Networking

Peer-to-peer networking for the entrepreneur, part 1

The small business owner is typically responsible for his or her own computing needs. In part one of this three-part Daily Feature series, Steve Pittsley explains how peer-to-peer networking can help flatten the learning curve.


So, you have decided to take the plunge into owning your own business. Regardless of what industry you are in, chances are you will need a computer to help run this business. If you have employees, you will need to share information, and running a floppy disk from one computer to the other doesn’t cut it anymore. What should you do? Create a peer-to-peer computer network.

If you are worried that setting up a computer network is a complicated task that only geeks can do, you’re wrong. If you are using some version of Microsoft Windows 95/98 software, all you need to do is physically connect the computers using network equipment. In this Daily Feature series, I will teach you the basics of peer-to-peer networking and then show you how to configure your computers so they can communicate with each other.

The pieces of the network puzzle
All computer networks have five common components. The first network component is at least two computers. Some networks may have hundreds or even thousands of computers, but to start, all networks must have at least two.

Inside each of the computers are network adapters—the second component necessary to form a network. A network adapter is nothing more than an additional component, like a sound card or video card. You can purchase these adapters and install them yourself, or if you are buying a new computer, you can request that they be installed for you. Installing one by yourself is not too difficult; if you can wield a screwdriver, you can install a network adapter.

The next components of the network are cables and a hub or switch to plug them in to. A hub or switch is a device that allows multiple network cables to physically connect to one piece of equipment. After installing your network adapter, plug the network cable in to it, just like you would plug in a telephone. This is an easy task if you have just a few computers in close proximity to each other. Each computer will have one end of a network cable plugged in to the network adapter and the other end plugged in to your hub or switch.

Once you have all of the computers physically connected to each other, you will need software to logically connect the computers and provide a method of communication among them. The communication method is called a protocol, and the software is referred to as client software. (I will delve into protocols and client software later in the series.) If you are running a version of Microsoft Windows, it already includes the client software you need to do peer-to-peer networking.

The final pieces of the network are peripherals. These are things such as printers, scanners, and modems. Using them is totally optional, but most businesses have at least one printer.

That’s about it. When you have installed and configured these five components, you should have a fully functioning network. If this sounds simple, that’s because it is. You do not have to be a computer expert to set up a peer-to-peer network, and you shouldn’t have to spend an exorbitant amount of time managing the network. After all, you have a business to run.

How computers talk to one another
As I said, computers communicate using software called protocols, which specify the rules for communication. This is no different than the method by which you and I are communicating right now. If you are reading this article, you understand the English language. If you didn’t know how to read English, you wouldn’t understand this article.

Communication protocols are similar, except instead of using English, they use something called Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP)—the language of the Internet. All computers that use the Internet use TCP/IP.

TCP/IP uses an addressing scheme that is not very different from our mail system. If you want to send me a letter, you would need to put the letter in an envelope with my address written on the outside of it. When computers use TCP/IP, they put data in a packet, along with the address of the destination computer, so the receiving computer will know that it should read the packet.

The address that TCP/IP uses is called an IP address, and it contains four numbers separated by periods. (For example, an IP address for my computer would look like 192.168.100.10.) Each number has a special meaning, just as the city, state, zip code, and house address does in our mail system. In the IP address, 192 can be though of as the city, 168 as the state, 100 as the zip code, and 10 as the street address.

Just as with our mail system, the city, state, and zip code can be the same, but the house address must be different for each destination. Using my IP address as an example, in TCP/IP, the 192.168.100 is called the network address, and the number 10 is the host address. For computers to communicate, they must have the same network address and a unique host address. Thus, computers with IP addresses of 192.168.100.10, 192.168.100.20, and 192.168.100.30 can all communicate with each other. However, a computer that is assigned an IP address of 197.50.200.10 would not be able to communicate with these computers unless there was some special networking equipment installed.

Well, that about covers what you need to know to get started employing a peer-to-peer networking solution. In part two, I will cover two phases critical to a successful implementation of a peer-to-peer network: equipment needs and software configuration. In part three, I will wrap it up with a discussion on TCP/IP configuration and a how-to on sharing files.

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