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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    You don't have to be big to enjoy the benefits of networking your computers

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #372, December 10, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    If your company is a large one, your computer is almost certainly connected to a local area network. But if you're in a smaller firm, or working at home, this likely isn't the case. Still, if there are two or more computers where you work, a basic network can be a useful thing to have.

    With a small network, you can do things like printing to a single laser printer or fax board from any machine; using a CD-ROM in one machine to install software onto the other computers; keeping a single copy of inventory, price lists, or other important documents, which can be read from any computer; and allowing several users working on a project to have access to their documents without needing to reconcile different versions.

    While small sites might find networks attractive, many have held back: computers seem complex enough on their own, and networks have a reputation of being expensive and difficult to set up and configure. Do you really need to pay a full-time network manager to keep one up and running?

    As in many other areas, the model of ease of use and simplicity for networking has been Apple's Macintosh computers. For years, all models came with built-in Appletalk networking interfaces: just plug in the cables, identify each machine, and bingo!--instant networking. Appletalk is slow, but more recent models have included faster, industry-standard Ethernet, allowing higher performance and easier connection to networked PCs.

    Recently, I created a network connecting the two Windows PCs in my basement in order to simulate what might be involved for a small office wanting to set up a basic network. The machines were a new Pentium and a 1993-era 486, both running Windows 95. I also installed Windows for Workgroups onto the 486.

    Since most PCs don't already have networking adapters, I had to purchase a pair. These can vary in price up to several hundred dollars each; I bought low-end clone models, looking for cards that emulated the standard NE-2000 models. Together, the two cards cost under $100, with the PCI-bus model for the Pentium a little more expensive than the ISA-bus model for the 486. Both cards claimed to support Windows 95's Plug and Play--an attempt to shield the user from having to deal with obscure PC settings like IRQ numbers (in other words, making PC hardware more like a Mac's).

    The next choice was cabling. Typical Ethernet networks either use cable that resembles TV coaxial cable, known as 10-base-2, or cable that resembles telephone cord, known as 10-base-T. The latter is more popular: the cable is more flexible and can be hidden more easily, and if one connection is broken, the rest of the network survives intact. But it requires an additional piece of hardware, as each machine needs to be connected to a central hub.

    For that reason, 10-base-2 is cheaper to set up, and the computers are simply strung together like a series of Christmas lights. Again, I chose cheap--$20 got me 25 feet of cable. A couple of bucks for a pair of terminators (you need one on each end of the cable run with coaxial).

    I had to open each machine, insert the networking card, connect the cabling and turn on the computers. The sometimes maligned Win95 Plug and Play automatically noticed that the adapters had been added, and offered to install drivers, either from the Win95 installation CD or from driver disks that came with the machines. No need to manually set jumpers on the cards or even identify the settings to the software.

    The next step, using the Control Panel, was to add networking client software--in this case, the so-called Microsoft Network Client (no relation to the Microsoft Network on-line service), and to give each machine a name and identify it as part of a workgroup. (Make sure all machines are members of the same workgroup.)

    One final step: identify the resources to be shared on each machine. With Win95, right-click on drives, directories, and printers, and from the pop-up menu, choose "Sharing." Otherwise, you'll have a network with nothing visible.

    Such a simple peer-to-peer network can relatively easily connect any combination of Win95, Windows for Workgroups and NT computers. DOS machines need Microsoft's $49 Workgroup Connection add-on to join in, while OS/2 users can use IBM's Warp Connect. For additional security, power, and flexibility with only a little extra complexity, Artisoft's Lantastic is worth a look: the new version 7.0 includes DOS, Win 3.1, and Win95 versions all in a single box, and adds nice modem and Internet-connection sharing features.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan