If you’re reading this story, chances are very good that you already have a home network. So why the refresher course on why you need one and how to set one up? As we all know, the times they are a-changin’ constantly in the tech world, and with so many new products and services being offered, some of you may want to rebuild your home network to accommodate all that you want to do with it.
You may also have a home network but have always wondered about its mechanics – like what goes on in the brain of that little router of yours, or how the router’s wireless radio actually works. We’re here to explain what’s going on inside your devices. Beyond the basics of letting you share high-speed Internet access with computers and devices in the house, home networks allow you to control what the kids are doing on the Web, share data and multimedia files, automate backups for all of your Pcs, and even use webcams to see what that new puppy is doing in the living room while you’re at work. The bedroom computer upstairs can print to the color printer in the downstairs study, and the media PC in the living room can show a movie on the PC-connected TV in the basement rec room. Adding on network-oriented products and peripherals makes the setup even more useful. Network attached storage (NAS) lets you create shared folders for each family member; these folders can be accessed both from the home network or from the Internet if you’re away from home. NAS devices also make efficient places to store all those backup files.
Not only have most of us had Internet for years, but we do have high-speed internet as well. In general, most home networks get broadband ADSL, Wireless Broadband. For those in remote areas, VSAT is the way to go – it’s still better than dial-up service. Those living in rural areas should also consider a WISP, or wireless Internet service provider. WISPs act like upside-down satellite dishes, reaching down into the ground to connect to fiber-optic lines, while long range wireless routers installed in each customer’s house point sideways toward the tower. If you’re considering switching your provider, pick the one with the most throughput (measured in megabits per second, or Mbps) for the lowest monthly cost, and you’re good to go. Setting up high-speed Internet service is much, much simpler than it used to be. You can get a broadband connection from BSNL which comes optionally with the Router as well. Stick the Quick Start CD into your computer and follow the on-screen instructions. Typically it will ask you to plug your router into the phone line first, then it will take a minute or so to find itself on the provider’s network. After that, you’ll plug your computer into the other side of the router, fill out some configuration options, make sure your computer’s network settings are set to “Automatically get an IP address,” and that’s it. You’ll be on the Internet. Any other computers you plug into the back of that router will not only see the Web, they’ll also see each other (or they will after you run Microsoft’s home networking wizard) – and hey, you’ve got a basic network.
Networking and Windows
Once your router is functioning and your computers are plugged in, you need to make sure all the computers can see not just the Internet, but each other as well. For Vista and Windows 7 machines, you’re not going to have to do much besides wait. These versions of the Windows operating system are much smarter about networking. Vista Pcs will simply find each other on the network as long as they’re all in the same IP subnet – a logical division of a local area network, which is created to improve performance and provide security. If your computers don’t see each other, Vista has a couple of network fix-it wizards, as well as the “Set up a home network” wizard for you to fall back upon. Windows XP machines, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. Those in the same IP subnet should see each other, but there’s a chance they won’t. You’re best off running the “Set up a home network” wizard right away for XP, which is available off the Network Neighbourhood screen. Just run this wizard on every XP machine individually. The most thinking you’ll have to do is picking a workgroup name for your network. (But that’s an important step: You can’t share files or printers between PCs that don’t have the same workgroup name.)
Understanding your Router
The router is the heart of your home network – which is good. That’s because it’s doing several important jobs. First it’s the outward face of your Internet connection. To the phone or satellite company, your internet account is represented by just one internet address. If you look on your router’s basic setup or status Web page, you’ll see that address at the top, generally labeled something like “WAN IP address” or “Internet IP address.” This is all that the provider or anyone on the Internet can see of your network. The router maintains that external address and simultaneously hands out a bunch of internal addresses to the computers in your house, using a different IP addressing scheme than the public one used by your provider. The process of translating traffic between the internal and external addresses is called Network Address Translation (NAT), and the process for handing out those internal addresses automatically is called the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). NAT is used because the TCP/IP network protocol was never intended to support the millions of users, devices, and Web sites that currently populate the Internet. There simply aren’t enough addresses to go around, so one per customer is all ISPs can manage – and even then they need to play cycling games, so your WAN IP address will probably change every few weeks. On the internal side, you can set up whatever IP addressing scheme you’d like using your router’s DHCP settings. This looks like Sanskrit, but don’t panic: For the most part you can leave the default settings. Most routers default to a 192.168.X.X address scheme. It’s those last two Xs – technically they’re called octets – that concern you. The second-to-last variable determines your subnet. So Pcs addressed at 192.168.1.X are all in the same subnet and should see and network with each other just fine. One that’s addressed as 192.168.0.X will be left out in the cold. That last octet will be different for every device you plug into the network. The router, for example, might be 192.168.1.1. The first PC might be 192.168.1.2, your laptop might have “3,” and so on. The last octet can be any number between 1 and 254, so you’ve got plenty of addresses to go around inside your home – so you needn’t worry about running out. The reason to stick with the default 192.168.0.X or 192.168.1.X scheme is because that particular range is not routable on the Internet. This means that anything hacking past the firewall built into your router will have some trouble accessing the Pcs behind it. Another non-routable addressing scheme is 10.10.X.X. You can set your scheme to run any way you’d like, but these schemes are the safest. Speaking of safe, your router, as mentioned, is also your firewall, which is critical to a safe network. A good firewall using stateful packet inspection (which ensures that all inbound packets are the result of an outbound request) keeps the bad guys off your home network – and believe me, the bad guys are out there. You should also install a software firewall on every Windows PC and make sure it stays updated. Just open the app every few weeks, and it will tell you if you need a software update. That’s as easy as downloading a file and hitting “save.” Vista and Windows 7 have pretty good firewalls included with the operating system.
