Networking

Get in the door by building a low-cost LAN for a low-tech client

The billable hours from installing a small-office LAN won't put consultants in a higher tax bracket. However, such smaller projects are a great way to build trust--and more contracts. Here's a look at how to build a LAN for a low-tech client.

By Clyde Zellers

Your low-tech client has decided to take the plunge and make a technological upgrade to his office. He’s requested that you, the consultant, install a small-office LAN. The client wants to preserve the current business culture so the computers will be networked but not connected to the Internet.

With the LAN, employees will be able to retrieve shared forms for letterhead, fax, ordering, and reimbursements from a single folder on the network rather than from the custody of one user. Access to sales orders and customer receipts will be handy for distribution to the right people when they need them. This low-tech option will also make printers, scanners, and other office equipment widely available. In other words, the benefits of office automation that the rest of us take for granted will be possible for your client and his employees.

For a consultant, such a contract might not be the most lucrative, but it’s work that can lead to a more significant investment in your services later. Look at it as a way to be an honest broker in the client’s first foray into office technology. In this article, I’ll take you through a straightforward, step-by-step installation of a small-office LAN.

The setup
Let’s say that, despite your client’s reluctance to embrace technology, he has already purchased desktop machines running Windows 98 for his office. For that reason, your client wants to go with Windows technology. You’ll use a Windows 2000 Server running Windows Internet Naming Service (WINS).

As a good consultant, you've prepared this client to accept a Windows 2000 environment because of the potential benefits of having a native, integrated system down the road. For this installation, though, you'll be installing a LAN with no Internet connection and will use the WINS network protocol for sharing files and printer/scanner resources.

The value of a WINS-based network is that it’s a fairly simple technology that supports a mixed environment of down-level Windows clients; the protocol also offers other significant benefits. For example, you can build a network of redundant, fault-tolerant servers that house a database of NetBIOS names and IP addresses.

The use of WINS for network communication also reduces network traffic by directing traffic at an IP address instead of using simple broadcast to transmit data to every PC on the network. WINS servers, in more complex configurations, can be used to replicate the database of users on a much larger LAN.

Despite its advantages, WINS’ flexibility and power decline with the increasing size of the network. WINS is an intermediate protocol, bridging older Microsoft LANs and the Internet protocol, TCP/IP. Additionally, a WINS-based network cannot take advantage of the powerful management and security features of Windows 2000’s Active Directory. On this simple network of about two-dozen computers, your client can acclimate to the idea of an office network in anticipation of a business expansion and ready himself for the requirements of a larger network. Let’s review the hardware for the network and then the software setup.

Hardware
The primary components of the network are the connecting media (Ethernet cable), the communications devices (network cards), and a networking device (active hub). The computer running Windows 2000 will act as a server.

Cable
After you’ve measured your client’s office, you’ll need Cat5 cable, which will accommodate bandwidth up to 100 Mbps and will cost about 70 cents per foot, at most. You’ll also need RJ-45 connectors to hook the cable into network access points. You can buy the cable with connectors attached in specified lengths for a bit more money and a bit less hassle.

In this office, you’re lucky: The rooms are laid out in a contiguous fashion, so that “pulling the cable” will only require laying the cable out of the way along walls and won’t involve going between floors or in suspended ceilings. Be mindful of the maximum distance for Cat5 cable (100 meters) and its susceptibility to electrical interference.

NICs
The network interface cards (NICs) that you’ll buy for your client are Plug-and-Play-compliant, making them easy to install. A faster card for the server is money well spent since this is a traffic convergence point, so look for a Fast Ethernet card. You can spend from around $50 and up depending on speed and features. For this project, we’ll choose from among 3Com, Intel, or Asante-made cards.

Our network is connected via a hub in a simple star topology. The hub is the input point for all the other computers (nodes) on the network and lets them connect to the server, where traffic is then directed to file shares or to printer resources.

The computer that acts as the WINS server, on which you’ll run Windows 2000 Server, has these basic hardware requirements suggested by Microsoft:
  • A processor (a Pentium 133 at the bare minimum)
  • 256 MB of RAM
  • A 2-GB hard drive with 1 GB of free space

These are minimums—faster processors, increased memory, and larger hard drives will increase performance. Decide what your client needs based on how they plan to use the LAN and what they’re able to spend.

Hubs
The hub that will link the various workstations and the server is a very simple device. It works much the same as an old roundhouse that links trains with the correct track. If you are in the market for a 24-port hub, the prices range from $200 for a NetGear hub to $389 for one from 3Com. The devices should support 10/100BaseTX. So a single, unmanaged hub should do the trick for this network.

Installing and configuring WINS service
To get started, install WINS on the Windows 2000 server. As part of the installation, you’ll create a WINS manager using the Microsoft Management Console (MMC).

Your server should be configured with a static IP address. While this may seem obvious now, it will become an issue later: If your client’s WINS server evolves into a bigger network that uses DHCP, the server will become unavailable to the users if it is assigned a random IP address. The workstations on the network will continue to look for the server at its original address, not the newly assigned one.

