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Abort-Retry-Fail: Home Networking

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By Bill Gregory

Last week I mentioned WiFi networks and their impact on the traveler's ability to keep in touch. WiFi can do much more than that; it can help you network your entire home.

First off, let me talk about networks in general.

Time was that the only time you would see a network (of computers) was in a large corporation. The company, usually an insurance company or a large bank, would have a computer that would occupy one or more floors of their building and there would be any number of desktop "terminals" scattered throughout the building so that employees could input data to the main computer (usually called the "mainframe") and request printouts of certain data. These computers usually ran a database program exclusively, to track customers and calculate billing and so forth. Universities and colleges were using mainframes for more math-intensive purposes. But the computers were still quite large.

As time went on the Personal Computer arrived and began to replace the terminals. Soon a system known as "peer networking" would emerge. In peer networking there is no mainframe. There may be a specific computer that held the main data files that were in use, but any of the computers could be that "main data file" repository. The name "peer networking" comes from this fact.

Novell Corporation was the first company to try to expand the use of networking by addressing the needs of smaller companies (smaller than Fortune 500 companies) with their "NetWare" network operating system. NetWare was built along the same client-server architecture as larger networks. Soon other software companies got in to the fray with their own network operating systems aimed at smaller companies and introduced the concept of peer-to-peer networking.

The primary components of a network are: two or more computers, a central "hub," and some means to connect the computers to the hub. Nearly every wired network today uses what is known as "Ethernet" wire to connect the computers to the network, although a few use "thin Ethernet" or coaxial cable. Can you imagine running cables throughout your house in order to have a network connection in every room? Believe it or not, many houses built in the 1990s were constructed with that very contingency in mind. When the electrical wiring was run in the new construction, so were the telephone lines and the network cables.

With the ever-expanding use of the Internet and the increase in two-or-more-computer homes, networking was becoming a very popular idea. Microsoft's Windows operating system soon included all of the "drivers" and software necessary to set up a peer-to-peer network. Early on, Windows could even let you share a dial-up connection to the Internet. But remember that everyone was sharing that slow dial-up connection, so you can imagine the things could get really slow.

The first big deal on the scene was the "router," which is the combination of a network hub and an Internet "gateway." This setup requires a broadband connection to the Internet, either DSL or cable modem. The router connects to the broadband modem and has four or more Ethernet ports for computers to connect to. In this arrangement, each connected computer shares the Internet connection and may, or may not, have the ability to share other devices on the network. In other words, if computer number one has a printer connected to it, the network can be setup so that all computers on the network can use that printer. The same could be for a scanner or any other hardware device on the network.

Enter WiFi. Now you don't have to run all of those cables to get all of the computers on the network. All you need to do is have that wireless router, your broadband Internet connection and a wireless adapter in each computer. Notebook computers have had wireless adapters factory installed for some time now, and nearly all desktop computers include them as standard now, as well.

Okay, so what do you need to go wireless in your home?

First of you will need a broadband Internet connection, as mentioned above. Then you will need a wireless router. Make sure that the router conforms to the 802.11g or 802.11n standard. Then make sure that each computer has an 802.11g or 802.11n network interface.

You will need to make a wired connection with one computer to the router in order to configure the router. All routers on the market today come with an installation CD that makes the entire setup extremely easy. If you are not sure which brand to by, look for LinkSYS, D-Link or Belkin. (One neat thing about Belkin is that they guarantee their products for life!)

If you undertake this on your own, fear not. Like Jimmy Buffett once said, "It's so simple, like the boogaloo, it will plum amaze you." Besides, you can always call tech support.

If you have a computer-related problem or question that you would like answered in this column, please send it to the Cedar Key Beacon by email at editor@cedarkeybeacon or PCTech@islandcity.net.