Get wired into networking

Building a Local Area Network (LAN) is not the daunting prospect it once was. If you’ve got a twisted pair over NIC cards or don’t know a switch from a LAN card, then fear not. From the basic internet connection sharing network to an ‘all-in-one’ gateway package, a good LAN set-up is within the reach of all Windows readers.

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By  Andrew Picken Published  June 2, 2003

Introduction|~||~||~|Building a Local Area Network (LAN) is not the daunting prospect it once was. If you’ve got a twisted pair over NIC cards or don’t know a switch from a LAN card, then fear not. From the basic internet connection sharing network to an ‘all-in-one’ gateway package, a good LAN set-up is within the reach of all Windows readers.

The majority of users seriously considering LANs will fit into the Small Office Home Office (SOHO) category. For the SOHO user, the cost/benefit ratio is an important factor and we will guide you through the various options that are available in the LAN market before taking you through a step-by-step guide to actually installing your own LAN. But we’re not forgetting the gamers and enthusiasts looking for a simple, inexpensive set-up.

A LAN is the most basic form of networking and involves linking a number of computers, located in a reasonably small geographic location, to each other. LANs require both the hardware to connect the computers together and software to make sure all the elements in the network are talking to each other.

The basic LAN will contain some of the following elements: a switch or hub, network cables, router, network interface cards and the PCs to be networked. The switch, router and software will sometimes be housed within one box, called a gateway. Ethernet is the most widespread type of LAN architecture and you will more than likely find it in its adapted forms 10 or 100Base-T Ethernet, which are much faster than the original.

For the home set-up, it’s probably easiest and most cost effective to opt for a peer-to-peer LAN. This offers the ability to share network devices such as printers, and also allows access to other networked PCs. These resources can be utilised by everyone on the network rather than by individuals, and this can work out cheaper. Another advantage of opting for a LAN is that all the PCs on the network can share a single, fast internet connection.
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A peer-to-peer LAN differs from the average large office set-up where most of the PCs will be connected to a central computer or server. Networking your computers also gives you scope for setting up an intranet, an internal version of the internet that sits on your LAN and can host information that needs to be shared between the users on the LAN.

In terms of productivity, a LAN introduces a more flexible way of working, allowing people easier access to shared data. Scalability is always a key factor for the small businesses and most LANs have the capacity for around 250 users, allowing you comfortable leverage for adding new users.

On a smaller scale, there are other options for those who want to set up a LAN. In all PCs with Windows 98 and above you will find the Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) tool. This enables you to connect one computer to the internet, and then share the internet service with several computers on your home or small office network. The network setup wizard in Windows XP Professional will automatically provide all of the settings you need to share one Internet connection with all the computers in your network.

ICS is a software version of a router and requires you to have two network cards in your computer, one for the internet connection and one for the LAN. Although simple to set up, ICS can slow your connection down and it might be a cleaner, though more expensive option, to buy a physical router or switch.

Still on a cost-saving tip it’s also possible to buy cheap firewall software, such as McAfee Firewall 4.0, for as little as $40 or even download one, such as Zone alarm, free from the internet. Further up the firewall food chain, you will find hard-wired firewalls or if you’re purchasing a gateway you will find that a firewall comes integrated with the gateway.
||**||SOHO users|~||~||~|

Small businesses have a broad range of considerations when deciding between a wired or wireless set-up. An important consideration when deciding on a wired LAN is cabling. Twisted pair cabling, which is a cable that consists of two independently insulated wires twisted around one another, is a popular, and more cost effective, option than coaxial or fibre optic. A typical wired LAN has built in capacity for around 250 users, a capacity not afforded to wireless LANs (WLANs), which usually only accommodate around 32 users. It’s important to note that LANs and WLANs do not have to work independently of each other and are fully compatible.

As our WLAN security feature illustrates, WLAN security is certainly the hot topic of the moment and network security is probably the biggest concern for potential WLAN buyers. Although hackers will be less interested in the WLAN of a home user than a corporation, it is still an issue that needs serious consideration.

When installing your WLAN, ensure that that you enable all of the available security options or you might find your neighbours accessing your WLAN and more importantly, the internet connection that you pay for. The most common WLAN security protocol is Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and this is designed to provide the same level of security as that of a wired LAN. Other security features such as hacker pattern detection and network address translation conceal your wireless LAN from outside intrusion and are commonplace on most WLAN access points and routers.

