Need to get a new network up and running quickly? Follow our step-by-step guide.
A computer network is an essential element of modern business, and it’s increasingly indispensable in the home, too. A network lets your computer connect to the Web so that you can check e-mail, update a website, or teleconference. It also lets you communicate locally with other computers on the same local network. Creating a network is simple—all that’s needed is to connect a computer to a router with an Ethernet cable. That’s a very rudimentary setup, however. You’ll need other components if you want to add multiple computers to your network, share files, stream multimedia, share a printer, or control which computers can access data on the network. And complexity increases if you decide that some links in your network will be made wirelessly. Fortunately, we’re here to assist. We’ve gathered together a list of all gear you’ll need to quickly and easily set up a home or small home-office network, and some key hints for getting it all to work together.
Choose a Wireless Router
You can’t have a home or small office network without a router. And for almost every network you’re likely to build these days, that means a combination of wired and wireless connections. A wireless router can provide both.
The router acts as a bridge between your home network (your local area network or LAN) and the Internet (the wide area network or WAN), and also allows all computers connected to it to share the connection. Your router also typically acts as your network’s DHCP server, enabling each device that you connect to have an individual and private IP address. This is vital if you need the devices on the network to communicate with each other. Wireless routers also have embedded firewalls to protect a network from threats and intrusion. Use WPA or WPA2 security for protecting your Wi-Fi network, and never leave the router’s administrator password at its default setting.
Routers are known for being notoriously complicated to set up, but units such as the $149 Cisco Valet Plus come bundled with special software that makes creating a network super simple. The one limitation with the Valet Plus is that it only operates on the 2.4-GHz band. If you plan to add a storage device, multimedia server, or your own Web server, you’ll want a router that supports the 5-GHz band and that has Gigabit Ethernet ports for speedy wired connections.
A dual-band (i.e., 2.4- and 5-GHz) router such as the $169 D-Link DIR-825 Xtreme N Dual Band Gigabit facilitates faster throughput for demanding tasks such as sharing files and streaming video. Remember, the 5-GHz band won’t make an Internet connection faster. Web speeds are controlled by your ISP and your local telecom (or cable) infrastructure. If you’re shopping for a speedier ISP, read Internet Speed Test: The Fastest ISP in the U.S. 2010. What using the 5-GHz band can do, however, is make your internal network peppier.
Choose a Networking Standard
Another important consideration is which wireless networking standard to go with. All of the latest routers, wireless devices like the iPad, and even desktops such as the Apple mac Mini are shipping with the 802.11n networking standard (or just “N” for short). If all the devices on your network support N—best practice warrants running your network in N mode (done through the router’s settings). N devices have theoretical maximum transfer rates of 540 Mbps— faster than legacy standards, b and g. However, you won’t actually see 540 Mbps due to interference, overhead, and other factors, but you will get better throughput in your network.
Of course, you may have older devices that don’t support the N standard. This won’t be a problem with connectivity; devices that are only 802.11 b and g capable can still connect to wireless-N routers, provided the router is set to operate in “Mixed Mode.” Keep in mind though; an older device connecting at b or g can slow down the entire network. If you can swing it, upgrade your devices and adapters to N. This will let you take advantage of the 5-GHz band, if you’re using your network for streaming multimedia or sharing other large files.
Wire Your Network
A laptop, desktop, or other device transmits data faster over a wired Ethernet connection than a wireless connection, particularly when you’re transferring or streaming large multimedia files. Ethernet cables usually come with NAS drives, routers, and gaming consoles. Still, you may need to purchase extras as your network expands and you want to wire more devices via Ethernet.
All Ethernet cable nowadays is Cat5, but there’s also Cat5e, Cat6 and Cat7. Which one do you choose? As mentioned earlier, if you have devices that use Gigabit Ethernet (also denoted as 10/100/1000) you need to use Cat5e. Cat5 only supports Fast Ethernet (or 10/100) networks, so if you want devices that are wired to a Gigabit Ethernet to take advantage of the 1 GBps speed, you need to use Cat5e. Most Ethernet cable sold in retail stores these days is Cat5e anyway, though. Cat6 and 7 are certified for Gigabit Ethernet transmission, they’re more expensive than Cat5e, and unnecessary in the typical home or small-business network they have special shielding and can transmit over longer distances than you’re likely to need.
Cat5e cables can be purchased from big-box stores like Best Buy and will run anywhere from $14-$30 bucks depending on the length.
