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Networks: get it right the first time...

Why a network?

Aside from obvious advantages like file, printer, and internet connection sharing, networked systems provide additional benefits.  Properly set up, they enable you to make the most of your multiple computer investment by leveraging your hardware assets.  You can even make good use of old computers that would otherwise be discarded.   Once horribly expensive, a nightmare to install, & difficult to keep working, software advances coupled with plummeting hardware prices have placed networking within the reach of practically anyone who wants it.

It's all about the megabits

The trick seems to be in figuring out which of the many products now on the market will really do the job for you.  All promise to connect two or more PC's in the home or office, and some are enticingly easy to install.

The problem is that, while many of these products are ideal for sharing internet connections (even high speed ones like cable), their leisurely pace in transferring data places severe limits on most of their other uses.  For sharing files and other computer assets in a small office environment, you need a minimum of 10 megabit per second (mbps) transfer rates, with 100 mbps really preferable.  The "easy install" products generally run at around one mbps.  That's one percent of the transfer rate you need to have something useful in a serious environment.  Of course, a 100 mbps system is a bit more complicated to set up.

Tradeoffs and compromise

You can get by without a real network at all with Windows 9x computers. The direct cable connection option that's part of the OS allows you to connect two computers via the serial or parallel ports with specially designed cables. Sometimes tricky to set up, these types of connections are also slow- you will definitely wait for your data.

Everything's a tradeoff, and the compromises here are plain. The less installation is required, the less data you can transfer in a reasonable amount of time. Transfer rates on some of these new kits are as slow as 1 megabit per second. Not bad when you're relaying an internet feed or printing a casual letter, but agonizingly similar to cold molasses when transferring a Corel Paint file. For that you're going to want a 100 megabit fast ethernet connection through a hub with adequate cabling snaked among the connected systems.

If you only deal in text files you can move at acceptable speed through a 10 megabit ethernet at about half the cost in hardware compared to 100mbps, but remember that the real expense in the creation of a network is installation and setup. As it happens, these are pretty much the same for 10 or 100 mbps (megabits per second) systems. Both require the insertion of network interface cards in your computers. Both require connecting cables. Both require the knowledge to configure the hardware and modify your system software to facilitate communication.

With a 100 mbps system, you get throughput speeds that will allow you to really get some work done. Not only can you move large files or groups of files between computers rapidly, you can actually work with remote files or applications with virtually unnoticeable delays. It becomes practical to backup one computer to another without tying up both systems for hours at a time. And yes, several people can use the internet simultaneously through a single connection.

We've used several different brands of network products, including Linksys, D-Link, SohoWare, and others.  All have worked for us, about equally well.  For a small office or home installation, we just recommend you go with price.

Amazon.com:  Get the Linksys 10/100 mbps starter kit now...

Putting it together

It helps to have someone with experience around when it comes to installing a real system network.  You have to know your way around inside your computer's shell, be able to choose the right components, understand a few simple rules of cabling, and exercise a lot of patience when things don't quite match the instruction sheet. We have seen more than one driver installation disk where files were not where they were supposed to be, and one otherwise superior package completely overlooks key protocol configuration settings.

Once the hardware is installed and the network brought to life, you need a thorough understanding of each system's file structure to set up a usable interface for day to day operations among the newly joined computers. You have to know how and whether to map drives or folders, and it's a good idea to draw a physical, pencil and paper map of how you wind up doing it. Finally, you have to be able to anticipate and compensate for the uncanny ability of every other user on the system to make it stop working.

This can be a do-it-yourself job, or you can hire someone to do it for you.  If you do decide to go it alone, you may want to get a suitable book on the subject.   You'll find solid how-to information in the computers section at  AMAZON.COM

We highly recommend...

One of the best uses for an old "outdated" computer is as a backup repository for the files on your main systems.  With a 100 mbps network and a high volume hard drive, you can implement a backup system that provides real protection against system failure.  If you rely on your computers, that's essential.

We review the LinkSys Four Port Broadband Network Router...

And take a look at wireless networking...


In the Jacksonville, Florida metropolitan area,
small office networks are installed by ThirdStar System Services.

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