This Wired Home: The Microsoft Guide to Home Networking
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This Wired Home: The Microsoft Guide to Home Networking

by Alan Neibauer

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For every home running more than one PC under its roof, "This Wired Home" explains how to build a simple network that quickly multiplies the computing power for a family or home office. The second edition of this popular book delivers easy step-by-step instructions for creating a secure and reliable network using Microsoft technologies — including

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For every home running more than one PC under its roof, "This Wired Home" explains how to build a simple network that quickly multiplies the computing power for a family or home office. The second edition of this popular book delivers easy step-by-step instructions for creating a secure and reliable network using Microsoft technologies — including all-new information about the Windows Millennium Edition and Windows 2000 Professional operating systems. It also delivers updated content on the latest home networking protocols and technologies. "This Wired Home" is written in plain, nontechnical language so readers can put the information to work right away. It's the indispensable guide for every multi-PC home!

Product Details

Microsoft Press
Publication date:
CPG Series
Edition description:
Third Edition
Product dimensions:
7.66(w) x 8.88(h) x 1.35(d)

Read an Excerpt

  • A Little Network Preamble
  • Deciding on Network Control
    • Setting Up a Level Playing Field
    • Putting Someone in Charge
  • Deciding on the Connection
  • Planning for Internet Sharing
  • Planning for the Future
  • Understanding Networking Software
    • Network Drivers
    • Network Operating Systems
  • The Bottom Line

Chapter 3   Planning a Network

You know it's time to set up a network when just sharing a printer or transferring an occasional file doesn't cut it anymore. Networking doesn't have to be complex or expensive; you won't have to learn the history of networking or study arcane subjects such as network layers. But before you run down to the computer store and part with your hard-earned cash, you should take the time to make some basic decisions about your networking needs.

This chapter will help you decide on the type of network you want and how best to connect your computers. You'll learn the difference between a peer-to-peer network and a client/server network, and you'll find out how to decide which type of network connection will work best for your situation. But first, here's a little network preamble.

A Little Network Preamble

Before we look at ways to connect computers, you need to know about an important piece of hardware called a network interface card, or NIC for short.

To connect to a network, a computer needs a NIC to handle the flow of information to and from the network. Some computers come with the NIC already built in, but most don't, so you'll have to order one when you buy your computer or add one afterward.

Some NICs fit inside a computer; others come on PC cards that plug into laptops. There are external devices that perform the same function as a NIC, but they connect to a computer's universal serial bus (USB), parallel port, or serial port, as shown in Figure 3–1. There are internal and external NICs for wired networks, as well as wireless networks and networks that use the telephone and electrical lines in your home to transfer information between computers.

Figure 3-1.   Network interfaces can be internal, external, or on a PC card. (Image unavailable)

Microsoft Windows XP automatically configures a network for installed FireWire adapters. FireWire (also known as IEEE 1394) is a fast bus standard that supports data rates of up to 400 megabits per second (Mbps).

Network devices that plug into the USB port are perhaps the easiest to install because you don't need to physically open up your computer. To use your computer's USB port, you need to have Microsoft Windows 95 version 4.00.95B or any version of Windows 98, Windows Millennium Edition (Me), Windows 2000, or Windows XP. To see which version of Windows 95 you have, right-click My Computer on the desktop, click Properties, and then look under System on the General tab of the System Properties dialog box that appears.

You can connect and disconnect many types of USB devices while your computer is turned on. And when using Windows XP (but not earlier versions of Windows), you can connect and disconnect a network USB device when the computer is on as well.

Because the type of NIC you'll need depends on how you want to connect your computers, read the rest of this chapter before you go out and buy one.

Deciding on Network Control

One of the first decisions you have to make when you're planning how to set up your network is whether to give someone control of it. In one type of setup, called the client/server network, a single computer controls access to the network and serves as a central storage area for files and information. But before you decide to go this route, consider these points:

  • Putting someone in charge of your network means spending more money on additional computer resources and on software that isn't free.
  • Putting someone in charge dramatically increases the complexity of creating a network and the likelihood that you'll run into trouble.
  • Because of the potential downside to this option, consider the alternative—a peer-to-peer network—carefully before choosing to let someone control your network.