Powerline adapters can be used in places where you can’t or don’t want to run Ethernet cables. Powerline adapters extend your network connection via electrical outlets. They are offered by an increasing number of vendors. Plaster Networks’ PLN3 adapters are available in a 2 adapter starter kit for $149.90. D-Link offers a powerline starter kit for $160.
Devices connected via Powerline adapters are somewhat slower performers than wireless and Cat5 wired devices. But, it’s a cheap and simple way to connect devices throughout a home, as there’s no need for extra cabling and there’s no additional electrical costs. Some users have complained that when they use electrical devices in their homes, devices connected to the powerline adapter often suffer performance degradation, but we are seeing more robust adapters such as those mentioned above.
Pick the Right Client Adapters
Each computer connecting to your network needs a wireless adapter in order to pick up the Wi-Fi signal if you don’t want your computer wired to the router; out of the box, most laptops and other Web-ready devices have built-in wireless adapters. Servers and other devices utilize network Ethernet ports, which are also usually built-in. If the object that you’re trying to connect to your network has neither, you can purchase a USB wireless adapter, or wireless adapter card.
A device such as the $69.99 Cisco Linksys AE1000 High Performance Wireless-N Adapter is a good selection. It’s optimized for Cisco products, but can be used with any vendor’s router. It also supports legacy 802.11 b and g.
If you don’t want to use a USB port for an adapter, then you may want to check out the $42.95 Cisco-Linksys WPC600N Ultra RangePlus Dual-Band Wireless-N PC Card, which slips into a computer’s PC card slot.
There are also several good adapter choices for desktop computers that snap into the PCI slot. For example, the $79.99 D-Link’s DWA-522 Xtreme N Desktop Adapter has three external antennas to give a desktop superior Wi-Fi performance.
Consider Switches and Hubs
The typical router has four Ethernet ports for wiring computers, storage devices, gaming consoles, and servers. If your network setup requires additional ports, you can purchase a switch. Wiring either to a router gived you more ports, which lets you add more devices and clients (known collectively as nodes) to your network as well. While the 3Com OfficeConnect Gigabit PoE Switch, is a good product, may be overkill for a home or small office. A good, cheaper option is the $49.99 Netgear ProSafe 5-port Gigabit Ethernet Switch. You can also opt for a hub, which offers similar functionality but lacks a management interface.
Manage Homegroups in Windows 7
After you’ve set up your network, you have to manage it by adding users, files, folders, and printer sharing options. Fortunately, Windows 7 has built-in functionality for managing a small network, so you don’t need to make any extra purchases. You can create a Homegroup in a couple of clicks, and other Windows 7 PCs can join it to share Libraries (folders that store specific data like images, music, or documents).
Homegroup setup takes just a few steps. First, simply open the Control Panel. Under Network and Internet click on Choose homegroups and sharing options. Click the Create a homegroup button. For each computer you want to connect to the Homegroup, go to that machine and follow the same steps. Instead of selecting Create, however, select for Join a homegroup. Now you can share printers and files. Simple!
If one or more of the computers that you want to connect to the Home Group isn’t running Windows 7, don’t fret; there are other ways to achieve sharing and control permissions on a small network. You can share folders by right-clicking on each folder you want to share in either XP, Vista, or Windows 7 and selecting Properties and then the Sharing tab. Choose the users in the network you want to give access to the folder, as well as the permission level you want to give them: Read only, or Read/Write. Users access the folders you have shared from their machines via the machine name the folder resides on and the folder name. For example, on my computer named CLIENT1; I have created a shared folder which I named Music. Those to whom I give permission can access the folder by typing the following into the Run or Search window: “\\CLIENT1\Music”.
When you have a network setup where each computer shares files and folders with the others, this is what is known as a “peer-to-peer” network, which is what Windows 7 Homegroups is all about. If, instead, you plan on having more users, say for a small business network, and want to store data in a central location and exercise more control over who accesses what, you want to set up a “Client/Server Network.” You can set up this type of network with a traditional Windows or Mac OS X server running your network, or with a NAS device as described in the next sections.
A server is one of the most basic ways to control your network and set up file sharing. However, it may not be a necessity for small networks. Many of today’s NAS devices can act as a network server (more on that later).
