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Home Networking
By Thiravudh Khoman

The past decade has witnessed a substantial growth in the area of home computing. Several reasons account for this:

  • A strong economy made it possible for households to invest in computers, as they would any costly appliance.
  • Computer literacy is seen as a necessity for educational and professional advancement.
  • The cost of home computers dropped to sub-$1,000 levels.
  • Graphical interfaces made computer usage less daunting.
  • Software for home applications became more plentiful.
  • The Internet opened up a whole new world of applications, most notably the World Wide Web and email.

With computers penetrating a significant proportion of households, it wasn't long before multi-computer households began to appear. Computers, though, are different from other household equipment. While two cars (or two TV's for that matter) are best used as separate entities, such is not the case with computers. Computers rely on add-on peripherals (such as printers) or services (such as Internet connectivity) that are most cost-effectively used when shared or networked.

Operating System Support

The wisdom of networking has already been proven in business environments. Except for the very smallest companies, most businesses now rely on computer networks to share printers, files or applications. While there is probably less need for file sharing in home environments, the need for sharing printers and Internet connections is no less important than it is in companies; perhaps more so given that high computing expenses are more difficult to justify for the average home user.

Most PC operating systems these days have networking capabilities built-in. Microsoft's Windows has supported networking ever since Windows for Workgroups v3.11 (granted, not a consumer operating system). Apple's Macintosh was networkable since day one, given the need to share its expensive LaserWriter printer. Linux, given its Unix roots, is in fact a full-blown networking operating system, and not only supports networking, but supports it from both a client and a server perspective. (To narrow things down, this paper will henceforth focus only on Windows networking.)

Networking, however, is different from Internet sharing (although the latter does require the former as a prerequisite). Internet sharing didn't come to Windows until Windows 98 began to bundle its Internet Connection Sharing. Despite this, numerous third-party Internet sharing solutions exist for the Windows platform, from the simple and free AnalogX Proxy (https://www.analogx.com/contents/download/network/proxy.htm) to Kerio Technologies' NAT-based WinRoute Pro (https://www.winroute.com).

Home versus Office

Home networking is generally considered to be different from office networking. Theoretically, though, it doesn't need to be so. If one had the freedom to wire a house or apartment with LAN cable the same way one could in an office, the differences would be minimal. Unfortunately, there are differences in the physical structures of homes versus offices that make it difficult to do so. First of all, most offices have ”false” ceilings and some even have “raised” floors, that can be used to hide cable runs. Homes do not. Running cables between rooms in a house invariably requires drilling holes through walls. For rented homes or apartments, this is a definite no-no.

In fact, the only time when networking in a home can be accomplished as easily as in an office using standard LAN cable is when all of the computers are located in a single room. In this case, LAN cable can simply be placed on the floor, flush against the wall between computers.

A few other differences should also be noted:

  • Networking in companies, especially the sizeable ones, use cabling closets to centralize LAN cabling. This is extremely rare in homes, unless the owner intentionally designed it into the plans when the house was built.
  • Most office computing, especially the sizeable ones, are client- server based, not peer-to-peer which is prevalent in home computing.
  • Networking budgets for companies are naturally higher than for homes and therefore connected hardware tends to be of higher quality.

A Simple Home Setup

So, how do you network two computers in a home? Let's assume for the moment that both computers are in the same room. First, you need to install a networking interface card (NIC) inside both computers (some USB-based NIC's are also available now). Second, you connect the two computers with LAN cable. Third, you set up the operating system on both computers to recognize the NIC's and to use the needed protocols. Fourth, you set up file, printer and/or Internet sharing.

Here's an example of a simple setup (figure 1).

Actually, there are a few more considerations. If both computers have 10Base-T NIC's, one could either use a twisted pair “crossover cable” to connect the two computers without the need for a hub. Or, one could install a hub and run twisted pair cable between each computer's NIC to the hub. Or, if one chose to use Thin Ethernet NIC's, one could also connect the two computers using terminated RG-58 cable without the need for a hub – although this is a somewhat dated solution.

A More Complex Home Setup

More often than not though, the two (or more) computers will be located in different rooms. Assuming that one is unable to drill holes between rooms (and floors!) to connect the different rooms, there are two prevailing home networking technologies that can overcome this:

  1. Home PNA/Home RF – Both of these use existing phone wiring instead of standard LAN cables to provide the networking. As rooms in most houses and apartments tend to be pre-wired for telephone lines, there is no need to lay down additional cable. (Note: These solutions also allow concurrent use of telephones for voice calls.) Both Home PNA and RF require specialized NIC's with transmission speeds presently limited to 10 Mbps. To link up a Home PNA or RF network to a regular Ethernet network, a bridge device is needed. Companies such as NetGear (https://www.netgear.com), Linksys (https://www.linksys.com) and Proxim (https://www.proxim.com) carry such products.

  2. Wireless – The current wireless networking standard is IEEE 802.11b, which runs at 11 Mbps. However, the new IEEE 802.11a standard, which runs at 54 Mbps (but is incompatible with 802.11b) is now nipping at its heels. To use 802.11, a computer needs an 802.11-compliant NIC, plus there needs to be a wireless access point (“WAP”) that's connected to a regular Ethernet network. The abovementioned companies also sell 802.11 products, but then so do numerous other companies such as D-Link (https://www.dlink.com), Intel (https://www.intel.com), SMC (https://www.smc.com), et alia

  3. While it's possible to install an 802.11 NIC in a desktop computer, 802.11 NIC's are more often used with notebook computers. In businesses, this allows notebook users to roam anywhere in range of a WAP, most notably in meeting rooms, without having to physically connect cable. Of course, such benefits are available to notebook users at home also.

Cabling issues aside, one may also find other devices in high-end home networks, such as:

  1. Broadband Communications: Most advanced home networks these days shy away from analog modems in favor of broadband solutions such as cable modems or DSL (depending on availability). The reason for this is pretty obvious – the heavier load caused by concurrent Internet sharing is better handled by a faster connection.

  2. Internet Routers – Rather than using software to implement Internet sharing, one can also use hardware. Most home-based Internet routers these days come with a built-in 4-or 5-port 10/100 MBps switching hub, so if you're already in the market for a hub, this is a good choice. Internet routers have a host of advantages, including the fact that: a) they use secure a NAT protocol and sometimes even include a firewall, b) they moot the need to keep a gateway PC turned on all the time for Internet sharing, c) they eliminate the processing overhead on a gateway PC which of course is no longer needed. Models of Internet routers exist that connect to analog or broadband modems. Most if not all of the aforementioned companies sell these kinds of routers.

  3. Dedicated Print Servers – As with Internet sharing, it's possible to hand off the duties of print sharing to a dedicated print server. This reduces the overhead on the PC that would otherwise act as a print server and as well as increases availability. One can usually attach anywhere between 1 and 3 printers to a single print server. Again, most of the aforementioned companies sell such devices.

  4. Other Broadband-Enabled Devices – Finally, one can connect other devices, such as broadband-enabled personal video recorders to home networks. ReplayTV's (https://www.replaytv.com) model 4000 and Tivo's (https://www.tivo.com) Series 2 PVR's are good examples of this. Connecting such devices to a home network allows them to update their TV program schedules via the Internet rather than through modem-dialed calls.

Here's an example of a sophisticated home network: (figure 2).

Copyright © 2002, Thiravudh Khoman