Article for Website Compass magazine

The Home Computing Network
An Introduction to Home Computing Networks

As the computer marketplace matures and prices fall, more and more consumers now own more than one computer. In fact, market research shows that most computers are now sold to consumers who already own at least one.

Rather than sending Old Reliable to the digital dumpster, computer users are increasingly boosting their computing strength by connecting their computers through a network, which allows the computers—and the people using them—to share resources.

The thought of networking computers might sound daunting, but it’s not as difficult as you might imagine. And you may be surprised at how much networking improves the quality of your computing life.

There are many reasons to consider building a home network:

1. Two computers, one connection. Imagine the tranquility that would descend upon your home if more than one family member could get on the Internet at the same time. A network connection can allow you to share a single Internet connection between two or more computers.

Windows XP, Microsoft’s latest operating system, can automate the network set-up process. It has a feature called Internet Connection Sharing designed to make sharing an Internet connection easy. Keep in mind that sharing a connection also means sharing bandwidth, thus reducing connection speeds when multiple users are online at the same time.

2. Document and folder sharing. In a network, files and folders can be easily shuffled back and forth between computers—no diskettes required.

3. Shared hardware. You may want more than one computer, but you don’t need duplicate pieces of peripheral equipment such as printers and scanners. A network allows more than one computer to connect to a single hardware device.

4. Gametime fun. Family members can play those popular multiplayer video games with each person at a different computer. Or they can jump online to take on others over the Internet.

5. Simple software upgrades. To install software on the network, the program needs to be loaded on just one machine. Then the other computers can have the software installed from this machine.

Network Setups
If these five features are appealing to you, it’s time to decide between the two basic network setups: peer-to-peer and client/server.

Peer-to-Peer. Peer-to-peer setups are the most popular for home networks because they are easy to set up and don’t require much technical sophistication. Peer-to-peer networked computers are connected through a hub with each computer (called a workstation) acting as both a client (a computer that uses resources) and a server (a computer that shares resources with others).

A weakness in this setup is its susceptibility to attack from hackers and viruses, so you will want to consider installing a firewall, which is a system that limits outside access to a network.

Client/Server. In a client/server setup, one computer acts as a server and the others act as clients. A client sends requests to a server to perform an action or request information and the server responds. Client/server advantages include much better security than peer-to-peer and the ability to distribute workloads among networked computers. Client/server is more expensive and harder to set up than peer-to-peer, making them more appropriate for business networks.

Home Network Types
After you choose the best network setup, the next step is to choose from the three most popular home network types: Ethernet, a wireless LAN (local-area network), or HPNA (home phoneline network adapter). Here’s a look at each:

Ethernet. Ethernet is the most-popular type of home network because it’s the fastest, most reliable, and lease expensive. An Ethernet network can transmit data at a blazing 100Mbps (megabits per second) and an entire setup can cost less than $100.

In an Ethernet network, computers are connected with cables that run through a hub, which is a hardware device that transmits data between all networked computers. Each computer needs a network interface card (NIC) before it can be connected to the network. Some computers include pre-installed NICs while others do not.

Wireless LAN. Wireless LANs (sometimes called “Wi-Fi”) are rapidly growing in popularity. In this type of network, the Ethernet connection’s cables are replaced with hardware that transmits signals among the networked computers.

A wireless LAN requires a wireless network adapter (a type of NIC) for each computer and a wireless router or access point (which is like a hub). Other options include wireless antennas to improve the quality of data transmission and a wireless signal booster to improve wireless network transmission and reception.

A wireless LAN setup is more expensive, but it gives users mobility, making it a great option for networking laptop computers.

HPNA. An HPNA (home phoneline network adapter) network uses ordinary RJ-45 telephone cord and phone jacks to link computers. Installing this type of network is inexpensive and easy: just plug your computers into a phone jack—no hubs or routers required.

This makes it ideal for network computers located in different rooms of your home. On the downside, networked computers must always be located near phone jacks and data transmission is 10Mbps—fast, but not ideal for huge amounts of data.

After you select a network type, it’s time to shop for the appropriate hardware. You can buy each individual component, such as cables, routers and hubs, but an easier route is to buy an appropriate commercial networking kit, which contains all the hardware and other components you need as well as installation instructions. Ask your current Internet Service Provider for help.

It takes a bit of research and planning, but networking your home computers is an easy and often inexpensive way to get more from your computing experiences.