thanks to the folks at Nexland
for their assistance in preparing this
At the end
of 2000, according to International Data Corp. (IDC), about
half of all U.S. households had a computer, and
more than 20 million of those had more than one computer. In
fact, market research shows that current PC owners are
buying most of the new computers. This means that
multi-computer households are becoming pretty common.
If you are one these multiple-PC owners, you have probably
thought about how great it would be if your computers could
talk to each other. With your computers connected, you could:
Share a single printer between computers
Use a single Internet connection
Share files such as images, spreadsheets and documents
Play games that allow multiple users at different
Send the output of a device like a DVD player
or Webcam to
your other computer(s)
In this edition of HowStuffWorks,
we'll look at all of the different methods you can use to
create a home network. Be sure to read the companion articles
networking and phone-line
networking. This specialized information, including our
own experiences with different networking solutions, can help
you decide which method is right for your home.
Ways to Connect You can connect your home
computers in a variety of ways:
Wire your house with data cables
Run cables across the floor between computers in the
back and forth (which is inexpensive but gets to be a drag)
Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages, and
in this article we'll discuss them in detail. But all of these
methods (except physically carrying diskettes) require you to
configure your computers to share printers, files and an
Internet connection and to set up some level of security. This
configuration process is common to any form of networking, so
that's where we'll start. We'll discuss how to set up sharing
with Windows 98 and Windows Millennium, since they are the
most common versions of the Windows operating
system used at home. The procedure is different if you're
using another version of Windows, but the basic information is
still useful. We'll also give you some information on setting
up a Mac network. For those of you using Linux, UNIX or other
operating systems, you may prefer to skip the networking
basics and go straight to the sections
on the different networking technologies.
Networking Basics To install a network in
your home, there are three steps:
Choose the technology you will use for the network. The
main technologies to choose between are standard Ethernet,
phone-line-based, power-line-based and wireless. There are
other technologies that exist, such as Token
Ring and FDDI,
but they are not recommended for use in a home network
unless you already have extensive experience with that
Buy and install the hardware.
Configure the system and get everything talking together
Step 3 is extremely important. It is also
very educational -- if you understand the configuration
process, you understand everything a home network is capable
of doing for you. Some of the home-networking kits include an
installation CD that makes
configuration very easy.
The program will take you through each step of naming the
computer, sharing files, sharing printers and sharing an
Internet connection. But if you have problems, or if your kit
does not include a configuration program, you'll need to know
how to set it up manually. To assist you with setting up your
network, we'll discuss the following tasks, which apply no
matter which networking technology you choose:
Naming the PC
Sharing an Internet connection
understand these tasks, you'll understand just what your new
network can do!
Naming the PC Before your
computer can become part of a network, it has to have a
name and a workgroup. Each computer in your home
network needs to have a different name, and they all need to
be in the same workgroup.
Here's how you can name your PC and create a workgroup:
In Windows 98/ME, move the mouse
pointer over the Network Neighborhood icon on the
desktop and click the right mouse button once.
Select Properties from the menu. The Network
Properties window will pop up, listing information about the
network adapter(s) and protocols installed on that computer.
When the window opens, click the Identification
tab. You will see three boxes (as shown above).
In the first box, enter the name you wish to give the
computer. You can name it anything, but each computer in
your home must have a its own unique name.
In the second box, enter the name you plan to use for
the workgroup -- make sure all of the computers have the
same workgroup name. You may want to write it down to make
sure that you enter the exact same workgroup name on each
computer in your network.
Now that we've got names and a workgroup, let's move on to
Networking Basics: File Sharing and
Security One of the most common activities on any
computer network is "file sharing." Windows 98/ME makes
sharing files incredibly easy, and once you set it up, any
computer on the network can share files with any other. To use
file sharing, first check that File and Printer Sharing
is enabled. You do this by running the mouse pointer over the
Network Neighborhood icon on the desktop and clicking
the right mouse button once. Select Properties from the
menu. In the large white box, the item "Client for Microsoft
Networks" should be visible.
Sometimes the software required to make a computer a
client of a particular type of network isn't loaded.
When a computer is a "client" of a network, that computer can
communicate and share information with other computers that
are clients of the network. When you first set up networking
on a Windows 98/ME computer, the set-up process normally adds
the "Client for Microsoft Networks" software. Occasionally it
doesn't. If that's the case:
Click Add in the Network Properties window.
Choose Client from the list of choices in the
window that pops up.
Click Add. You will see a list of different
companies or vendors on the left pane (side) of the window.
Click Microsoft in that left pane. This will
bring up a list of Microsoft's software clients in the right
Choose Client for Microsoft Networks from the
list and click OK. Windows will copy all of the
necessary files and may prompt you for the Win98 CD. If so,
insert the CD and continue.