Setting up Wireless
Probably the last thing your router is doing is providing wireless access using Wi-Fi. The giveaway used to be whether or not it had antennas, but more and more routers today remain stylish by hiding the antenna – even multiple antennas – inside the bezel. Actually, it’s hard to find a router today that isn’t Wi-Fi capable. PCs with Wi-Fi will see the router almost immediately, but you shouldn’t let it go at that. Wireless networking works on RF (radio frequencies), so it’s essentially a radio: Anyone within 300 feet (indoors) or 600 yards (outdoors) can tune in to your signal. Some people are quite open to sharing their Internet connection this way, but doing so can leave your PCs vulnerable. Unless you want anyone parked outside your driveway to know what’s on your network, your PCs, your hard disks, and the like, it’s a good idea to use some security. Your router offers several wireless security options. The two most popular are WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access). Either will give you enough basic protection, though WPA2 is tougher. But many folks still use WEP, because Windows XP has trouble with more advanced forms of wireless security. Also, if you’ve got any older Wi-Fi products around your house using 802.11b technology, WEP is probably all they support. WEP is easy to crack by anyone with the right tools and the time to put in, however, so don’t trust it for important data. Windows Vista handles either with aplomb, so stick with WPA2 there. Setting up wireless is again just a short series of steps. First pick a channel (you can stick to the default unless there are a lot of other wireless routers around, as there probably are in an apartment building). Stick with channels 1, 6, or 11: They don’t “overlap” and thus have less interference. Set all your wireless devices to the same channel. The router will then ask you to name its wireless network; this is called the SSID in Wi-Fi speak. Definitely do not stick with the default here, which is usually “Linksys” or ‘D-Link” or something similar. Use something perosnal, like “BobsWireless.” When asked which security option you’d like to use, opt for WPA2 if you know that all the devices on your network support it. After that, simply pick a security key, which boils down to a password-type phrase. Try and go strong here. Use not just “password” but “p4ssW0rd1234” – because a mixture of capitals, numbers, and symbols with letters is much harder to crack, let alone guess. Avoid words found in the dictionary. The balance here is to come up with something easy to remember. Even then, it’s a good idea to change that security key every few months. Save that and all you have to do is go to each of your wireless computers and let them scan for the SSID (BobsWireless). When a device finds it, it will ask you for the security key. Type it in, hit Save, and those PCs will automatically connect whenever they’re turned on and in range. Last Thoughts on Wires and Ports Once your home network is running, those wireless computers should be able to see each other as well as any wired computers you have plugged directly into the back of the home router. And speaking of wired, stick with Category 5e or Category 6 Ethernet patch cables. Both of these are capable of running Gigabit-speed Ethernet (GigE). The highest-end home routers have GigE, which has a data rate of 1,000 Mbps – ten times faster than “Fast Ethernet.” Gigabit Ethernet will be especially useful if your network winds up carrying movies and hi-def TV content around the house, or if you play multiplayer games. And who doesn’t? If those ports on the back of your router aren’t enough, drop some rupees on a GigE-capable switch. Plug it into a GigE port on your router, and then all the ports on the switch will function the same as those on the router. You’ll instantly go from four available GigE ports to 8, 12 or 20 depending on how big a switch you choose. You can even plug a second switch into the first. If you have areas of the house where Wi-Fi won’t reach and you don’t want to thread Ethernet cable through the walls or around door, you can sometimes take advantage of existing wires in the walls. If you’re lucky enough to have coaxial cable running from room to room, a set of MoCA – capable adapters (short for multimedia over coax) on either end will use the wire as if it were Ethernet. You can even do the same with power lines in your house, using adapters that support HomePlug technology. Those are even easier, because they just plug into existing outlets, then have an Ethernet cord that comes out to attach to the router and distance switch. There are plenty of ways you can now add to or modify your home network. You can add more wireless security, another wireless access point, media devices to share photos and videos, webcams for watching the house while you’re away, parental controls so the kids stay safe on the Web, picocells that use the Internet to extend the range of your cellular phone, and the list goes on and on. But this is the foundation for everything else to come.