|Special thanks to
the folks at
Nexland for their assistance in preparing this article.
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 computers
- Send the output of a device like a
DVD player or
Webcam to your
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 about
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:
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
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
the different networking technologies.
Once we establish a basic understanding of the configuration process,
networking in detail. By the time you finish this series, you'll be able
to choose the network technology that suits your needs and configure the
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
phone-line-based, power-line-based and wireless. There are other
technologies that exist, such as
but they are not recommended for use in a home network unless you already
have extensive experience with that particular technology.
- Buy and install the hardware.
- Configure the system and get everything talking together correctly.
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 files
- Sharing printers
- Sharing an Internet connection
Once you 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
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
- 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 file
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
- Click Add in the Network Properties window.
- Choose Client from the list of choices in the window that pops
- 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 pane.
- 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 Sharing...
- You will see two options, one for sharing files and the other
for sharing printers. Click the box next to each option to enable
- 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 Control.
- 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 Control Panel.
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
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!
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
- Move over the icon for the printer you wish to share and click the
right mouse button to bring up the menu. Select Sharing...
- 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
- Click OK to close the window. This printer is now shared.
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 Next.
- 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 printer.
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,
cable) 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 Add/Remove Programs.
- Select the Windows Setup tab and open the Internet Tools
- Enable the Internet Connection Sharing component by clicking on
the box next to it and then clicking on OK.
- 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 cable/DSL router.
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
DSL 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
Nexland's ISB SOHO is an inexpensive cable/DSL router
with lots of features.
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.
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
- It makes sure that information makes it to the intended destination(s).
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 Work.
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
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
Some routers, such as Nexland's Pro800 series,
include additional filtering software and even provide clients for
creating a virtual
private network (VPN).
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 Work.
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
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 another.
- It is extremely reliable.
- It is easy to maintain after it is set up.
- The number of devices that can be connected is virtually unlimited.
- There is a great deal of technical support and information available.
And a few disadvantages:
- If you have more than two computers, you'll need additional equipment.
- It can be expensive if wiring and jacks need to be installed.
- Set-up and configuration can be difficult.
- The technical jargon and the number of options can be confusing.
Go on to the next page for complete information on this networking
What You Need for
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 to $50.
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
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 support).
To connect more than two computers using Ethernet,
you will need a hub like this.
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 eventuallyhave 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, see
How Ethernet Works.
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
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
The Future of Home Networking.
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 network:
- Connect the computers - Make the physical connection using a
crossover cable between two Macs or through a hub,
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
If you have a fast Internet connection (cable
or DSL), make sure
you set up a cable/DSL router (check
to learn about routers) and connect each Mac to it. Choose DHCP in
the TCP control panel, and you're set.
The Future of Home
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.
is working on increasing the data rate of power-line networking.
is developing a SWAP version 2 specification that will greatly increase the
speed of wireless networking. Another wireless standard,
HiperLAN2, 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