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Wired network can be faster, but more work

Networking your home computers is not just a job. It can be an adventure, stringing wire through walls and traveling through attics.

By JOHN TORRO, Times Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 26, 2000


I emerged from the experience successful, but exhausted and covered with insulation. If I had to do it over, I might hire a company to handle it, or use a wireless option such as Intel's AnyPoint system.

But I went with wire, a method that requires people to understand some technical terms, as well as endure the physical labor. Three components make up a home network that can share one connection to the Internet, files and printers:

-- Hardware: It includes Network Interface Cards, or NICs, which you install in each PC and which allow them to connect to the network; wire (10 baseT patch cable); and a hub, which is the central connection point for the network. NICs and hubs can be purchased for less than $50 each, and the cable costs about 75 cents a foot.

After installing your network card and rebooting a computer, Windows should see the new card and automatically add the software drivers for it. It's important to choose a card that is "plug and play" compatible.

-- Software: The networking protocol software included with versions of Windows 95 and later allows the computers to talk to each other and needs to be installed on each PC. Windows' help information tells how to do this under the topic "To Install a network protocol."

During this process on Windows, a set of numbers called a TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) address will be created to identify each computer on the network. A typical IP address for a home network would be 192.168.0.1. A second PC on this home network would be 192.168.0.2.

Assuming that everything has gone as expected, you have a successful home network. You should be able to share files and printers. However, most home users want a network to share an Internet connection, and it gets more complicated.

-- Internet connection: For the average home user, installing NICs, hubs, wiring and network protocols is a bit of a stretch. The Internet connection requires knowledge about such things as proxy servers, which control and route data requests sent to the Web, and Network Address Translation, or NAT, devices, which control the flow between the home network and the Internet.

Confused? It's not surprising, since these usually have been the responsibility of network administrators at businesses. But as more homes add PCs, it is becoming a household headache, too.

If you have a connection to the Internet, that PC will have an IP address that it was assigned by your Internet service provider. This same IP address will not work on your other PCs. Some ISPs will sell you an additional IP address for your other PCs for a fee, maybe $10 a month. In this case you won't need a proxy server or NAT service.

Otherwise, what is needed is a way for the Internet-connected PC to pass along requests from the other PCs on the home network out to the Internet. It requires using software that acts as a proxy for the other non-Internet connected PCs on your home network.

Wingate (http://wingate.deerfield.com/) is a popular proxy application and can be found in computer stores for about $49. There also are some freeware options, such as Proxy Plus (www.proxyplus.cz/), which does a great job for up to three PCs.

Any of the software-based methods come with the drawback of requiring thePC with the ISP connection to always be powered on for any of the other PCsto access the Internet. However, this also can be viewed as a control feature.

Some hardware devices, referred to as routers, combine both hub and Network Address Translation functions, which means the main computer does not have to be on for other PCs to access the Internet. These are quickly approaching the $100 price, which make them an excellent option for a home network. BEFSR11 from LinkSys (www.linksys.com) sells for about $105. There also are NAT software options, one of which is included in Windows 98 SE and Windows 2000, but they require the main computer to be running for others to access the Internet.

Either way, configuration options for Internet-related programs such as Internet Explorer, Outlook Express and America Online Instant Messenger need to be changed to tell it to use the proxy server, and this is not always straightforward.

The software methods require the PC with the Internet connection to be turned on for any of the other PCs to access the Internet.

I ended up spending about six hours physically setting up the network, and it cost me about $100. What I liked about the wireless Intel AnyPoint system compared with what I did is how much easier AnyPoint was to set up. Its Universal Serial Bus connection made AnyPoint "plug and play."

Compared with hours I spent crawling through my attic and fishing cable down through walls, the extra cost of the AnyPoint system almost seems like a bargain. However, my network is faster, and that played a big part in my decision.

An excellent resource for more information on home networking/Internet Connection Sharing can be found at www.timhiggins.com.

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