet Networks

Get more information on Ethernet networks and networking in general.
Published: Dec 27, 2005
Author: Michael E, Callahan

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

I've received many questions about networks. Questions about the nature of networks, how to work with networks, what networks are, questions about the types of networks, and so on. Many of the things I'm asked about aren't even in use any longer, which leads me to believe that some of you are reading old articles. Last week I started to approach this broad field with the article Tell Me About... Home Networks. This article is just a simple introduction to the world of networking and if you're new to computers, and networks, you may want to read that article before reading this one.

When it comes to networks there are a number of different types, including ones that work through your electrical wiring. For our purposes, however, we're going to deal with the two most popular and widely used network types: Ethernet and wireless. Today I'm going to start out with a more in-depth explanation of ethernet systems. The goal here is to not get too technical, but to give you enough information so you can make an informed choice.

In talking about ethernets you'll hear all kinds of scary terms. Many of these terms are seldom used and date back to the early days of ethernet networks. Some of the terms include things like frames, segments, nodes, collision detection, and more. I'm only going to touch on those things briefly. Again, our purpose here is to give you information if you're thinking of putting a network in your home or small office.

By default, an ethernet is a group of computers that are linked together and normally within one building. So, we're not talking computers that are separated by miles, but computers that are relatively close together,like in an office. This isn't to say that an ethernet can never span great distances, because in some circumstances they do. Our focus, however, is on homes and small offices.


Here are just a few basic terms tha have been used when talking about an ethernet. It might be helpful for you to know these, and they include:

  • Medium - the cable that connects the devices on the network
  • Segments - a piece of cable (medium) that's shared is a segment
  • Nodes - are simply devices that attach to a segment
  • Frames - are bits of information that move between nodes

Frames are the real information that travels on an ethernet. Frames have very specific criteria, there is nothing random about them. The system has a strict set of rules and the rules must be followed. Most average people don't have to worry about any of this, but I wanted to at least give you some terminology. The frames can be thought of like postal mail. You send an envelope from one address to another. So to with ethernets each frame has a "sender" and a "recipient." This basic addressing system makes sure that frames arrive at the right destination, much like your mail arrives at your house.

Another term commonly used in early ethernet networks is collision detection. Think about it. The network has multiple nodes both sending and receiving data. If data just blindly blundered into the network stream you'd have all kinds of information smashing into other bits of data. It would be much like you trying to enter the very same door I'm trying to exit, at the same time. We'd run into each other. For this reason when devices on an ethernet were getting ready to "send" they'd first "listen" to see if other data was already moving. When data did have a collision with other data the devices sending the data detected it. What happened? They'd resend it again at a random interval so they could avoid another collision. Again, with the networking hardware of today you won't hear any "crashes", but I wanted you to have a better understanding of the process.

There are many other things we could talk about when discussing ethernet networks. For example, the longer the network cable the weaker the electrical signals. In very large networks they would often use repeaters. You can think of a "repeater" as a way to boost the signal strength so you could have a much larger ethernet network. Other terms you may hear include bridges, segmentation, switches, hubs, routers, and duplex, to name just a few.

For the home user, networking has evolved to the point where for the most part the logistics are worked out by hardware and software. What do you do? Make sure the hardware is connected properly and the software is configured. Most desktop computers today come with ethernet capability built right in. To hook up two computers all you need is a cable connecting the computers. With more than two computers you'll most likely want to invest in a router. Today's routers are sophisticated devices that completely control the flow of data so you don't have to worry about collisions between data or anything else for that matter.

When I'm explaining hooking up a router I generally use numbers. Say you have three computers. Assign each one a number ... 1, 2 and 3. That makes it easier to remember that the cable from Computer 1 goes to port 1 on the router, cable from Computer 2 goes to port 2, and so on. Some people find it easier if they also name the computers utilizing the same numbers. So, for example, my personal computer might be named, "Mike1", the next "Mike2" and so on. You can change the name of the computer, or give it one, quite easily.

Right-click on the My Computer icon and select Properties. When the dialog comes up, under Windows XP, you'll see the second tab says "Computer Name." Click on this tab and you can then name the computer. You can also create a workgroup name. I can't tell you how many people I've seen who use the default workgroup name of "MSHOME". Really, you can feel free to make the workgroup name anything you like. Mine is "DRFFNET", and my daughter Melaina's is "MommyNet".Have some fun with it. Just remember that all the computers you want to link together have to be part of the same workgroup! If they aren't part of the same workgroup, they won't be able to "see" each other.

Routers have all kinds of options that you can access through your Web browser and an IP address like It will also require a username and password. For basic home use you probably won't need to use many of the features your router has. CAT 6 cable, routers, and ethernet cards can be found at any office or computer store. Windows provides excellent tutorials on establishing a network and hopefully these articles have removed some of the mystery.

Summing It Up!

An ethernet network is extremely easy to set up between computers using Microsoft Windows. One of the main benefits of Windows XP is the simplicity of creating a home network. With some cable and a router you can quickly turn your individual home PC's into a really handy network! An ethernet network is secure, it's very stable, and it gives you great flexibility. You can share Internet connections, printers, and more.

Stay tuned next week for the segment on wireless or "WiFi" networks.

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

If you have a question on any technology topic that you'd like someoneto tell you about you can submit it via email 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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