When would you choose a server? If you’re brand-new to networking, sticking with the familiar interface of Windows or Mac OS X[link to snow leopard review] (which servers use) may be easier than diving in and learning the UI of a NAS device. Also, if you’re running a business and need a customized Web or e-commerce server, you will have more flexibility and granular control with your own server than with the built-in services that typically come with most NAS devices.
The $999 Apple Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server is an excellent server for a small home or SOHO network. It’s easy to set up, even for those who lack server experience. It can perform network duties, and works well with Windows client machines, so you won’t have problems accessing files. Microsoft’s Windows Home Server features similar functionality as the Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server, and it may prove a better option for those accustomed to the familiar Windows interface.
Get Network-Attached Storage (NAS)
As mentioned, a NAS device can also function as a server; the great thing about a NAS is that everything is already set up for you, you just have to configure your settings and services. If you don’t want to bother setting up a server, there are many NAS drives on the market that not only provide extra storage, but can double as FTP, Mail and Web servers (although without the level of customization a traditional server offers). Another difference between a NAS box and a server is that you can control user logins, groups and permissions for the entire network from a server. With a NAS device, users and permissions are usually limited to controlling access to the NAS and data that resides on it. That, however, may be all that a small network requires, so in many cases a NAS will suffice.
Confused? Manufacturers do their best to make the situation worse, unfortunately: many NAS drives are branded “Home Servers.” The $599 Lenovo IdeaCentre D400 Home Server is a prime example. The IdeaCentre actually comes with Windows Home Server installed on it. But the design with the boxy enclosure, easily removed drives, and no way to add a keyboard and mouse, make this a NAS—it’s clear, however, that the line is getting blurrier all the time. The IdeaCentre provides just under 2 TB of storage as well as the means to create User Accounts, backup jobs and, of course, file sharing. The only downside is that the $599 MSRP may be a little pricey for the typical start-up home network.
USB-based NAS drives such as the $139 Editors’ Choice wining Pogoplug may not have the deep feature sets, but they’re incredibly easy to set up, and allow file-sharing via the Internet at a wallet-friendly price. In addition, the four USB ports give considerable USB storage capacity as you can hook up the drive to external storage drives.
NAS devices often offer sophisticated options (just like traditional servers).You can set up RAID on most of them for improved performance, or for fault tolerance. What does fault tolerance mean? RAID can provide disk mirroring, which gives data redundancy in that data gets “mirrored” from one drive to another. With a multi-disk HDD-based NAS device, if one disk fails (and one will, eventually) RAID fault-tolerance means your data isn’t lost.
Get Power Surge Protection
Once your home network is in place, you have to start thinking like a network administrator. This means recognizing that disaster will strike, be it a power spike, data corruption, or a failed hard drive. Being proactive about a recovery plan can help you weather the storm.
At the very least you’ll need to invest in power surge protectors for your equipment. Once of the most common causes of equipment failure is power surges. If you’re running a small home business and your server goes down, it could cost you precious time and money. Consider a protector such as the APC Back-UPS HS, which features surge protection, and battery backup in case of an outage. It can also be remotely managed from a Web browser.
Plan for the Worst
Backup plans are the most critical element of your network. You’ve got to protect your data, whether it’s your precious personal pictures and home videos or critical business data. Schedule regular backups of your data. Also, periodically test your backup system’s restore capabilities to ensure that the backups are valid and free from any data corruption.
There are of course, several ways to back up your network’s data. Most NAS devices have robust backup capabilities which are relatively easy for anyone to setup. Windows servers also have a built-in back-up feature, and Mac, of course, offers Time Machine[link to time machine review]. You can set up your own local backup system given enough external storage space. If you’re going to take this course, we recommend creating not just a backup, but a whole drive image—that is, a backup of not just your data, but your entire PC—everything from your files to all the tweaks you make to your OS and apps so that they perform the way you want them to. The best software for this, hands down, is ShadowProtect Desktop 4.0.
Additionally, there are backup solutions out there that use the Internet for your storage—a great option if you have a peer-to-peer network and no NAS or server for storage. Online backups have the further advantage that, since they’re not local, your data is safe even if a local disaster like a flood or fire completely destroys all your on-site storage. Check out our feature on Easy Online Backupto get started. Our current favorite service is SOS Online Backup.
These are the key ingredients for establishing a small home or business network. In fact, they’re the basic building blocks for a network of any size: a network as described above is just a scale model of any computer network—even those in huge enterprises. You can add complexity and size to a network, but once you’ve got your home or small-business network set up, you’ve mastered the basics of setting up any size network.