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Technology Today - August 2001

 

Home Networking

Probably the thing that will be one of the fastest growing segments of the computer industry this year will be home networking. With broadband access now a reality to nearly everyone including us inner city folks, we find that more and more of us are now getting on the internet at high speed and we also want to get everyone else in the house connected as well. And as it seems, we are just at the right time and place as there are a ton of alternatives out there to help us all get connected. For many of you corporate types, the Ethernet network has always been the way to go but in a home, it is not often that easy to string Cat5 cabling around. If you have not done it before, let me tell you, stringing cable is not easy and so I spent some time recently looking for alternatives and I was quite surprised to see what is available.

But why network a home? For many reasons. Did you just get a cable modem or DSL connection in your house and do you have others that want to use that blazing fast connection at the same time you do on their own computer? Do you have more computers than you do printers and want to save the effort of having to copy a file to diskette and taking it to someone else’s computer to print? What about backup? Have you read the stories about crashing hard drives or worse, stolen computers, and want to back up your files? For those of you with multiple computers in the home, the pressure will get to you one of these days and then you will be with the rest of us, wondering how to do it.

I will get to the alternatives shortly, but I think that when you have looked over all the choices, you will still find that Cat5 Ethernet is still the network and cable of choice for speed, reliability, and stability and support. So the first thing to do when deciding that you want a network in your home is to first determine, how many connections you will need to have and where they are in the home. If all you have is just two computers in the same room and can easily run a cable between them, then the simplest approach is to put network cards in each computer, get a Cat5 “Crossover” cable, and connect the two computers together. An even simpler approach is to look at a package like Laplink, which come with software and a cable, and you don’t even have to get inside the computer. But for our purposes here, I am going to assume that you have more than two computers located in different rooms in the house.

Now, as we talk about networking, whether it is phone line, Ethernet, power line or the like, remember that there will always be networking software that needs to be installed and set up. It will always be provided to you, or in the case of Ethernet, built into Windows, and can be a real pain to setup, but for this article, this is as far as I will go in discussing the software. Why? Because there are books, courses, and all sorts of literature and web sites devoted to setting up a network and we can take all day discussing it.

A short paragraph on Ethernet Networking is needed here for those of you that don’t know what it is. In short, an Ethernet network requires Ethernet networking interface cards (NIC) installed in each computer that is on the network. To connect the networks, you need to run Cat5, or Category 5, cabling from each computer to a central location that has a networking hub or traffic controller installed. As I mentioned above, Ethernet networking software is already built into Windows so all you need to do is to acquire the hardware and cabling and possibly the help to get it setup. And that is essentially it. I have ignored many of the Ethernet options like Token Ring and Coax for the reason that for a home network, you really shouldn’t be considering them, they are older technologies with limited support going forward. Ethernet networks also come in several flavors for Linux, Novell, and Lantastic and I won’t go into them as well. Finally, Ethernet for large companies usually comes with servers and the like and for a home network, we will just stick with peer to peer. Again, no additional hardware is needed.  I also mentioned that Ethernet is fast with typical networks running at either 10 megabits per second (mbps) or 100mbps.  The future of Ethernet looks very good and in fact, there will soon be a high-speed gigabit Ethernet running at 1000mbps and we haven’t even talked about fiber optic networks.

So, if you are not building a new home, or like Rollie, gutting your existing home, and running new cabling for Cat5 Ethernet is out of the question, then you still have some pretty good alternatives.

The first is home telephone wiring networking. Home Phone wiring networking uses the existing telephone lines in your home for your local area network.  It is fairly straightforward to setup, just run a telephone cord from your computer to the wall jack. You will need a way of connecting it to your computer and that can be done with either a card installed inside your computer or in some cases, a USB connected device. You don’t have to worry about a hub or controller and the cost is pretty reasonable at around $180 for three computers.  You may have some problems with the physical connections as there are things to do if you have a modem, or telephone attached to the system but usually it is pretty straightforward. The most common problem is that there isn’t a phone outlet near the computer. It is also a slow connection at around 1 mbps, even though the companies advertise rates much faster. And finally, reliability is an issue with disconnects and not being able to find another computer a problem. There are many products on the market from companies like 3Com, Netgear, and Intel and there is an industry association at www.homepna.org. They are moving ahead with a new standard to be out some time soon with promised speeds up to 10mbps.

A second alternative comes from the electrical wiring inside your home. Again, an advantage is no new wiring and usually you have an electrical outlet in every room. There is no need for a hub or controller and the speeds are quite good at around 14mbps. The problem with home electrical wiring is that there are very few products on the market. There is an industry group getting started at http://www.homeplug.org/and they have just issued a new standard available just in May of this year. So until the new standards and new products are out, reliability and interference from other sources is an issue. Also as I mentioned, the only products I have found are from Intellon, at www.intellon.com. Cost at this point is around $300 for three computers.