    We'll look at each of these options in more detail in a moment, but first, take a look at Table 3-1, which summarizes the features of peer-to-peer vs. client/server networks.

    Table 3-1.  Peer-to-Peer vs. Client/Server Networks

    Peer-to-Peer NetworkClient/Server Network
    Can share files, printers, and modemsCan share files, printers, and modems
    Anyone can connect to the network (except for wireless networks, which use data encryption)Only authorized users can connect to the network
    No central file storageCentral file storage
    Each user sets own securityCentral security
    Easy setup and maintenanceMore complicated setup and maintenance
    Low costModerate to high cost
    Limited expansionUnlimited expansion

    Setting Up a Level Playing Field

    When no single computer acts as the controller, you have a peer-to-peer network. This means that everyone on the network is equal—all are peers. Any computer on the network can communicate with any other computer on an equal basis. It also means that information flows directly between two computers without being controlled by any other, as shown in Figure 3–2.

    Figure 3-2.   Computers on a peer-to-peer network communicate with each other directly. (Image unavailable)

    A peer-to-peer network doesn't eliminate all forms of control, however. Each person on the network can use a password to protect files and folders. You don't have to let people share your files or use your printer or modem. How other people can access your computer is entirely up to you.

    For more information about using passwords, see the section "Accessing Resources with Passwords," in Chapter 9, "Learning to Share," on page 247.

    For example, you can allow only certain folders to be shared. In fact, to protect critical Windows files, you always want to prevent the Windows folder from being shared. You can also grant read-only rights to a folder. This means that others on the network can look at a file in a shared folder on your computer and copy it to their computers, but they won't be able to change or delete it.

    You can also grant full access, which means that everyone on the network can read, change, and delete files just as you can. Grant full access only to people you really trust and only to those folders that you want to be totally accessible.

    In a peer-to-peer network, if any one computer is down—is turned off or not working—everyone else on the network can still communicate. In Figure 3–3, for example, even though two of the four networked computers are turned off, the other two computers can still share files and printers. The printers attached to computers that are off won't be available to others on the network, but you'll still be able to use the files and resources of those computers that are on.

    Figure 3-3.   Peer-to-peer networked computers can still communicate when other computers are turned off. (Image unavailable)

    Of course, to use a printer connected to any computer on the network, the computer and printer must be turned on and working properly. Some computers, especially laptops, have a suspend state. After a certain period of inactivity, a computer that is in suspend state saves information about all open programs on its hard disk and turns off automatically. When you turn the computer back on later, the screen appears exactly as it was. If a computer on the network goes into suspend, its resources won't be available to the rest of the network.

    Other computers have an energy-saving feature that turns off the display or the disk drive only after a period of inactivity. The resources of such computers might also be unavailable when they go into energy-saving mode. Because so many different kinds of computers exist, you'll have to experiment to see how a particular computer reacts on your network.

    A peer-to-peer network has no central storage location for everyone's files. If you're looking for a file that's not on your machine, you'll need to know where it is on the network or search all the computers on the network to locate the file. And if the computer that has the file is turned off, you're out of luck. You'll have to wait until it's back on to get to the file.

    Still, the advantages of peer-to-peer networks—they're inexpensive and easy to set up, run, and maintain—clearly outweigh the disadvantages, particularly for home computers.

    Putting Someone in Charge

    As you've seen, when you want tighter control over a network, the solution is to set up a client/server network. The server is a single computer equipped with special software that supervises everything on the network. The clients are the computers that connect to the server. Communication among the clients must go through the server, as shown in Figure 3–4.