Another factor in favour of the WLAN is that the next generation of notebooks, such as the Intel Centrino range, all feature wireless network capabilities (The 802.11b standard). The majority of WLAN set-ups today also configure to the standards of the Wi-Fi industry, which is pushing the use of public wireless internet connections, known as hotspots. As this technology is fairly new you might find that most of your equipment will need either a WLAN PC card, wireless access point or PCI card (for desktops) fitted. A bonus of opting for a WLAN is the advantage of having no need for drilling or cables being laid, a definite advantage for the more dynamic office or home space.
||**||Weighing up the options|~||~||~|

The beauty of going for the ‘all-in-one’ LAN package is that it only requires a minimal amount of fiddling with hardware, as most of the activity occurs on the configuration side. What’s more, everything you need to get started is included in one box, so you should be able to set up and get started in less than fifteen minutes. If you decide upon a simpler, cheaper set-up then you will be able to find everything you need in your local computer shop or online.

It is possible to have a network without an internet connection, but the majority of LAN or WLAN set-ups will require internet access. Throughout the Middle East region there is a wide range of internet connections, with ADSL broadband an increasingly popular option and the best choice for effective networked internet access.

If you decide on a WLAN, your PC or laptop will require an additional wireless LAN or PCI card unless your PC or notebook already has wireless technology built in.

LAN cards are simple slot-in devices and you have the choice between a wireless LAN PC Card or the wireless LAN PC Card with the XJack Antenna. The difference between the two is that the normal LAN card sticks out permanently, for WLAN reception purposes, but the XJack Antenna places the LAN card on a spring so it can be discreetly hidden when not in use, handy for notebook users on the move.

You now have the background to networking computers, lets now get to grips with a step-by-step guide to installing a LAN or WLAN. For the purposes of our workshop we used the ‘all-in-one’ WLAN and LAN packages from 3Com mentioned in the table below. The 3Com kit is more geared towards the small business and it was the ‘least hassle’ option for us. It must be stressed, however, that it is not essential to have gateway in order to build a successful LAN.
||**||Hardware installation|~||~||~|

1.For both the WLAN and LAN, plug the power adapter into the power adapter socket located on the back panel of the gateway and also plug in the power adapter into the electrical socket on the wall.

2.For those installing the WLAN, consider the position of the base station. The realities of going wireless mean there are going to be inevitable reception dead spots.

3. For the LAN set-up, use the supplied cable to connect the gateway’s Ethernet Cable/DSL port to your Cable/DSL modem. Ensure that your modem is connected to the internet and switched on.

4.For those installing a LAN, connect your computer to one of the 10/100 LAN ports on the gateway using the Ethernet cable.

For both set-ups it is best to connect all the computers you wish to add to your network at this point, though it is possible to save the configuration you create and add it onto any new devices connected to the network at a later point.

5. For both the WLAN and LAN, switch on the gateway and wait for the Alert LED to stop flashing. Check that the Cable/DSL Status LED is illuminated.

6. For both set-ups, switch on your computer and once it’s ready to use, check that the LAN Port Status LED is illuminated.
||**||Configuration|~||~||~|

The 3Com devices that we used in our workshop all came with a comprehensive wizard tool that takes you through each step of the installation. You should find this feature on most good ‘all-in-one’ LAN or WLAN set-ups. The wizard tool for both products that we used in our workshop was virtually identical for both LAN and WLAN gateway set-ups.

1. Ensure that you have at least one computer connected to the gateway.

2. The majority of wizard tools are internet based, so launch your web browser on the computer and enter the URL of your gateway into the address box of your browser.

3. Log into the system, be sure to set up a new password for security reasons and adjust the time settings.

4. The next step involves your auto-configuration settings. If the gateway is able to detect a PPPoE, the specification for connecting the users on a LAN to the Internet, or DHCP server, a protocol for assigning dynamic IP addresses to devices on a network, on its ethernet Cable/DSL port then it will offer you the option of configuring its internet settings automatically, do this.

5. The ‘internet addressing mode’ window is next and allows the gateway to configure your internet connection. The vast majority of users will have dynamic IP addressing and their ISP will provide the IP address.

6. Next up is the Media Access Control (MAC) address, this is the hardware address that uniquely identifies each element of a network. It’s best to let the wizard tool pick this automatically.

7. The LAN settings screen displays the gateway’s current IP address and subnet mask. If this is the first time the wizard tool has been run it will display the default address and subnet mask. Windows recommends that you use the default IP address and subnet mask unless you already have a network that uses a different set of values.

8. Most gateways will contain a DHCP server that can automatically configure the TCP/IP settings of every computer on your network. It’s a good idea to activate the DHCP server and leave it set at the default values unless you already have a DHCP server on your network. To activate the DHCP server option on the models we used, all it required was to select ‘enable the DHCP server’ option.

9. When you complete the setup wizard, a configuration summary will be displayed. It is a good idea to print this out, or at least take a note of the settings for future reference. Good luck with your LAN!
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