Once the software is
installed, you should be back to the original Network window.
Now let's enable file sharing:
Click the button labeled File and Print
You will see two options, one for sharing files
and the other for sharing printers. Click the box
next to each option to enable it.
Once it is enabled, you will see a checkmark in the box.
Click OK to close the sharing-options window.
Click the Access Control tab near the top of the
Network window. For easier control of who can access which
files, click the box beside Share-level Access
Click OK to close the Network window.
You must now select which folders you want to share.
Sharing your entire hard
drive is not recommended. It is too easy for someone to
accidentally delete an important system file if the whole disk
is shared. Instead, create folders that will be used
specifically to share files. You may want one folder for the
entire family and another one limited to you and your spouse.
Once you have identified the folder(s), move the pointer over
the folder and click the right mouse button to get the pop-up
menu. Select the Sharing... menu item. A window will
open with several options. The default choice for sharing is
Not Shared. Change this to Shared As and type in
a name for the shared folder. The "Shared As" name does not
have to be the same as the name of the folder, but it makes it
easier to remember if it is.
If you activated Share-level Access Control, you
need to select the level of access and supply a password.
Read-only access means that anyone accessing this
folder over the network can only look at or retrieve files.
They cannot put new files in the folder or delete or modify
existing files. Full access is just that: the ability
to read, write, delete and create files in this folder. You
can also choose to allow either type of access depending on
which password is provided.
Restricting access to certain files is crucial for most
businesses and can certainly be important to you at home. For
example, you may have documents or images that you would not
want your children to be able to see or change. Or perhaps you
have important financial information that you wish to keep
private. Whatever the reason, it is useful to be able to
restrict access to information on each computer through the
use of share-level password protection. Also, you can
implement the user log-on feature by creating individual user
accounts in the Users window, which is in the
Once shared folders are set up, accessing them is simple.
Double-click Network Neighborhood with the left mouse
button to open up a window showing all computers in the local area
network (LAN). Double-click the computer you wish to
access. A window will open with a list of shared resources.
Double-click the desired folder and a prompt will appear,
asking for the password. Type in the password you designated
for that folder, and you're connected to that folder!
Networking Basics: Printers To share a
printer, first make sure you have completed the steps outlined
above to activate File and Printer Sharing. Then:
Click the Start button, move to Settings
and select Printers. A window will open listing all
of the printers on the local system.
Move over the icon for the printer you wish to share and
click the right mouse button to bring up the menu. Select
The Properties window will pop up with the Sharing tab
section open. Click the Shared As option and type in
a name for the printer. You may also elect to require
a password to access the printer.
Click OK to close the window. This printer is now
To access the printer from another computer:
Go to that computer and open the Printers window.
Double-click the Add a Printer wizard.
Choose the Network Printer option and click
The wizard will display a list of all shared printers on
the LAN. Choose the printer you wish to access and click
Next again. The wizard will then install the
appropriate driver if it is available, or else request that
you put in a disk or CD with the driver software.
Once the wizard finishes installing the software,
the printer will appear to your system just like a local
Networking Basics: Internet Microsoft
recognized the growing popularity of home networks and
implemented Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) in
Windows 98. ICS lets you connect one computer to the Internet
by whatever means (modem, DSL, ISDN
and share that connection with any other Windows 98/ME
computer on the network. Though simple in theory, the actual
implementation of ICS has proven problematic for many users.
Windows 98 Second Edition, as well as Windows ME, has an
improved version of ICS that uses a Microsoft wizard
application to guide you through the process.
By default, the ICS components are not installed on your
computer. You only run ICS on the computer that is actually
connected to the Internet:
Go to the Control Panel and double-click
Select the Windows Setup tab and open the
Internet Tools option.
Enable the Internet Connection Sharing component
by clicking on the box next to it and then clicking on
Once the ICS components are installed, the ICS
wizard will pop up. Follow the prompts and keep clicking
Next. If your Internet connection is not already
configured on this computer, the wizard will open the
Internet Connection Wizard (don't get these two
wizards confused!) so that you can set up an Internet
connection. Simply follow the prompts. When you're done,
you'll be returned to the ICS wizard.
The ICS wizard will gather some information and prompt
you to insert a 3.5-inch diskette. This diskette will
then be used to configure the other Windows 98/ME computers
on your network for Internet access.