    Figure 3-4.   Client computers connect through a server in a client/server network. (Image unavailable)

    In most client/server networks in large offices, the server computer is usually dedicated to the task of being the server and isn't used as a regular workstation for everyday jobs. The tasks the server has to do, and the information stored in it, are just too important to take a chance on. If the server is down, the network goes down and none of the computers can communicate, as shown in Figure 3–5.

    Figure 3-5.   When the server is down, the entire network goes down with it. (Image unavailable)

    The server computer doesn't have to be dedicated, however, especially in a small home office network. You can still use it as a workstation for ordinary tasks, but it's not the best idea. Server software is much more complex than workstation software and requires more effort and patience to keep it running. The server software also might not include the software needed to run scanners and other devices. On the other hand, operating a Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows Me, Windows 2000, or Windows XP client computer on a client/server network is a piece of cake. You pretty much just turn on the computer and start working.

    A client/server network offers a number of advantages in addition to control. For example, the server can act as a central storage location that everyone on the network can reach. Because the server is always on, you can use it to store graphics, downloaded files from the Internet, and other documents that you want everyone to share. The files are always available and accessible to everyone.

    You can also load and run applications from the server instead of installing them on every computer. This way, you can be sure that everyone on the network is using the same programs and can easily share files. When you want to update a program from version 6 to version 7, for example, you need to install the update on only one machine.

    And finally, the server can act as a central e-mail message center. Like with an Internet newsgroup or bulletin board, you can leave messages on the server for everyone else on the network to see and respond to.

    Setting up a client/server network at home can be impractical, though. If you're
    using Windows 95, Windows 98, or Windows Me, you can't create a server for a client/server network, although you can connect to one. To create a client/server network, you'll need to run either Windows NT 4 Server, Windows 2000 Server, or Windows XP Server. All of these programs are expensive, however, and none are necessary for the average home network.

    You can set up Windows NT or Windows 2000 computers so that they also have Windows 95, Windows 98, or Windows Me in a dual-boot configuration. You can then decide which system to use when you start your server. If you start in Windows 95, Windows 98, or Windows Me, however, you lose the benefits of client/server computing because the server computer will be operating on a peer-to-peer basis. A dual-boot configuration is useful, however, if you have some hardware or software that runs under one version of Windows (such as Windows 98) but not under another (such as Windows XP).

    A client/server network offers many advantages to the business user. But for the average home network, the two major disadvantages of the client/server setup—cost and complexity—usually outweigh the advantages. For this reason, we'll leave the client/server option to large businesses and concentrate in this book on peer-to-peer networks using Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows Me, Windows 2000, and Windows XP.

    Although in this book I've distinguished between peer-to-peer and client/server networks, in real life, many networks are a blend of the two. You can have a client/server network set up so that if the server goes down, the other computers on the network can still communicate on a peer-to-peer basis.

    Deciding on the Connection

    Your next decision is how to connect the computers so that information can flow between them. Your choice depends on several factors:

    • The number of computers
    • The distance between the computers
    • The speed you want
    • How much work you want to do
    • How much money you want to spend

    Generally, there are five different types of network connections:

    • Network cable (Ethernet)
    • Wireless
    • Home phone line
    • USB direct connection
    • Home power line

    You can also create a network by connecting two IEEE 1394 (FireWire) adapters together with a cable. Networking software over IEEE 1394 is built into Windows XP.

    We'll be looking at each type of network in detail in later chapters. In the meantime, Table 3–2 summarizes the major differences among them.

    Table 3-2.  Comparing Network Connections

    Network ConnectionThe GoodThe Bad
    Network cable (Ethernet)The fastest and most expandable type of network connection.Requires running cable between computers. Might require running cable through walls, ceilings, and floors; extra jacks and special hardware might also be needed.
    WirelessRequires no cables; "broadcasts" network over the air.Generally slower than network cable, although most are now equal to or better than the low end of Ethernet speed. Might be subject to interference from large electrical appliances.
    Home phone lineRequires no cables; plugs into existing telephone wiring.Requires a phone jack in rooms in which you want to connect to the network. Best used when there is less than about 500 feet (150 meters) of phone line throughout the house. Some home phone line systems are slower than network cable, although some are equal to the low end of Ethernet speed.
    USB direct connectionRequires no internal cards to be installed; a special cable plugs into the USB ports of both computers.Slower than network cable but faster than power line and many other types of connections. Limited to a maximum of 16.4 feet (5 meters) between any two computers, although computers can be farther apart with additional hardware.
    Home power lineRequires no cables; plugs into a wall outlet.Slower than network cable. Might be subject to electrical interference, which can break contact between network computers and result in data loss.

