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David Strom is a networking and communications consultant based in Port Washington, NY. Along with Marshall Rose, he co-authored
Internet Messaging: From the Desktop to the Enterprise (Prentice Hall).

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Home Networking Ain't Easy

Web Informant #145, 5 March 1999

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I haven't been in the pages of Network World for a few years, and it is nice to be back, with the op/ed entitled, Make sure your corporate web site is lawsuit–proof in this week's issue, about what effect the Oregon Planned Parenthood lawsuit against a hate speech site has on your web site plans.

       Like many of you, over the years I have become the computer tech support person for my family and friends. And while I don't mind being cornered at the grocery store or getting panicky calls for help, the hours are long and the pay is lousy. And sometimes I am just not up to the task. I found that out the hard way, when I set up a home network here at Chez Strom.

       It all started when we got a cable modem to connect to the Internet. Suddenly, my family was fighting over who got to use the PC, and it became clear that one home computer wasn't enough. Time to buy a second PC and network them, I thought.

       Well, my little brainstorm has turned into a tremendous time sink. Of course, I approached this project like any product review or technology evaluation. First there were the inevitable hours of research to track down the various vendors involved. After the research, I had to interpret the various claims and counter claims, and also request products to test. Finally, putting the various products through their paces wasn't easy: One took three hours to install on a single PC. But I am getting ahead of my story.

       With each daily snag I wonder how folks who don't do this for a living manage to figure this out? The answer is, they don't. There are too many choices. Too many incompatible technologies. There are products that will work with standard Ethernet wiring, to be sure. But the tricky part comes when you do not have the ability, room, or spousal approval to run wires around your house. And troubleshooting nascent networks requires you to know how to track down and solve some pretty hard problems: is it the connection, the hub, the protocols, the software, or just gremlins? And where do put all this gear, anyway?

       This is altogether too much information to process before you can get your home LAN up and running. The further I got into the products, the more disappointed I got, considering that over the years I have maintained company networks with hundreds of nodes, trained I don't know how many administrators, and doled out tons of advice on running corporate networks. As well as written a few product reviews and started a trade magazine devoted to the subject along the way.

       But my little two node home network has caused more aggravation than all that put together and got me wondering where I went wrong. Maybe I should have stuck with an all–Macintosh network. The Mac was our first home computer and is still one of the easiest to network, provided you connect it to another Mac. I chose the Mac because I didn't want the hassle of supporting Windows 3.x. But a lack of software and the fact that our local school made the switch to Windows 95 convinced me to switch. Too bad it is hell to connect the Mac to Win95/98, or I probably would have bought an iMac for my second computer.

       Now back when I worked for the Galactic Insurance Company in downtown Los Angeles, doing technical support usually meant having an audience when you arrived at some user in distress. But this experience did not prepare me for the kind of audience (my family) who would question why I was doing something to the computer, the phones or drilling those holes in the wall. I recommend if you do attempt to try to build a home LAN, remember that things like phone service is a mission-critical application for your family. I highly suggest doing any wiring, phone reconfiguration or computer setup when all of your family is off at the movies. There is nothing like trying to debug a LAN with an audience surrounding you. Another nugget: do not attempt to do any installation right before the dinner hour.

       I would like to finish this essay by telling you what I ended up choosing, but I gotta go debug another computer problem in my office. Something about reinstalling Windows 98 network support.

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      Web Informant copyright 1999 by David Strom, Inc., reprinted by permission
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