While file and printer sharing are still relatively easy on
other operating systems, Internet-connection sharing using
only software is a good deal trickier. In most cases, you will
need to configure a router or gateway that will bridge between
the Internet and your home network. Even with Windows 98/ME,
you may want to set up a hardware router to share your
connection. In the next section, we will discuss a piece of
equipment that is a useful part of many home networks: the
Routers and Firewalls Some new hardware
devices combine a router, a firewall and an
into one small package. A good example is the Nexland
ISB SOHO. It is a cable/DSL router with a built-in,
four-port, 10/100-megabits per second (Mbps) Ethernet hub and
support for up to 8 megabytes
(MB) of bi-directional throughput (sends data both ways) at a
time. Computers in your home network connect to the ISB, which
in turn is connected to either a cable
modem. You configure the ISB via a Web-based interface that
you reach through the browser on your computer. These
combination units that include a router, firewall and Ethernet
hub for broadband connections can be found for well under
Nexland's ISB SOHO is an inexpensive
cable/DSL router with lots of
Much of the work required to get information from one
computer to another is done by routers -- they're the
crucial devices that let information flow between, rather than
within, networks. Routers are
specialized computers that send your messages, and those of
every other Internet user, speeding to their destinations
along thousands of pathways. When information needs to travel
between networks, routers determine how to get it there. A
router has two separate but related jobs:
It ensures that information doesn't go where it's not
needed. This is crucial for keeping large volumes of data
from clogging the connections of "innocent bystanders."
It makes sure that information makes it to the intended
In performing these two jobs, a router is extremely useful
in dealing with two separate computer networks. It joins the
two networks, your home network and the Internet in this case,
passing information from one to the other. It also protects
the networks from one another, preventing the traffic on one
from unnecessarily spilling over to the other. Regardless of
how many networks are attached, the basic operation and
function of the router remains the same. Since the Internet is
one huge network made up of tens of thousands of smaller
networks, routers are an absolute necessity. For more
information, see How Routers
Whether you are one of the growing number of computer users
with fast, always-on Internet access or you're still using a
dial-up connection, you may want to consider implementing a
firewall. A firewall is simply a program or hardware
device that filters the information coming through the
Internet connection into your private network or computer
system. You use a firewall to protect your home network and
family from offensive Web sites and potential hackers. If an
incoming packet of information is flagged by the filters, it
is not allowed through.
You should note that some spam is going to get through your
firewall as long as you accept e-mail. And,
while some firewalls offer virus
protection, it is worth the investment to install anti-virus
software on each computer.
The level of security you establish will determine how many
threats can be stopped by your firewall. You can restrict
traffic that travels through the firewall so that only certain
types of information, such as e-mail, can get through. The
highest level of security would be to simply block everything.
Obviously, that defeats the purpose of having an Internet
connection. But a common rule of thumb is to start out
blocking everything, and then begin to select what types of
traffic you will allow. This is a good rule for businesses
that have an experienced network administrator who understands
what the needs are and knows exactly what traffic to allow
through. For most of us, it is probably better to work with
the defaults provided by the firewall developer unless there
is a specific reason to change them.
Some routers, such as Nexland's Pro800
series, include additional filtering software and even
provide clients for creating a virtual
Hardware firewalls are incredibly secure and not very
expensive. One of the best things about a firewall from a
security standpoint is that it stops anyone on the outside
from logging onto a computer in your private network. While
this is a big deal for businesses, most home networks will
probably not be threatened in this manner. Still, putting a
firewall in place provides some peace of mind. For more
information on firewalls, see How Firewalls
Building a Network You've learned how to
make your computer recognize other computers in its network
and begin sharing printers, files and an Internet connection.
We'll now look closely at four types of home computer networks
-- how each works, what each costs and what the pros and cons
are. The options we will discuss are:
Networking Ethernet is easily the most popular
networking system available today. It is also one of the
widest ranging systems. The equipment needed for an
Ethernet-based network can be as simple as two network
interface cards (NIC) and a cable, or as complex as multiple
routers, bridges and hubs. It is this versatility that makes
it so useful to businesses. We will focus on the basics for
creating a home network.
Pros and Cons Ethernet
has many advantages:
It is the fastest home-networking technology (100 Mbps).
It can be inexpensive if the computers are close to one
It is extremely reliable.
It is easy to maintain after it is set up.
The number of devices that can be connected is virtually
There is a great deal of technical support and
And a few disadvantages:
If you have more than two computers, you'll need
It can be expensive if wiring and jacks need to be
Set-up and configuration can be difficult.