For now, just remember that the WINS server needs a static IP address. (Note: Your server may already have had the following network settings configured at the time the Windows 2000 Server software was installed on the computer.)

Begin by double-clicking the Add/Remove Programs icon in the Control Panel. Select the Add/Remove Windows Components button and choose Networking Services from the Windows Components Wizard screen. Click the Details button and, in the Networking Services dialog box that appears, select Windows Internet Name Service (WINS); then, click OK. You’ll be returned to the Windows Components Wizard.

The wizard will prompt you for the Windows 2000 Server CD and, once it’s loaded, will copy the files needed to add the WINS component. After it’s finished, click OK to complete the installation. You now have WINS server installed.

To set up the WINS console for easy configuration and troubleshooting, go to Start | Run and type mmc in the Run dialog box (see Figure A).

Figure A


The MMC shell will open and you can set up a WINS manager from there. Open the Console menu and select Add/Remove Snap-in to open the Add/Remove Snap-in dialog box and then click the Add button. Select WINS from the list that appears in the Add Standalone Snap-in dialog box shown and click OK.

After you’ve created this console, you can return to your WINS management utility to tailor your WINS services. (As with the installation of Networking Services, this utility may already be available if WINS is enabled.)

Setup for WINS clients
After the network hardware (NIC, wiring, and hub) has been installed, the next step is to configure the individual machines to use WINS. You can set WINS up for use with Windows 9x, NT, and above. Let’s use a Windows 98 machine for this simple process.

First, set the IP address of your WINS server on each client machine. Right-click the Network Neighborhood icon on the client machine to reveal the context menu and select Properties to access the Network dialog box, shown in Figure B.

Figure B


On the Configuration tab, highlight TCP/IP and click on the Properties button. In the TCP/IP Properties dialog box, shown in Figure C, select the WINS Configuration tab, check the Enable WINS Resolution radio button, type in the IP address of the WINS server, and click the Add button.

Figure C


You may need to supply the IP address of the local machine if it hasn’t already been done and then click OK. You’ll be prompted to reboot to make the changes final, but don’t do it yet. Finally, go to the Identification tab on the Network dialog box and make sure the Computer Name and Workgroup text boxes are filled in as you want them to be known. Then, reboot the machine.

When you’re setting up the client and server machine with the TCP/IP protocol, make sure that NetBEUI protocol is also available. If it’s not in the Configuration tab with the other protocols, simply click the Add button and choose Protocol from the Select Network Component Type dialog box that appears. From this dialog box, click Add, which will produce the Select Network Protocol dialog box shown in Figure D.

Figure D


Highlight Microsoft in the Manufacturers window, NetBEUI from the Network Protocols window, and then click OK to install the protocol.

Let’s take a moment to review IP addressing. You can use any kind of IP addresses you want since you’re on a private LAN, but keep in mind that some IP addresses are reserved for private use. If and when your LAN goes into a more public mode, it will serve you in future implementations if you stick to that convention and use a reserved range such as 192.168.x.x and use 255.255.255.0 for your subnet mask. At that point, you’ll want to remove the connection to a WINS server and rely on TCP/IP as your LAN protocol.

As you go about setting up each machine, keep a record of the names and IP addresses of each of the machines. It might be useful to physically label each computer as a way to associate the machine with its settings. Be mindful, and more to the point, make your client mindful that there are more efficient ways to manage this process. The costs are invested up front and will minimize the pain of this very manual approach.

Testing
Return to the server machine and check to see if the machine you’ve made available on the network is registered with WINS yet. Open the WINS console, expand your server’s icon, and then right-click the Active Registrations folder. The context menu will appear; choose the Find By Name command and type in the name of your client machine, and the database of machines with IP addresses will appear in the left-hand window of the WINS console, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E


You can set up shared folders on the server and begin sharing documents as soon as everyone is on the network.

Security
Since you are running a closed network, internal security is the only issue you need to be concerned with for now. You can enforce security by password-protecting folders and distributing passwords to certain folks. For the short-term needs of your client, the LAN should serve nicely as long as your client has been properly schooled that they will probably outgrow this network.

Conclusion
Finally, give yourself a long weekend to a week for this network of 24 computers on a LAN. You’ll need to configure the server and the local machines and then test the individual machines and the network. You can figure that a large chunk of time will be spent pulling cable, which will depend on the physical challenges presented by the layout of the building. Once completed, your client and his or her employees should immediately see the benefits of using a network to accomplish their office tasks.

Of course, there are no guarantees that this job will eventually turn into a more involved project later, but you will have performed a good service for a good customer and in so doing built a closer relationship to make a long-term client.

What technological projects get you in the door?
You can’t always begin with a mission-critical IT project. What projects have you taken on so that the client will call you with more lucrative work later? Send us an e-mail or post your comments.

 
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