    For most business networks, network cable is the preferred choice because of its speed and dependability using what's called an Ethernet network. Ethernet is a set of specifications that determine how information is communicated across a network. Because the specifications are universally accepted, you can mix Ethernet hardware from any manufacturer in the same network. If you later need to purchase another NIC, for example, you don't have to purchase the same model that you're using on other computers. You can also use internal NICs on some computers, devices that connect to the USB ports on others, and a NIC on a PC Card for a laptop.

    USB Speed Limitations

    USB Ethernet adapters are easy to install and let you connect to a wired Ethernet network without opening up your computer case. But even though a USB adapter might be labeled 10/100 Mbps, you might not be able to connect to wired Ethernet at the 100-Mbps speed.

    The USB ports on all but the most recent computers adhere to the USB 1.1 standard that operates at a maximum of 12 Mbps. If your computer uses USB 1.1, actual speeds of about 5 to 6 Mbps are typical even when the rest of your network is 10 or 100 Mbps.

    However, a new USB 2 standard is just emerging and can be used with newer computers. The USB 2 standard operates at a maximum of 480 Mbps. Look for computers and USB network adapters that adhere to this standard when shopping for new hardware.

    The other types of networks are suitable when you don't want to or can't run cables between computers in various parts of the house. Although telephone and wireless networks are slower than the fastest Ethernet connections, newer systems are equal to or faster than the low end of Ethernet speeds. For home networks, however, the network speed usually isn't critical. USB direct connection networks are suitable when the computers are in the same room or no further than an adjoining room. Some non-Ethernet kits do allow easy migration to an Ethernet network. For example, some adapters for telephone networks also contain Ethernet ports.

    The hardware you use with nonwired Ethernet alternatives, however, might not be compatible among manufacturers. To make sure your hardware is compatible, you should purchase it all from the same manufacturer. Otherwise, look for hardware that meets industrywide standards, such as the Wi-Fi (802.11b) standard for wireless networks or Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) for phone-line networks.

    Hardware that meets the same standard should be able to communicate with each other. With HomePNA hardware, however, two levels of standards exist: HomePNA 1, which operates at 1 Mbps, and HomePNA 2, which runs at 10 Mbps. You might be able to mix the levels on the same network, but your performance will be at the slower rate.

    As for price, you can find starter kits of each type of network connection that include the hardware and software to network two computers for less than $100, but the non-Ethernet alternatives are generally more expensive. Kits that contain Ethernet network cards that fit inside your computer are the least expensive, followed by internal telephone cards and internal wireless cards. Kits that contain adapters that plug into the USB port or that fit into the slot in a laptop computer can cost between $100 and $200 for each type of network connection. Wireless and telephone network adapters that operate at the low end of Ethernet speeds also cost between $100 and $200, but they are dropping in price. Depending on your situation, the extra cost of a telephone or wireless solution might be compensated by the convenience of not having to run Ethernet wires through the house.

    Planning for Internet Sharing

    If you're planning to use your network for Internet sharing, you should keep a few factors in mind.

    If you connect to the Internet through a dial-up modem, any of the networking alternatives will be fast enough to keep up with the flow of information. In fact, all of the networking methods described would be suitable for all but the fastest digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modems being used today.

