Networking 101

CHOICE guide to setting up a home network.
 
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01.Home networking basics

Network-illo

Today more and more households are finding a need for a home network. Not only do the kids have games consoles and laptops for school projects, but Mum and Dad want to browse the internet from the comfort of the lounge, print documents in the home office and watch media files on the TV.

If you haven’t already, setting up your own home network isn’t as daunting as it sounds.

What you need

Router

The router is the centre of your network. It’s the device that forwards information from computers and devices to other computers and devices. And, in the case of connecting a modem to it for internet access, allows your network to join the worldwide web too.

As a router is such a pivotal device in the network, many broadband modems will also include a router (and be called a “residential gateway” as a result). However, you can still purchase stand-alone routers and these allow you to expand your network further – for example your broadbandmodem/router may not provide wireless access, but you can still buy a router with wireless to add this support to your network.

Router or Switch?

You might have also heard the term ‘switch’ in relation to networking. A switch is much simpler than a router, but it has one important advantage: it can handle mixed speed networks. If you have computers that can communicate at gigabit speeds and you connect them to a router that doesn’t support it or has another device connected to it using 10/100, they’ll fall back to 10/100 speeds. However, if you connect them via a switch, they'll communicate at the faster speed. You'll need to connect the switch to a router - possibly within your modem - to connect to the internet.

Modem

We’re going to presume you want to allow the computers on your network to access the internet. For this to happen, the modem will form part of your network, too. Note that it’s also possible to share a satellite connection, and even wireless broadband. These days, most broadband modems include a router, primarily for allowing you to share the internet connection among more than one machine, so you may already have a“residential gateway”. The exception can be cable modems, which may be stand-alone. How can you tell if your modem already includes a router? Look at the rear: in addition to a socket to plug in your phone line, there will usually be four Ethernet sockets as well. 

Cables

Wired or wireless

Computers near the router are probably best connected by cable, but for anything further away, you’ll likely want to use wireless. Most laptops have a Wi-Fi adapter built in, but if you have a desktop computer without, you can simply purchase a wireless USB adapter or, for the more adventurous, a plug-in card.
Well, at least one. You can set up an entirely wireless network, but you’ll usually need at least one cable to first configure a wireless router for wireless security. Cables still have their use however, as machines networked by cable can transfer data faster. Ethernet on a router and your computers will come in one of two types – 10/100 Mbit and 1000 Mbit (gigabit). Gigabit is, of course, the fastest but not all computers may support it, especially older ones. It also differs from 10Mbit and 100Mbit speeds in that it requires a higher quality of cable. Whereas Category 5 cable (also known as Cat 5) is sufficient for 10/100, Category 6 (Cat 6) is required for gigabit. Both are relatively cheap, in the grand scheme of things, if you plan to wire up your home – just be sure to measure how much you need before you go shopping.

How can you tell if your router or computer supports gigabit? Routers will usually signify gigabit speeds with different status lights. For your PC, your best bet is to explore the Device Manager in Windows to see if your network controller is gigabit capable. Note that gigabit controllers can also handle 10/100 speeds too.

Computers and devices

And, of course, you need the computers and devices (printers, hard drives and others) that you want to connect to the network! Note that there are no limits to the number of wireless connections you can make via a wireless router (as long as there are available IP addresses) but if you’re using wired you will be limited by the number of Ethernet ports on the back of your router– usually four.

If you run out of ports, you can buy another router or Ethernet hub and expand your network. Even eight-port routers arerelatively cheap. A common set up might look like the diagram.

Typical home network setup
Networking101_diagram01

Setting it all up

Connecting cable

Before you start, it pays to do some planning. See what equipment you want to attach to the network, and where it will be. Which ones will use wireless? Which will be wired? Where in the house will they be and how much cable do you need? Feel free to get out pencil and paper and draw up a diagram of your network. That way, you can work out exactly what you need to connect it all.

The modem, for example, may be constrained by an existing phone port, and it makes sense to have the modem, the router, and any equipment that will attach directly to the router close together. If using wireless, the router is best positioned near the centre ofthe house, where its signal can reach the rest of the home without too much trouble.

