--Alan Zisman

Proxy servers allow the smallest of companies
to connect multiple employees to the Internet

Large organizations have had networks for years, using them to share hardware such as printers, access centrally stored files and databases, and send messages across the network to co-workers.

Smaller businesses have also started catching on to the advantages of local networks, especially as the cost drops and the ease of use increases. Now it's not unusual for even home-based businesses to network three or four computers.

Lately, companies of all sizes have been looking at offering Internet access to everyone on their network. And that's when things start to get complicated -- and expensive.

Part of the problem for smaller networks is that standard network software doesn't let you share modems the same way you share disc drives and printers. As well, you may be opening up the network to penetration by outsiders.

Traditionally, that has meant that small companies wanting to offer employees Internet access ei-ther had to put a modem and phone line on every desk -- at great initial and ongoing ex-pense -- or go out and buy a $10,000 special network server.

But now there is a solution with what are known as "proxy servers." These can be relatively inexpensive, relatively simple to install pieces of software.

I looked at Webetc from Technocratix Inc. ( It runs on Windows 95 and NT 4.0 computers, though once installed, it will happily share a single Internet connection with other types of computers. The CD comes with client software for other Windows machines. And on the Mac that is networked with my PCs, all I needed to do was to go to the options for Netscape Navigator, Eudora Mail and my other Internet software and click on the "Use Proxy Server" item, and I was set up. (Well, I did need to enter the TCP/IP networking address for the machine that was running the server software.)

This done, the proxy server will work invisibly in the background. When I open Navigator on one of the network machines, for example, Win 95's Dial Up Networking opens up on the server machine and connects to my Internet Service Provider. Within half a minute or so, it's connected and the client machine is on the Internet. Exit Navigator and a few minutes later, the server machine hangs up.

It all works smoothly, using minimal resources on the server machine (which could have someone working on it all the time). Inevitably, having multiple people sharing a single modem connection divides up the available speed, but this is less noticeable than you might imagine: While you're reading one previously downloaded page, someone else can be getting a page at full speed. Five users or more can share a single modem and all can share a single Internet account.

At the same time, the proxy server provides basic firewall protection. That allows your users to reach out via the Internet, but keeps anyone from using the Internet to reach into your internal network.

Webetc allows up to 20 connections, and costs about $215. A Pro version allows unlimited connections and additional administration options. It supports connections with standard modems, ISDN lines, cable modems and more. A free, 30-day trial version is available from the Web site. Rec-

Of course, if you allow access to the Internet on all your computers, what are your employees going to be accessing? We'd all like to assume that our co-workers and employees are mature and responsible, but seemingly free and unlimited Internet access can be very alluring.

Ironically, in the U.S. recently, a number of employees fired for improper use of the company Internet access retaliated by suing their former employer, claiming that they had been exposed to the potentially addictive Internet without proper training.

For an employer bringing the Internet into a workplace, a little common sense goes a long way. Only make the Net available to employees who actually need it for their jobs. Have a clear policy regarding acceptable use and make sure that your employees know what it is.*

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