Peer-to-peer networking your home or small office computers

Paul Suiter explains the basic requirements for installing and maintaining a peer-to-peer network environment with Windows 9x.

Computers have become a major part of our lives. At some point, many of us buy new computers because the technology has moved ahead or because we don’t want to bother with upgrading. Well, if you have a lot of extra computers sitting around the house, you should consider networking them. Small businesses are using Windows 9x to provide networking capabilities at little expense. They’re able to share files, printers, and, in some cases, a single Internet connection. (Of course, multiplayer PC games are the real reason for networking.) In this Daily Drill Down, we’ll examine what’s involved in networking your home or small office computers.

Security issues
A small network (also known as a workgroup) for your home or office computers falls under the model of peer-to-peer networking. With Windows 9x, this type of network is ideal for around ten users. This limitation has more to do with security issues than with performance. With peer-to-peer networking, you’ll have only share-level access to other resources and files. As you add more users to the network, there will be additional issues, such as password sharing for the various resources and files. That’s why you should keep your network user size to around ten; it will be easier to manage network security.

Setting up your peer-to-peer network
When using Windows 9x, you can have one computer act as your main server/client or have all the computers act as server/clients. Your decision will depend on whether you want to have one centralized computer that will house all the files and resource sharing or to have all the computers maintain their own files and resources and just share information. Having one centralized computer is especially useful for small businesses. Information can be stored and accessed from a single location, thereby avoiding such problems as “Bob was out of the office.” Still, in a peer-to-peer type of network under Windows 9x, there has to be at least one computer acting as both server and client.

Networks can range in cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars. You can create a base network and build on it as your need increases. To start your network, you’ll need a couple of network interface cards (NICs) and some network cable. There are two main types of cable for use in networks: ThinNet and twisted pair.

ThinNet cable
ThinNet cable (also called thin Ethernet, 10Base2, or ThinWire) is a coaxial type of cable with a copper core that extends at each end and is inserted into a receptacle to complete a connection. (It’s similar to the cable that you use for your connection to your cable TV provider, except that it’s smaller in diameter.) The connector for ThinNet cable, called a BNC (British National Connector), provides a quick way to connect and disconnect the cable with a simple twist.

ThinNet connections are run in series. All computers are linked to one another through T-connectors, with the first and last computers using terminators at the empty end of the T-connector, which means that the computers rely on one another to maintain the network. If one computer goes down, then the whole network goes down. It can create difficulties when you’re trying to troubleshoot a network problem that could involve hardware. If there is a cable problem, it becomes very difficult to isolate. You’d have to connect pairs of computers one by one until the problem shows up with a pair. Then, you’d have to change cables to determine whether the problem existed in the cable connection or elsewhere within the machine.

ThinNet has some limitations. It’s only for use on Ethernet networks and won’t work with a token-ring setup. You also will see degradation in performance as you add more computers to the network because ThinNet does not support bi-directional communication, which means that computers cannot send and receive at the same time. Thus, as traffic increases, a slowdown in transfer times inevitably results.

Unshielded twisted pair cable
The second type of cable that’s used in networks has some advantages over ThinNet cable, but it’s also more expensive. Unshielded twisted pair (UTP), sometimes called CAT-5, is similar to the telephone wire that connects your telephone to the wall jack. Twisted pair uses four pairs of copper wires that are twisted together to form one large wire. This type of cable is not shielded and should not be used in an environment where the cable is susceptible to bombardment by powerful electrical fields, such as in some manufacturing plants.

The connectors for twisted pair cable—called RJ-45 connectors—are very similar to those used for your phone wire connection. Simply plug the connector into the computer and you’re ready. Each of the wires making up your cable has its own individual connection through the RJ-45 connector. This setup allows for bi-directional communication and is better suited for use when you have ten or more users on the network. Twisted pair also can be used for either a token-ring or Ethernet network. And it makes for better organization of the wires.

Only one connection is needed per computer when you use CAT-5 cable. Whereas two cables are needed to complete the connection to the T-connector of a ThinWire network, a network using twisted pair doesn’t force computers to rely on one another to keep the network together. Obviously, this type of network is better suited for expansion. Computers can be removed and added as necessary without disrupting the rest of the network.

The Ethernet structure
Ethernet networks are the common trend in the IT industry today. Within the Ethernet structure, there are two common connection speeds: 10 Mbps, called 10BaseT (the most common), and 100 Mbps, called 100BaseT (also known as Fast Ethernet). Base the type of hardware that you’ll use in your network on the speed of the connection you want and on how much you’re willing to spend. The slower connection of 10 Mbps will be the least expensive. You can purchase a 10BaseT (10Mbps) starter kit, which contains two networking cards, cables, and a four-port hub, for less than $200. This package is an excellent start for a home network. Of course, the more you spend, the better the product will be.

Businesses may need more than just a starter kit. To start off, a business may need to choose several types of networking cards. Many of the 10-Mbps cards have connections for both thin coax and UTP, which means that you can use them in different network environments and move them from a ThinNet environment to a 10BaseT environment without changing your network cards in the PC. In some cases, you may find that the network card is built into the motherboard itself. Generally, these are CAT-5 connection types (RJ-45) and can be used on both 10-Mbps and 100-Mbps network connections. You simply change its connection speed through the adapter’s software. Most 100-Mbps cards are strictly for RJ-45 connectors. There are only a few makers of RJ-45 and ThinNet connection network cards that run at the 100-Mbps connection speed. (3Com is one.) Be prepared to pay over $150 for each card.

When you use twisted pair with more than two computers, your connections will run through a hub, and each computer won’t be connected directly to another. Hubs also come in two connection speeds: 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps. Hubs designed for 10 Mbps are less expensive than the 100-Mbps hubs. If you choose the 100-Mbps hub, you can run both the 10-Mbps and 100-Mbps speeds—as long as the hub is auto-switching. If you’re running a mix of 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps, the hub will run at 10 Mbps, forcing all users to run at the slower rate to avoid bottlenecks.

Using hubs in your network removes the problem of each computer relying on the other to maintain the network. Each computer runs independently of the others, and if one has a cable problem, it does not affect the rest of the network. It also eases troubleshooting hardware problems. If one computer is having connection problems while the others are connecting properly, the problem PC has been isolated already and you know your starting point.

With hubs, you also can have several connection ports—from four ports to over 20. Since hubs are modular, you can connect one to another with what is called a crossover cable. This cable is designed to connect two hubs or two computers together and to allow them to communicate. The standard cable that’s used for connecting the PC to the hub would not work for this connection. On the crossover cable, the pairs of wires are in a different sequence on each end.

Networking has come to have several meanings, but the basis for all the meanings is connection. Our Internet, phone systems, businesses, and now our homes have been brought to a new level of connection. Using Windows 9x brings this connection ability right to our fingertips. Once, we thought that only large corporations could have a network of computers. Now, with a small purchase of network components, the average user or small business can connect in the same manner.

Paul Suiter received his first taste of the deadline rush as a photographer for the Montgomery Advertiser, where he earned four photography awards. After receiving degrees in economics and business management from Auburn University, Paul entered the college book business. After managing two bookstores for three years, Paul became a business analyst for EDS. Four years later, Paul continues with EDS, taking its equipment apart, while working with G3 switches and advanced imaging programs. But he’s finally getting back to one of his favorite pastimes—writing. (Of course, he also enjoys spending time with his wife and son.)

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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