A third alternative, though quite a bit more money, is wireless. A problem here is that there are multiple issues and standards clogging the works. The two main ones at this point are based on Home RF (Radio frequency), and the IEEE standard, 802.11b that is again, a new standard and I would stick with it. Advantages of wireless are that there are no wires to worry about and it is easy to add computers to the network.  Disadvantages to wireless in general is the expense of the equipment, the fact it is fairly easy for hackers to tap into the network, and it can suffer interference problems.

Lets start with the 802.11b standard, which I think will be the choice going forward for wireless. It is much faster than other wireless alternatives at 11mbps versus the current standard of 1.6mbps. There are many companies supporting this standard like Dlink, Netgear, and others. The cost of this kind of network is expensive with three computers costing you just under $1,000. You are also limited in range but for most homeowner’s I don’t think that will ever be an issue unless your garage is more than 300 feet from the house.

The other wireless option today is HomeRF with an effective speed between 1.6 and 10mbps. Today it is primarily supported by Intel with their Home Anypoint network and has just a 150 foot range. It will though integrate both voice and data in the network as it incorporates DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telephony).  It is also much more reasonably priced at around $300 for three computers.

You will also hear about Bluetooth, http://www.bluetooth.com/and it has a very vocal and large following but unfortunately doesn’t have much in the way of products. Kind of reminds me of the OS/2 days. Bluetooth is a very short range point to point way of connecting devices to your computer and I really don’t think they are even looking at the networking business from the traditional standpoint of file sharing, internet access, and the like. It is an interesting technology with a lot of products promised.

The last alternative to look at uses the existing cable TV cable that is in your home and I am a bit surprised that the cable companies don’t get in on this product. Cabling can be an issue as most homes that are wired for cable just have one or two access points for cable so it could be a problem. An advantage here though is the speed as it is the fastest available running at cable speeds up to 1,000mbps. Several Comdex’s ago, I saw one company with products and they are still with us at www.peracom.com. It looked pretty interesting as they were also integrating all your entertainment devices in the network at the same time as well. Expensive though at around $1200 to connect three computers and in fact, at this writing, were sold out of the devices.

So lets get back to the issues determining what you want. The major question is can you run cable to each of your computers in the house. If you can, stick with Ethernet. Other things to consider with Ethernet is because there are so many products on the market, it has been flooded with cheap components and cabling. It is however, as fast as you need it to be, quite reliable, and very well supported. If you can’t run cables, then let your budget determine what you look at next. The inexpensive alternative is home phone wiring, the better is the 802.11b wireless.

However you decide to go, you must also be sure you have a good antivirus program on each of your computers and if you are going to connect your network to a broadband internet connection like cable or DSL, you must have a firewall as well.  For home networking, my recommendations are the Symantec Norton Antivirus and Zone Alarm’s Zone Alarm Pro firewall software.

Resources

A means of wiring the entire house
http://connectivity.avaya.com/residential/default.htm

A source of networking products
http://www.netgear.com/categories.asp?xrp=7&yrp=17

Another good source of networking products
http://www.dlink.com/products/DigitalHome/Wireless/

Wireless networking from Intel
http://www.intel.com/anypoint/how/index.htm

A home network using standard video cable
http://www.peracom.com/

A home power wiring networking organization
http://www.homeplug.org/index.html

A great discussion on home power wiring technology
http://www.csdmag.com/main/2000/12/0012feat5.htm

A source of products for Home Power networks
http://www.intellon.com/

Home Networking using existing phone lines
http://www.homepna.org/

Motorola's home networking ideas
http://www.gi.com/homenetworking_standards.html

A great source of networking information
http://www.techfest.com/networking/standard.htm

An excellent paper on wireless networks
http://www.proxim.com/wireless/whiteppr/whatwlan.shtml

An excellent article on Bluetooth 
http://www.csdmag.com/main/2000/03/0003stand.htm

From How Stuff Works.com
http://www.howstuffworks.com/home-network1.htm

Another good source on networking
http://www.practicallynetworked.com/

How Fast Is The Network ??

IEEE 802.11 Wireless Lan 1.6mbps

IEEE 802.11b Wireless Lan 11 mpbs

Bluetooth 432kbps

HomePNA network 1 mbps

HomePNA 2.0 Network 10 mbps

Powerline Network 14mbps

Ethernet 10mbps

Fast Ethernet 100mbps

Gigabit Ethernet 1000 mbps

Cable TV 1000+mbps

Robert Sanborn

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Robert Sanborn is an Independent Personal Computer Consultant, and the Program Chairman for the Indianapolis Computer Society. Reach him through the net at robert@sanbornsoftware.com

 

 

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