Once you know what goes where, plugging in cables is simple. Note that it doesn’t matter what Ethernet port you plug a cable into on the router, except when it comes to your modem. To facilitate easy set up of internet sharing, among other things, most routers these days come with a ‘WAN’ (wide area network) port, which looks the same as the others but is intended for sole use by your modem. It’s usually labelled and colour coded differently too so it’s easy to pick out.

A little etiquette on network cables: don’t just pull them out of the port, press down on the plastic clipfirst to avoid breaking the connector. This clip keeps the cable relatively secure while in place.

A typical router back panel, showing the WAN port in blue (may be labelled "Internet") for the modem, and four yellow LAN (or Ethernet) ports.
networking101_router_back

Network addresses

Keep a record

Make sure you keep a note of the sign-on or password you have set for the router, the wireless security key, your SSID and anything else you might have changed. Put them somewhere you can find them. You will need them again when it comes to re-configuring your network at a later date.
The trickier part when setting up your network can be setting up your computers. Whether you use Windows, Macs or Linux they all talk in the same language on the network, and need to be told how to find each other.

Just as on the internet, every machine must have a unique IP address. Local networks usually default to192.168.1.X or 10.0.0.X. A good resource for how IP addresses are formed can befound at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPv4, but for now you just need to know that the second last number represents a subnet, and that for your computers and devices to see each other easily they have to be on the same subnet. For example, a computer on 192.168.1.2 will see another computer on 192.168.1.8 without you having to do any fiddling. And if you’re wondering where the values for 192.168.* and 10.0.* are chosen, they are traditionally reserved for private networks, which is why your router or modem will come preconfigured on an address like192.168.1.1.

Once upon a time setting up a home network required manually setting IP addresses for every computer, as well as specifying the IP address of the modem (it needs an address too) and the IP address of the domain name server (which helps your machine look up websites) at the ISP so you can browse the web. Today, this can all be automated thanks to a technology called DHCP, or Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol.

For a home network, your modem will usually run a DHCP server and operating systems like Windows,Mac OS X, and Linux will usually seek out a DHCP server by default and ask for a unique IP address, as well as set up routing to allow access to the web. 

And, by default, the DHCP server in a residential gateway should be enabled – but you can check this and other options by logging into the device. 

You’ll usually access the router control panel through a browser by typing in the IP address for the router. It’s almost always “192.168.1.1”, but check the manual. Similarly, the default login is often “admin” for user and “admin” for password, but again check the manuals. It’s a good idea to change these when you can and write them down!

Diagnosing common problems

If you can’t get internet access from any PC, check to make sure the modem is plugged into the correct port (usually called the WAN port) in the router. For a residential gateway (combined modem/router), check to make sure your login details to the ISP are correct.On the networking side, if you can’t get online from a PC using wireless, plug it directly into the router by cable. This should help determine if the problem is with wireless, and if so check the wireless settings and try again.

A good local Australian website for learning more and getting help is Whirlpool. Note that any problems relating to sharing files or printers are usually an issue with Windows configuration, and here Microsoft’s support base is a good place to start diagnosing these.

Internet access and sharing

If you bought your modem from an ISP it may have come pre-configured with your details. But if it didn’t, or you buy a new modem/router, you’ll need to tell it your user name and password login from the ISP.

This process is different for every device, but the menu option should be self explanatory and many modems these days come with a wizard too.

While you’re logged in, you can also set up wireless access if it has support.

When it comes to sharing the internet access among your devices, thanks to the WAN port, thedefault configuration of the modem/router should automatically take care ofthis for you through a process called NAT (Network Address Translation). Thisis a simple name for some fancy trickery: if you think about it, it’s your modem that connects to the ISP and your modem that gets a unique IP address onthe internet – so how do your multiple computers all communicate on the internet as unique machines through one IP address on the modem? That’s NAT,and it works by monitoring where data comes from on computers on your networkand forwarding data back from the internet to the right computer on yournetwork.

There’s a bit more to a home network, such as needing to set up the same “Workgroup” name in Windows when sharing files or printers among other things, but this should cover the basics and give you a grounding in the joys of home networking.

For further reading, see our article on wireless networking and broadband basics.

 
 

 

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