Figuring out home networking options
Web Informant #146, 10 March 1999
Last week I was bemoaning the trials and tribulations of setting up my home network. This week I'm going to help you decide if you are up to task and introduce you to some of the new kits that are available to help you connect your PCs.
I see two main motivations to have a home LAN: highspeed Internet access and running DVD movies from a PC to a large TV. Both are good reasons to take the time to figure out your LAN.
Before you get started, here are two sites you might want to check out to learn more networking basics, one by
WriteAngles and the other by
Your biggest decision is how you are going to tie the computers together. You have five choices: using standard Ethernet, telephone wiring, your AC power lines, cable TV coax, or wireless radios. It is great to have choices, but what you pick depends on how you answer the following questions:
- Are you brave and talented enough to open up the PC and install a network card and its drivers?
- Are your PCs located near existing (and working) phone or cable TV jacks?
- Do you have the carpentry skills and spousal design approval to run wires and drill holes around your house?
Answer these truthfully before reading on.
If your answers to #1, #2, and #3 are all no, then you should consider either the Intelogis AC powerline adapters or the WebGear wireless solution. Intelogis sells a $149 kit that includes two adapters, which connect to the PC via a parallel port, so you don't have to open the box and fool around with interrupts. The kit also includes a separate adapter for your printer, so it can be on your network as well. I wouldn't recommend the kit, however. I couldn't get it working at a friend's house with older 486class PCs after spending four hours installing and reinstalling the software.
WebGear sells its Aviator Wireless Networking Kit starting at $150 for connecting two computers. It comes in either parallel port or Universal Serial Bus (USB) versions and uses radios for its network. (I haven't tested this product yet.)
If your answers to #1, #2, and #3 are yes, no, and no, then you should consider the wireless products from Proxim or Aironet. But be warned this will be a very pricey system, easily running more than $500 for two adapters. I would recommend this if one of your PCs is a laptop, since you gain the benefit of being able to roam around the house or do your surfing from the comfort of your living room easy chair. You have to open up the desktop PCs to install the network adapters.
If your answers are no, yes (cable TV), and no, then consider Peracom's HomeConnex kit. This solution requires at least one of your computers to be running Windows 98 and have a Universal Serial Bus port to connect its network adapter to. This system is also nice if you want to play DVD movies from your PC on your largerscreen TV set. Pricing is still not set. While I haven't tested the product, I did do some consulting for Peracom and got a chance to review an early version of its gear last fall. I think this shows lots of promise.
If your answers are no, yes (phone wire), and no, then consider one of the Home PhoneLine Networking Alliance (HomePNA) solutions. They share your existing telephone network (meaning you can talk on the phone and share data between your PCs at the same time) but do require you to open up the PC and install their network card. Don't know if you have a spare slot? Maybe you really don't want to mess with your PC's internals or networking at all.
I tried the Linksys kit, which includes two PCI adapters and telephone cabling. I couldn't get the drivers to install on a Pentium 100 Dell, and the software documentation was poorly written for networking newbies. (The adapters have to be inserted in a PCI bus mastering slot. Don't know how to tell one from another? Me neither.)
Answer yes, no, and yes: standard Ethernet is your hope. This is where I ended up, primarily because I knew it best and had already put some category 5 wire in my walls when we renovated the house a few years ago. That was fine, but I didn't terminate any of the wires.
My first stop was with a friend who had a crimp tool and could help with the terminations. (It is good to have two people working together, unless you want to get lots of exercise running around the house.) It took about two hours and ruining several connectors before we got things working, thanks to the Microtest Compas cable tester. A great page with lots of details about wiring (including how to crimp your Ethernet connectors) can be found at John Springer's Closet.
If you aren't so lucky to have preexisting wiring, you'll have to drill your own holes and run the wires yourself. You can buy precut and preterminated cables, but you'll need to know their lengths and also need to drill larger holes in your walls to allow the connectors to pass through. (Go back to question #3 and check on that spousal design approval.) Sometimes your intentions may not work out, and then you might want to consider some of the previous powerline or wireless products.
No matter which product you end up with, you'll still need to plan your IP network. Where is your shared printer going to go and how will you connect it to the network? Some of the parallel port devices block the printer port, so you'll need a second parallel port or some other way to share the printer over the network.
But the real challenge is sharing your Internet connection. If you are lucky enough to have a cable modem, ISDN or DSL access, you can share it on a regular network without too much trouble, provided you know enough. If you are using an ordinary modem and dial-up connections, there are several products that can share these, including the WebRamp from Ramp Networks (this also includes a hub so you don't need to buy one). Ramp also resells the Sonic Wall firewall box, which is also something you'll need to protect your home from electronic intruders. Ramp continues to sell products with solid and clear documentation. (Note: Ramp was one of our sponsors of the Internet Appliance report I did last fall.)
If you don't want to deal with a firewall and can put two network cards in your PCs, a good alternative is to use software Network Address Translation gateways to protect your PCs. Don't know what this and have trouble enough with a single NIC per PC? A good place to read up on this information is Darren Mackay's NAT Page.
I do have a home LAN up and running here, after all this. So what did I learn from this experience? That while many people have multiple PCs in their homes, getting them connected isn't going to happen quickly. The skills required are far beyond the average person's abilities. Most of us can barely cope with getting Windows 95/98 configured for our kids' games. There are too few clear technology choices, and no single vendor solution. While the vendors mentioned above sell kits for connecting two computers, you may have more PCs though. Notice that I didn't ask how fast you want your home LAN to run: while many of the products work at sub-Ethernet speeds, I firmly believe this doesn't matter to most home networkers.
But wiring or wire replacement isn't really the heart of my problems with getting a home LAN set up. Merely replacing a 10BaseT wire with something else isn't enough to get this industry going. With two products, the Intelogis and Linksys kits, I couldn't resolve Windows driver and networking setup issues to get either working properly, after spending hours with the installation and on the phone with various tech support folks. Neither product had put the time into perfecting its software installation.
The problem is that Windows 95 and its upgrades have enough subtleties to make any automated installation difficult. This means consumers will be in for a rough ride.
Wiring up your computers takes part electrician, part plumber, and part protocol analyzer. Patience and persistence is required constantly. Most folks will just put up with disconnected machines than go through all this effort, and unfortunately I don't see this changing for some time to come.
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Web Informant copyright 1999 by David Strom, Inc., reprinted by permission
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