Link It Up

This is a scene that's becoming as quaint as the happy nuclear family of fifties sitcoms: a computer, a printer, and a modem. These days, that simple setup is about as unlikely as a modern family made up of an office-bound husband, a stay-at-home housewife, and two and a half perfect little kids. No, things are a bit more complicated now. Millions of households have more than one computer. The Internet has become part of everyday life?and everyone wants to get on it. At the very least, the appeal of exchanging files and sharing printers should make you consider networking all your home or small office's computers together.

With new high-speed technologies like DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and cable modems arriving, a small network can also let all your computers share one fast, always-on Internet connection. You can even use the network to play games, not just over the Internet but also between the various Macs (and PCs) you own. And while transferring and backing up your files over a network may not sound sexy, the iMac's lack of a floppy drive makes the network more vital than ever.

You may think that connecting all your computers is going to be a complicated and costly proposition?but it doesn't have to be. Here's an in-depth guide to the terms you'll need to know, the skills you'll need to have, and what you'll get once you're all set up.


Why Create a Network?

At first glance, it might seem like creating a network inside your home is a task reserved for computer geeks and the same 12-year-olds who knew how to program a VCR the day they were born. But there are plenty of practical reasons for you to set up your own network, as I did.

Share Your Files

Apple broke with tradition by eliminating the floppy drive from the iMac and the blue-and-white Power Mac G3s. You could spend extra money on a USB floppy drive, but then you have to schlepp disks from the family room to the den and back again. Using a network to transfer files from one Mac to another is faster and easier.

Surf Anywhere

A simple problem: you have DSL, a cable modem, or some other means to connect to the Internet (see ""Modems' Last Stand"," May 1999), but it works only with the one Mac it's connected to. How can your other computers access the Net using the same connection? A simple solution: use a network and some Internet-sharing software (see the sidebar "Internet Sharing 101"). This is also a great way to avoid buying a modem for each computer.

Play Games

All right, so you don't need a network to play games. But it's a lot more fun to play against real people, and many of today's hottest games let you beat up on either computer opponents or other humans via network play. You can play against other people on the Internet, family members on your home network, or both.

Share Printers

Prices have dropped, but you probably don't want to buy a printer for each of your Macs. If you have a network, though, you can share most printers with every Mac on the network.

Back Everything Up

Don't be frustrated by the fact that your new iMac can't back up to your old SCSI-based Jaz, CD-R, or tape drive. When your old and new Macs are networked together, you can back up over the network using Dantz Development's $175 Retrospect or $50 Retrospect Express. If you've got an older Mac, you can even set it up in a closet or on the floor as a dedicated backup server, preserving all the files you have on your current models. (For more about backup, see " Be Safe, Not Sorry," February 1999.)

Keep Your Dates Straight

My wife and I each have our own Macs, and we have a PowerBook that mostly lives in the kitchen. Thanks to our home network and network-capable calendar and contact software, we can schedule dinner with some friends or look up a telephone number from any one of our computers. Changes are instantly available to any computer, so we don't have to worry about scheduling conflicts or outdated contact information.


Meet the Network

Now that I've convinced you to connect your computers together, it's time to give you an overview of network technology and terminology. That terminology can be intimidating?especially if it's spoken by scary people in white coats who are paid lots of money to keep large corporate networks up and running. But in reality, setting up a simple home network doesn't need to be rocket science.

Into the Ether

The most common form of networking around is Ethernet , which has been a standard part of most Macs for quite a few years now. Some Macs have built-in Ethernet ports that let you plug an Ethernet cable (which looks like a jumbo version of a telephone cable) right into your Mac. Older versions require you to buy a transceiver , a little box that attaches to both your Mac and the Ethernet cable.

Today most Ethernet networks are 10BaseT , letting you pass data at 10 megabits (roughly 1MB) per second. An up-and-coming protocol is 100BaseT , which uses the same-size connectors but can be ten times faster. Many new devices can switch between the two speeds with ease?the iMac, for instance, can work with either 10BaseT or 100BaseT networks.

