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ISSUE 552: The high tech office- May 23 2000

ALAN ZISMAN

Shared connections provide a low-cost link to the Net

A few issues ago, we looked at how it is becoming easier to set up a local area network for a small office. This allows users to easily share data and devices like printers, CD-writers, and more.

Another benefit of networks is shared Internet connections, allowing the whole office to get by on a single link to the Net. This is especially handy if you've got one of the new cable or DSL low-cost, high-speed connections.

Still, sharing an Internet connection can involve other complications and costs. Typically, it requires adding a second Ethernet adapter to the computer that's connected to the Internet.

If you're just setting up your network, you'll need a hub if you want to connect more than two computers and software to share the Net connection, unless you're using the latest versions of Windows 98 or Windows 2000, which have Internet connection sharing built in. You will also require software to provide some security for all those machines newly exposed to the rest of the world.

But there's a better way.

Linksys is a California company with a product line focusing on small office networking solutions. They have recently offered the EtherFast Cable/DSL Router (about $260), which offers a host of features to help connect a small office to a fast Internet connection.

While discussions of networking hardware tend to be rather dull, this one is worth reading about. First of all, the Linksys product is designed to connect a cable or DSL modem with a network. There's no more need to install a second network adapter in one of your computers. And it includes a four-port 10/100 switch. That means that you can plug up to four computers directly into it, sharing that Internet connection and accessing it at full speed.

If you have four or fewer computers to connect, you won't need a hub for your network. And switches such as this one offer much better performance than hubs. (Hubs divide the available bandwidth between the connected machines, while switches give each machine the full available speed.) That will speed both your Internet connections and all other network activities.

Most of the hubs bundled in home office starter networking kits run at the slower 10 Mb/sec. speed. This product operates 10 times faster, at the 100 Mb/sec. speed of most modern network adapters. Even so-called fast Internet access is much slower than this, but other network activities will immediately seem perkier.

All your connected computers share a single Internet address so there's no need to purchase additional addresses from your service provider. And even though the unit includes four ports, you can connect them to other hubs or switches allowing you to share Internet access with as many as 253 computers. The router can be set to automatically assign networking addresses, helping to simplify configuration.

At the same time, it acts as a firewall, protecting your networked computers from outside intruders. When I tested my computers on Steve Gibson's Shield's Up security-check Web site (www.grc.com), it reported that all testable ports were closed or hidden from hackers. (Of course, that won't help protect you from downloaded virus attachments. You should still keep anti-virus software running and up to date.)

The hardware was quite simple to set up and configure. After plugging it in, you connect to it with a Web browser and set its options. A few things to be aware of, however: There's a Setup Wizard disk in the box to make setup and configuration even easier, but there's no mention of it in the documentation.

The printed documentation is straightforward, but only covers Windows 95/98 users. NT/Windows 2000, Linux, or Mac users can also benefit from this product, but you're on your own in setting it up. (I had no problem connecting to it on both my Mac and Windows 2000 systems.)

Most users will have no need for the unit's advanced features, but if you do, Linksys does not offer tech support for those options. Again, you're on your own.

While writing these columns, I try out a lot of software and hardware. Few items have proven as immediately beneficial as Linksys's router. Within an hour of opening the package, my office network ran noticeably faster with tighter security. *

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