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Peer-To- Peer Networking



Networks 101: Peer-To-Peer Networks
April 22, 2003

Author: Tom Jelen and Russ King

Editor's Note:

This article was originally published in September 2000. It was updated in April 2003 by Michael Schrecker.


Networks can allow computers, servers, and other devices to talk to each other. There are a number of different types of networks, and it's important to find the right one to fit your needs so that you don't waste time and money with one that is too complex for your needs, or one that doesn't fulfill your needs.

If you only need to share a printer or an Internet connection, a client-server network (see article Networking 101: Client-Server Networks) might be overkill. Sometimes, a simpler peer-to-peer network may be all you need. The diagram below shows a simple peer-to-peer network:

Peer-to-peer network diagram

As you can see from the diagram, in a peer-to-peer network there are no dedicated servers or hierarchy among the computers. All of the computers on the network handle security and administration for themselves. The users must make the decisions about who gets access to what. Beyond that there are more similarities between the types of network than differences. All of the computers must have network cards. You also use the same cables, the same hubs and switches, and the same protocols as you would with a client-server model. The only difference is that there isn't a server. Since there isn't a server, there are some things to think about before you go down the peer-to-peer path.

Before Taking the Peer-to-Plunge
Peer-to-peer networks work remarkably well in certain circumstances; however there are a few things to consider before setting one up:

Peer-to-peer networks are designed for connecting a small number of computers. They tend to run into problems at around 10-15 computers.

Security on a peer-to-peer network is not very powerful. So if you have security concerns go for something you can control (like a server). Because the users will be required to give access to folders, they can choose to not require passwords. This lack of hierarchy has a tremendous impact on the security of your network and you will need adequate training for your users to prevent problems.

If your organization is growing rapidly, it will usually outgrow a peer-to-peer network very quickly. While a peer-to-peer network may work fine for ten computers, it probably won't for twenty.

In a peer-to-peer network, the users handle administration. This means that all the users need to be trained in how to share files, folders, and printers. In a peer-to-peer network, suddenly shutting down your computer can cause one of your colleagues to be unable to print.

Hosting Resources
The last concern is that each computer that attaches to another computer, whether for printing or for file sharing, takes up system resources on the hosting computer. If the drain becomes dramatic enough to slow down the host computer then perhaps it is time to start thinking about a dedicated server.

What Are Your Options?
If you've assessed your situation, and you've determined that a peer-to-peer network is appropriate, the setup can be relatively simple if you are using one of the common operating systems available today.

The Macintosh has included peer-to-peer network capability in its operating system for many years. You even have the option to setup the network with phone lines and very simple connectors. For more detailed information:

How to Create a Small Ethernet Network
A guide from Apple on setting up a small peer-to-peer network.

Windows 95/98/ME/2000/XP
Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000, and XP all include the capacity for peer-to-peer networking and can be set up with limited hardware expenditures. For detailed information:

How to Use Windows 95 to Connect Computers on a Network
From Microsoft: a quick and easy guide to setting up a small peer-to-peer network with Windows 95.

Creating a Peer-to-Peer Network with Windows 98
Microsoft instructions on setting up a peer-to-peer network using Windows 98.

Creating a Peer-to-Peer Network with Windows 2000

Creating a Peer-to-Peer Network with Windows XP

It is possible to connect your Macs to your PC network - and vice-versa. Here's how:

Connectivity between PC-Compatible and Macintosh Computers on a Network
Information from Apple on connecting PCs to a Mac network.

The ultimate source for Macintosh-Windows compatibility and networking information.

A peer-to-peer network is sometimes the perfect (and cheap) solution for connecting the computers at a small nonprofit. However, peer-to-peer networking has its limitations, and your organization should tread with caution to avoid headaches (security issues, hardware inadequacies, backup problems, etc.) down the road.


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