Ethernet is a tried-and-true networking format. But it's also true that most homes don't have Ethernet running through their walls?and that means if you want to wire up computers in far-flung locations, you'll need to run cables yourself or hire someone to do it for you.

Both 10BaseT and 100BaseT Ethernet are what are called star networks . At the center of the network is a hub , a box you plug Ethernet cables into. The cables radiate out from the hub in a starlike pattern, hence the name. You don't usually chain Ethernet networks together as you would SCSI devices, connecting one to another and to the next (although Farallon's line of EtherWave products will let you do just that). Normally, you plug one end of an Ethernet cable into a computer and the other into a hub. Each hub can be connected to other hubs, extending the network even more.

Phone-Line Networking

A recently developed networking standard is HomePNA , a system that uses regular telephone lines as the transport medium for your computer data. The strength of this approach is that unlike the case with Ethernet, most buildings in America are already wired for telephone service. Anywhere in your house you've got a telephone extension (on the same phone line), you've got a potential network connection area.

The most amazing part is that using a HomePNA network doesn't interfere with the voice traffic or DSL Internet connections going over that same set of telephone wires. Although HomePNA isn't as fast as a 10BaseT Ethernet network, at roughly 100K per second it's faster than almost any Internet connection you might have, and more than sufficient for most home network uses.

HomePNA does have some drawbacks, however. First, it's not built into Macs like Ethernet is?you need to buy a special PCI card for each computer in order to get HomePNA to work. It's also a relatively new technology, so there's not nearly as wide a variety of HomePNA products as there are Ethernet products. (As of this writing, Farallon's HomeLine is the only Mac-compatible HomePNA product, although more are on the way.) Several companies?including Intel itself?sell HomePNA products for PCs.

Second, currently there's no way to connect an iMac?which lacks a PCI slot?to a HomePNA network, although an iMac-friendly HomePNA product should be available soon. If you've got an older Mac, a PowerBook, no free PCI slots, or want to network a printer, you may be similarly out of luck.

Wireless

Freeing your computers entirely from wires would, of course, be the easiest way to set up a network. Wireless technology is undoubtedly where the world of networking will eventually end up. Instead of using wires, network data can be translated into radio signals that pass through your walls, floors, and ceilings until they're received and deciphered. Wireless networking has traditionally been expensive and not particularly Mac-friendly?but the new AirPort technology introduced with Apple's new iBook threatens to change all that, providing slightly faster speeds than 10BaseT without any wiring. And the new SkyLine PC Card from Farallon, which is compatible with the AirPort, will provide wireless capabilities for older PowerBooks.


The Network Shopping List

For some people, HomePNA may be a good answer to setting up a simple network?buy the cards, install, plug in, and you're set. But Ethernet has stood the test of time, is readily available, and offers much more flexibility. That's why for the bulk of Mac users, it's probably wise to stick with Ethernet.

AirPort is also a promising technology, but it's still somewhat expensive?an extra $399 for a base station and an add-in card for one iBook. Even if you do buy an iBook with AirPort, Ethernet makes sense?the AirPort base station comes with a 10BaseT/100BaseT Ethernet port, so hooking that device up to an Ethernet network of desktop computers, printers, and perhaps a high-speed modem will be a snap.

Before you put together an Ethernet network, you'll need to gather all the parts you'll require. Just what's needed will vary depending on the Macs and printers you have, but here's a basic checklist:

Cabling

The cabling in my home is called 10Base2 and looks a whole lot like the cable you'd plug into a TV set. But 10Base2's time has passed, and just about every recent Mac model provides built-in support for 10BaseT and/or 100BaseT. That's the type of cable you should use.

Not all cable is created equal. You need at least Category 3, or Cat3 , cable for 10BaseT networking, but you should always buy Category 5, or Cat5 , cable instead. Cat5 cable is not much more expensive than Cat3, and it works with the speedier 100BaseT Ethernet. That means if you want to upgrade your network to 100BaseT in the future, you won't have to pull out all your wires and start again.

