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ISSUE 548: April 25 2000


Hooking up a small network is now feasible for any office

Big-business computer users take for granted networks that share data and peripherals such as printers and provide everyone with constant e-mail and Internet access.
However, in smaller companies and home offices, too often each computer is an island unto itself, with several layers of problems preventing implementation of a network.
While all new Macs come with Ethernet networking hardware built in, this isn't true of most PCs. Cracking open the computer's case to install a networking adapter is, for most users, a daunting task.
Installing networking cable to connect the computers is easy if you don't mind another set of cords to trip over. Doing it right, so the cables are safely out of sight, is much more onerous.
Basic networking software is built into Windows. Setting it up is straightforward (you don't need to buy a dedicated server). But there are more details than most users feel comfortable tackling by themselves. This is another area that's still easier on a Mac. And until recently, additional software was needed to share Internet connections.
Lately it's become much easier to set up a small office or home network. Recent advances include:
* Universal Serial Bus, which is built into all new PCs and Macs. Looking like a squashed phone jack, USB allows for a wide range of hardware add-ons, including Ethernet network connectors, without the need to open the case or fuss with configuration
* Home Phone Line Networking. This new standard makes it possible to connect computers by plugging them into standard phone jacks, using the telephone wiring that's already in the wall to create a network. This is still evolving, however. When buying HPLN products, read the box carefully. There's an older standard running at 1 - 2 MB per second, and a newer HPLN-2 standard, allowing devices to run at the same 10 MB per second as standard Ethernet networks. Except for very minimal usage, the older standard is simply too slow. As well, most phone line networks cannot interconnect with existing Ethernet networks or de-
vices, making it difficult to, for example, use a network printer with a phone line network.
* Wireless connections are here, but still don't quite work as well (or as cheaply) as I'd like. I recently spent some time using Apple's iBook notebook and the company's Airport wireless system. Originally released along with the iBook, Apple has now added Airport-ability across its product line. I found that the system worked, allowing me to connect to my home network and the Internet without any wires while taking the notebook from room to room.
There were several qualifications, however. While usable, it was clear-
ly slower than the wired, standard Ethernet standard, even though Apple's claimed 11 MB/sec speed promises rates a bit faster than standard Ethernet.
As well, while it works well throughout a wood-frame house, the cement and metal frame in many larger office buildings or apartments can make connections difficult or impossible. (Kudos, though, to Apple for making wireless networking widely available and relatively affordable. Airport costs $150 for the add-in card and $450 for the UFO-looking base station. By comparison, 3Com Canada offers a similar system for PCs. It costs $1,793 for the "access point" and $329 per PC card.)
* Windows 98 Second Edition and Windows 2000 both include Internet Connection Sharing, making it possible to use a single Internet connection without buying additional software. You only need to upgrade to that operating system on the computer with the actual physical Internet connection. The rest of the computers can have other Windows versions or even be Macs.
3-Com Canada has a number of packages aimed at small office/home networks, under the HomeConnect brand name. I tested the $300 external Ethernet kit, which has everything needed to connect two computers. Included were a pair of USB adapters that easily plugged into the ports on the back of a PC, all the required cabling and a five-port mini-hub, making it easy to expand the system with additional computers. Also included was a copy of Windows 98 SE, which upgrades one of the computers for Internet connection sharing, and Microsoft HomeClick Network software, a program that takes most of the nerdiness out of
setting up a basic network. (Additional USB network adapters are about $110 each.)
While still relying on traditional Ethernet cabling, this kit is very well designed and makes it easy for smaller businesses to benefit from networking. *

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