    However, if you plan to use your network for sharing an Internet connection, files, and printers at the same time, you should consider Ethernet, wireless, or telephone networks running at a speed of at least 10 Mbps. This would eliminate some of the older wireless and telephone network hardware that runs at considerably slower speeds. In addition, although wireless hardware might be possible for communicating at 10 Mbps, the actual speed depends on the distance between computers and the number and type of
    obstacles between them. The farther apart the computers are, and the greater the number of obstacles, the slower the actual speed. It might be possible, for example, to have a 10-Mbps wireless system that provides an actual speed of only 5 Mbps or even 2 Mbps.

    High-speed DSL and cable modems require an Ethernet connection on your computer. So regardless of the type of hardware you choose for your network, you'll need at least one Ethernet connection to use high-speed Internet. You can install the Ethernet connection on one specific computer, or you can purchase hardware that lets you connect the modem directly to the network. Some hardware even combines a wireless or telephone local area network (for your computers) with one Ethernet connection for the Internet.

    You'll learn more about these devices in Chapter 11, "Going Online Through the Network."

    Planning for the Future

    Sometime in the future, you might want your home network to include your home entertainment, security, and control equipment, thus creating an automated, or smart, home. Even if you don't plan to do this now, you might want to design your network in a way that leaves the possibility open for the future.

    If you wanted to set up a smart home, you would need to place computers or control panels in convenient locations, often even in places where you wouldn't want to have a computer for Internet access. For example, you would probably want a computer or control panel in the master bedroom so you could turn on the television, control lights throughout the house, or check a security camera at the front door.

    Distributing video signals, such as from cable television or VCR/DVD players, requires cabling. So, you would need to run wires to each room where you wanted to broadcast or control home entertainment, watch films, or listen to your stereo system. While some home automation systems don't require any additional cabling because they run through your existing wiring, a comprehensive smart home system would require you to run wires somewhere in the house, even if you selected a wireless or telephone computer network.

    Because you will need to use new wires one way or another, you might as well plan on using Ethernet as your primary network method. If you have a location that's difficult to wire up, you might also need to add some wireless capabilities and then combine the Ethernet and wireless networks into one.

    We'll take a closer look at the types of wiring you might want to consider for the future in Chapter 4, "Types of Networks."

    Understanding Networking Software

    Once you decide on the type of network and connections you want, you'll need two basic types of software:

    • Network drivers
    • A network operating system

    Network Drivers

    Your NIC will come with a floppy disk or CD that contains network drivers, the special programs that Windows needs to access your specific NIC. The disk or CD might also include drivers for MS–DOS (the disk operating system that preceded Windows) and for other types of operating systems. Complete instructions for installing the drivers come with the interface card.

    To learn more about installing drivers, see the section "Installing Network Drivers," in Chapter 7, "Installing the Software," on page 158.

    An increasing number of NICs are plug and play, meaning that the software drivers are built into Windows. When you install a new card in a machine running any version of Windows, the system will recognize the card and load the drivers from the Windows CD. If the drivers aren't on the CD, you'll need the disk that came with your card, or you could download the latest driver from the manufacturer's site on the Internet.

    Network Operating Systems

    In addition to the network drivers, you'll also need a network operating system. This software contains the programs necessary to perform network tasks and to share files and printers. For home networks, the choice is easy. If you have most versions of Windows running, you have everything you need; you don't need to buy any other software. Windows 98, Windows Me, Windows 2000, and Windows XP even have software that lets you share a modem over a network.

    If you have Windows 95, and want to share an Internet account, you must first download free or inexpensive sharing software over the Internet, such as the programs Proxy from and WinProxy from

    The Bottom Line

    In home networking, the best option is clearly a peer-to-peer network using Windows. You'll get the network drivers you need with the NIC, and Windows supplies a network operating system and other networking programs for free.

    In terms of price and performance, your best choice for hooking up your network is wired Ethernet. If you can't run cable from one computer to the other in your home, and you want the speed of Ethernet, consider a home wireless network or a phone-line network that operates at Ethernet speeds. USB cable networks are great for connecting two computers in the same room, as long as both computers have USB ports.

    In the next chapter, you'll learn about the different types of networks in detail.

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