Ethernet Cards and Transceivers

Every Mac that Apple sells today has Ethernet built in, and many older Macs did as well. Although not every Mac is so well equipped, you can add an Ethernet card to just about any Mac, even the ancient SE/30. In most cases, the Ethernet card drops into a slot on your Mac, whether it's a NuBus slot (found on most Mac IIs, Quadras, and the first-generation Power Macs), a PCI slot (found on second-generation Power Macs and later), or even more esoteric slots such as the PDS (Processor Direct Slot) on the SE/30 and IIsi, and the LC Comm Slot found on many Mac LCs and Performas. Older PowerBooks with no such slots can get on Ethernet with the help of an adapter that attaches to the SCSI port, and newer PowerBooks can make use of Ethernet PC Cards. One great resource for this sort of information is Farallon's LAN Product Selector, located on the Web at http://www.farallon.com/products/selector/. While it covers only Farallon products, you can also use it to figure out generally what sort of items you'll need, whether you buy them from Farallon or some other company.

Older Macs and LaserWriters with built-in Ethernet aren't exactly plug-and-play?rather than the telephone-style jack found on 10BaseT and 100BaseT cables, they have a special connector called an AAUI port. For these devices, you need to buy an AAUI Ethernet transceiver?essentially, an AAUI-to-10BaseT converter box. Luckily, these transceivers are cheap: about $25.

Hubs

With a star network such as 10BaseT and 100BaseT Ethernet, you'll need a central hub that all your devices connect to. These days, you can buy a hub for as little as $50, although more full-featured hubs can cost significantly more.

When shopping for a hub, there are several issues to keep in mind. Be sure to consider how many ports you'll need on the hub?you'll need one for every device on your network, so make sure to plan for the future. You can also buy two hubs and connect them together, which might help if you've got collections of computers in two or more widely separated locations, such as a main level and a basement. Then all you'll need to do is run one cable between the two hubs. (Keep in mind, however, that 10BaseT and 100BaseT cables are limited to a length of 100 meters, or 328 feet.)

You should also consider whether it makes sense to get a hub that supports both the 10BaseT and 100BaseT protocols. If you own several devices that support 100BaseT, as the iMacs and the blue-and-white Power Mac G3s do, a hub that would let those devices communicate at 100 megabits per second (while every other device moseys along at 10 Mbps) might be worth the higher cost.

Make sure the hub you buy doesn't require you to use a lot of switches, jumpers, or software to get it to work correctly. Ideally, using a hub should be as easy as plugging it into a power outlet and plugging in your networking cables.

Bridges

What if you have an old LaserWriter that supports only LocalTalk networking? You can add an Ethernet card to an old Mac, but that's seldom possible with older printers. To solve this problem, you need a bridge , a device that connects two dissimilar networks, such as LocalTalk and Ethernet. Bridges are relatively dumb?all they do is pass network traffic from one network to another without analyzing it or routing it in any way. Thus, bridges, which come in either software or hardware form, are relatively cheap.

Software bridges require a Macintosh connected to both networks?it's a good use for an old Mac that has both a printer port for LocalTalk and an Ethernet card. Apple's free LaserWriter Bridge is the most well known bridge software, but it only lets Macs on the Ethernet network print to a LaserWriter on the LocalTalk network. More recently, Apple released the free LocalTalk Bridge, which lets you share files with LocalTalk-based Macs as well as print to LocalTalk-based printers. Download it at http://asu.info.apple.com/swupdates.nsf/artnum/n11358. (You can also share StyleWriters on a network, using Apple's Printer Share software.)

The problem is, Apple's bridge software isn't officially supported by Apple?meaning it may have some minor problems running under Mac OS 8.5 and later. Also, activities on the Macintosh running the bridge software can reduce performance between the two networks, and that Mac must remain on at all times if you want to use the devices it's connecting you to.