The technical jargon and the number of options can be
Go on to the next page for complete information on this
What You Need for Ethernet Ethernet is
available in two speeds: 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps. Most NICs are
capable of operating at either speed, but you should check to
be sure before purchasing. Get cards capable of the 100-Mbps
data rate -- the difference in cost is minimal. A 10-Mbps card
costs about $15 to $40, and a 10/100-Mbps card costs about $25
There are two different ways to connect Ethernet cards:
coax and Cat 5 cabling. Coax was once the more
popular of the two, but today just about everyone uses Cat 5
because it is easier to configure. Cat 5 has a cable that
looks a lot like a telephone
cable. You run one cable to each computer, and each cable
connects to a hub at the other end. A basic hub for a
home network is a small box that typically costs from $30 to
$100 (depending on its speed and how many connections it can
To connect more than two computers using
Ethernet, you will need a hub like
The hub takes the signal from each computer and sends it to
all of the other computers in your home. Hubs come in several
sizes, noted by the number of ports available -- a four-port
hub can connect four computers, an 8-port hub can connect up
to eight computers and so on. Most hubs are stackable. A
stackable hub has a special port that can connect it to
another hub to increase the capacity of your network. So if
you start with a four-port hub but eventually have five
computers, you can buy another four-port hub and connect it to
the one you already have, increasing the potential number of
computers on your network. A cable/DSL router usually has a
four-port Ethernet hub built in.
To connect the computers, you will need Unshielded
Twisted Pair (UTP) Category 5 cable. This type of cabling
is designed to handle the 100-Mbps speed needed by Ethernet.
The RJ-45 connector at the end of the cable looks very similar
to the RJ-11 connector on a phone cord but is slightly bigger
(and not compatible). You can buy Cat 5 cables in
predetermined lengths with the connectors already attached. If
you plan to install the Cat 5 cabling in the walls of your
house, you can buy the cable in rolls, cut it to length and
connect the cable to special RJ-45 wall boxes. Unless you have
done this type of installation before, you will probably want
to hire a professional.
Because of the large number of possible configurations in
an Ethernet network, you most likely will not have any type of
automated installation software. This means that you will have
to manually configure all the options as we discussed at the
beginning of this article. If you have problems, the best
source of information is probably the manufacturer of
whichever NIC cards you decide to use. For more information,
If you don't mind running the cables along the floor, you
can install an Ethernet network for two computers in your home
for $100 or less. That includes the cost of two Ethernet
cards, a small hub and two cables. Each additional computer
will cost about $30 to $40 to connect using inexpensive
*Note: If you want to connect just two computers,
you can avoid the hub and use a crossover Cat 5 cable.
With a crossover cable, you directly connect one NIC card to
the other without a hub. This only works for two computers --
to connect more than two you need a hub.
Other Types of Home Networks Besides
Ethernet, there are three other networking technologies we'll
discuss: power-line, phone-line and wireless networks. Click
on the title below to go to the article for more information,
or proceed to either A Word
About Macs or The
Future of Home Networking.
Wireless Networking Works An increasingly affordable
option does away with cables completely, relying on wireless
transmission of data to connect your computers.
A Word About Macs Configuring a Mac is a
little bit different from a Windows machine. Most Macs have
built-in Ethernet. Here's how to set up a Mac-only home
Connect the computers - Make the physical
connection using a crossover cable between two Macs or
through a hub, router or
Apple Airport. Note that gigabit-Ethernet Macs do not
need a crossover cable. They sense the connection type and
adapt to it.
Name each computer - Create a computer name, user
ID and password in the File Sharing control panel on
each computer. Sharing must be enabled for the other Macs on
the network to access the one you configure.
Configure AppleTalk - In the AppleTalk control
panel, set AppleTalk to connect via Ethernet using the
built-in Ethernet connection or an Ethernet card. At this
point, you're done. There is no need to restart your
computer. The network should be available through the
Network Browser (Apple Menu) or through the AppleTalk
icon in the Chooser (Apple Menu).
While Macs configured this way can coexist on the same
network as Windows machines, they will not see each other.
There are ways to create a hybrid network between Mac and
Windows computers. You can install software such as Virtual
PC, Real PC or DAVE on each Mac so that it can access Windows
computers on the same network. Likewise, you can install PC
MacLAN or similar software on your Windows computer to access
Macs and Mac printers on the network.
If you have a fast Internet connection (cable
make sure you set up a cable/DSL router (check this
page to learn about routers) and connect each Mac to it.
Choose DHCP in the TCP control panel, and you're
The Future of Home Networking Home
networking is really just beginning to hit its stride. Many of
the homes being built today include Cat 5 wiring as part of
the basic infrastructure. Highly specialized networking
products that are proprietary in nature (like IBM's Home
Director) are also available options. A lot of companies
are focusing significant resources on developing new
networking technology. HomePlug
is working on increasing the data rate of power-line
is developing a SWAP version 2 specification that will greatly
increase the speed of wireless networking. Another wireless
is based on the IEEE
802.11a specification and offers speeds up to 54 Mbps in
the 5-GHz range! One thing is for sure, home networks will
continue to improve and grow.
For lots more information on networking, check out the
links on the next page.