Here’s a cool tool you might not be able to do without. Imagine your own LAN feeding off a single device providing router, firewall, gateway, and switch services. Then, imagine that device in use on your home LAN, since it costs less than $200.
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I know it sounds too good to be true, but I’ve tested it, and it works. Beautifully, too, I might add.

If you’re preparing for certification exams, or wanting to test network and server configurations from the comfort of your own home, Linksys makes a line of routers you need to check out.

The official scoop
Officially, the Linksys four-in-one devices are marketed as Instant Broadband EtherFast Cable/DSL Routers. They are available in single-port, four-port, and eight-port versions.

The single-port and four-port versions retail for $129.99 and $179.99, respectively, at a national brick-and-mortar chain. The new eight-port version retails for approximately $230. But I was able to purchase my four-porter online for less than $155, including overnight delivery. In fact, got it to my door in about 12 hours. Not too shabby.

The biggest benefit
If you believe the marketing, the chief benefit of these EtherFast routers is that they let you share a single IP address among multiple computers. That’s particularly handy if you’re using a broadband connection at home. All that’s required is a cable or DSL modem and high-speed access.

If you ask me, the biggest benefit from the router is the fact that I gain a firewall for my “always on” connection, a 100-Mbps switch, and the freedom to use whatever domain or workgroup naming convention I want behind my firewall. Previously, I had to use the @Home workgroup name and a unique computer name supplied by the ISP. When these values were changed, I was unable to connect to the Internet. No more.

How’s it work?
The router is simple to configure. The Linksys device features an easy-to-use yet powerful browser interface.

You can configure WAN and LAN settings using a browser interface.

Assuming you have network adapters in each of your machines, installation and configuration is a snap. It took me nine minutes to get the Linksys up and running on my test LAN. And that was five minutes too long.

In an effort to save processor cycles, I’d turned off many Windows 2000 services. As I hadn’t been using DHCP, it had been turned off. However, the EtherFast Cable/DSL Router uses DHCP to feed 192.168.x.x addresses to the LAN set up behind it. I discovered the stopped DHCP service about five minutes into the install, corrected it, and voila: I was up and running.

Previously, I’d had two machines set up using a plain vanilla 10-Mbps hub. Only one had Internet access, and it was getting hit daily by port scans and port probes. Now both machines boast Internet access, they’re secure from hacker attacks, and they can talk to one another 10 times faster.

A sample LAN configuration using the Linksys EtherFast router

Using the device’s uplink port and hubs you supply, the four-port EtherFast router can support up to 253 users. You probably wouldn’t want to put that many users behind it on a cable or DSL connection, but knowing you can should make you feel good about using it with three or four test machines.

If you’ve built a small LAN for testing software and practicing for certification exams, you’ll find the Linksys a welcome addition. It sports traditional RJ-45 jacks and supports both dynamic and static IP addressing.

Using the Web-based interface, you can configure port forwarding, PPPoE, and IPSec connections. You can also elect to place one of your machines outside the firewall as a “DMZ Host.”

Other options
Similar routing devices designed for cable and DSL applications are available, but I haven’t had a chance to try them. Your other options include the following:

Expect to pay $150 on up for any of these models. You’ll find each offers similar features and technology, as all of them rely upon Network Address Translation (NAT) to extend Internet access to additional machines using a single IP address purchased from an ISP.
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