Hardware bridges don't require a Mac, may not require configuration, and offer more functionality. For instance, some hardware bridges work not just with AppleTalk for printing and sharing files between Macs but also with TCP/IP, so Macs on the LocalTalk network can access an Internet connection attached to the Ethernet network. If the free LocalTalk Bridge doesn't work for you or if you don't have a Mac that supports both LocalTalk and Ethernet, go for a hardware bridge such as the $100 EtherMac iPrint LT from Farallon (510/346-8000, http://www.farallon.com ) or the $129 AsanteTalk bridge from Asante (408/435-8388, http://www.asante.com ).

Routers

Where bridges blindly pass network traffic back and forth between networks, routers (also called gateways ) act more like traffic cops, analyzing and routing network traffic appropriately between two different networks. In the context of small networks such as the ones we're discussing, routers are primarily for connecting an entire network to the Internet. As with bridges, routers can be either software programs or hardware devices.

Hardware routers often sport specific ports for different types of Internet connections. For instance, you might buy an ISDN-capable router, which would have a jack for an ISDN connection and an Ethernet jack. Such a router would connect an Ethernet network to the Internet via an ISDN connection.

The devices you get when you have DSL or cable-modem Internet connections installed are usually called modems, but often they're also routers, since they often use Ethernet to connect to your computer. Though you can sometimes attach these devices to an Ethernet hub, that doesn't mean that all the computers on your network will be able to simultaneously share that Internet connection. In many cases, DSL and cable-modem connections are meant for single computers, despite their Ethernet interface.

Whether you're using a cable modem, DSL, ISDN, or even a regular modem, you can often share your Internet connection among all the computers on your network. What you need is Internet-sharing software, and there are several different options for Macintosh users. To find out how it works, see the sidebar "Internet Sharing 101".


The Last Word

Networking Macs has always been easy, thanks to LocalTalk and built-in software support in the Mac OS. But not until recently has networking become something for everyone, in large part due to more households purchasing multiple computers, especially the network-savvy iMac. The Internet has also played a starring role, since anyone with multiple Macs wants them all to be able to access the Net through a single connection.

Whether it's for sharing an Internet connection, sharing files and printers, backing up your files, or playing games, if you have several Macs, you need a network.

Also see the sidebars:
"Home-Sweet-Home Network"
"File Sharing 101"
"Share that StyleWriter!"
ADAM C. ENGST is the publisher of the online newsletter TidBits and a coauthor of the forthcoming Crossing Platforms (O'Reilly, 1999), a bidirectional phrase book for Macintosh and Windows users.

November 1999 page: 94

Home-Sweet-Home Network

Enough theory?let's put together a sample network so you can see how it all works. Our sample family has a PowerBook 520 and a Power Mac 7200 hooked up to a LaserWriter via a LocalTalk cable. When they want to move files back and forth, they use floppies, and when they want to print from the PowerBook, they swap the LocalTalk cable from the Power Mac. They've just purchased a shiny new grape iMac and put the Power Mac in the kids' room for games and school projects. They also have a SCSI-based Jaz drive that they've been using on the Power Mac along with Retrospect Express for backups. Finally, they've just installed DSL high-speed Internet access, so they've got a DSL modem that connects via Ethernet, and they want to attach it to all their computers.

In the end, they want a network that lets each Mac print, back up to the Jaz drive on the Power Mac, connect to the Internet, and copy files back and forth as needed. That's easily accomplished, but they'll have to go shopping first.

The newer your Mac, the easier it is to get it on Ethernet. This family's iMac has an Ethernet jack built right in. But they'll have to add Ethernet to the other two computers: in this case, an Ethernet transceiver for both the PowerBook and the Power Mac (roughly $25 each).

The LaserWriter is networkable but is designed to work only with low-speed LocalTalk networking. With a LocalTalk-to-Ethernet bridge, such as the $100 EtherMac iPrint LT from Farallon, any Macintosh on the new network will be able to print to it.

Throw in an Ethernet hub, some cabling to connect it all together, and a copy of Internet-sharing software, and you have a network.

NETWORK SHOPPING LIST
ITEM ESTIMATED
PRICE
Ethernet cables (Cat5, five cables) $65
Ethernet transceivers (two) $50
LocalTalk-to-Ethernet bridge (LaserWriter) $100
Ethernet hub (10BaseT, eight ports) $50
IPNetRouter $89
TOTAL $354
  • Plug your Ethernet hub into an electrical outlet. Make sure to put it in a location that's accessible to all of the computers.

  • Run a cable from the iMac's Ethernet port to the hub.

  • Connect the first transceiver to the Power Mac's Ethernet port, and then run a cable to the hub--in this case, our homeowner ran wires through the walls to keep cords out of the way. (One day, wireless networking will make running wires between far-flung locations a thing of the past--but right now, this is probably the best option.)

  • Connect the second transceiver to the PowerBook's Ethernet port, and then run a cable to the hub.

  • Run a cable from the DSL modem to the hub. To share the Internet connection, install Internet-sharing software on the iMac, and make sure the iMac is turned on when any of the other Macs need to connect to the Internet.

  • Set up the LocalTalk-to-Ethernet bridge, and connect it to both the hub (via a 10BaseT cable) and the printer (via its LocalTalk cable).

  • Optionally, the family could purchase Apple's new AirPort base station ($299) and bring a new iBook home. After the base station is plugged into the hub, an iBook equipped with the $99 optional AirPort card can roam freely in a roughly 150-foot radius, surfing the Net and exchanging files at Ethernet speeds.

  • Internet Sharing 101

    To share one Internet address among several computers, you need a router--something that acts as a traffic cop to handle the flow of Internet data between your computers and the Internet. For most home and small-office networks, it's easier and more cost-effective to use a software-based router rather than an expensive hardware router.

    With five different Mac OS software routers available, how do you decide which to choose to connect your network to the Internet? The decision depends on how many Macs will be using the Net simultaneously and what advanced features you might want.

    No matter which product you choose, remember that whenever you're connected to the Internet, it's conceivable that someone could attempt to break into your Mac. All of these products include security features to protect you, but it's also a good idea to turn off guest access in the Sharing dialog box for shared folders and be careful what you publish using Personal Web Sharing. Realistically, if you take basic precautions, you have nothing to worry about.

    Home Networks

    For a home network with a couple of Macs, your best choices are Vicomsoft's SurfDoubler ($64; 650/ 691-9520, http://www.vicomsoft.com ) and SurfDoubler Plus ($74), or IPNetRouter from Sustainable Softworks ($89; http://www.sustworks.com ). SurfDoubler is slightly cheaper but allows only two Macs at a time to access the Internet simultaneously. SurfDoubler Plus offers all of SurfDoubler's features, plus parental controls and content-filtering capabilities.

    IPNetRouter has no per-user limitations and provides better performance than SurfDoubler when running on older Macs. On the downside, IPNetRouter is somewhat more difficult to install and configure, although Sustainable Softworks provides an excellent tutorial and background infor-mation on its Web site. Both companies provide free trial versions of their software on their Web sites.

    Small-Office Networks

    If your network contains more than a few Macs, SurfDoubler's two-Mac limitation eliminates it in favor of Vicomsoft's multiple-user SoftRouter Plus ($155 to $430; price varies depending on number of users), which also provides additional features such as the caching of Web pages to increase page loading speed, a local DNS server, and a remote-access server so users can dial into your network. IPNetRouter remains an excellent choice for these networks as well, and can be significantly cheaper than SoftRouter Plus if you don't need SoftRouter Plus's additional features.

    School Networks

    If you feel the need to restrict the users on your network from accessing specific Internet resources, Vicomsoft's Internet Gateway ($249 and up) might be the best option for you, since it can prevent users from accessing sites on the CyberNot Block List, a collection of Internet sites that researchers at Microsystems ( http://www.cyberpatrol.com ) have deemed inappropriate for the typical 12-year-old surfing the Web without adult supervision.

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