How to set up a cross-platform network

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from the PCW Business Center at PCWorld.com.

Your business—and the computers that power it—may have started with an idea that popped into your head while you sat in front of your laptop, freeloading off of the local coffee shop’s wireless network. But you can’t work out of the Java Hut forever.

As your company grows and you add employees, computers, and an office to house them, you’ll need a network to connect everyone to each other and to the Internet. But at this point maybe your startup crew uses a collection of Macs and PCs, with the graphics people favoring OS X, the software developers relying on the tools that come with Linux, and everybody else preferring Windows. Fortunately, these three operating systems can communicate and coexist on a single network. By using suitable off-the-shelf networking equipment and the various operating systems’ built-in tools, you can connect your heterogeneous hardware to the universe in short order.

First, there was Ethernet

Your first question when setting up an office network may be “Wired or wireless?” Unless you have serious security constraints, the answer should be “Both.” Wireless networks are more convenient, allowing untethered laptop users to work anywhere in the office. Wired connections are the better choice for stationary PCs and printers because they’re faster, more secure, and easier to configure—and they leave maximum wireless bandwidth for your free-range connections to use.

Before you run out and buy the first $99 wireless router you see, however, take a moment to assess your specific networking needs and your office’s topology. First, is network wiring already in place? If so, does it go to the places where you want to connect computers and other networked devices, such as printers?

Ethernet cables are fairly inexpensive. To create an uncluttered, professional-looking environment, however, you may want to have an electrician install ethernet cabling in the walls before you move into a new office space. But even if your budget is too tight for electricians and interior designers, it makes sense to draw a plan showing where your connected and wireless devices will be.

All of that wiring has to end up somewhere—and often the destination turns out to be a closet, where the cables plug into an ethernet router. The router does a number of important jobs: providing computers on your network with a private, local IP address (required to communicate with each other); coordinating connections between those private addresses and servers on the Internet; and blocking unwanted incoming and outgoing connections with a firewall. The router may also incorporate a wireless access point.

If your Internet connection enters the premises in the same closet, so much the better. And if your business is small—say, five people or so—you may be able to get by with a cheap wireless router after all (for likely candidates, see our most recent roundup of wireless routers). Most routers incorporate a wired ethernet hub with three to five connections, and a few offer eight ports—the more the better, for a growing business.

If you need additional wired connections, you’ll have to purchase an additional ethernet switch that you can set up between the router and the clients to increase the number of available ports. Most routers can assign addresses to up to 254 devices (wireless and wired), though some of them top out at 20 or so wireless clients.

Still, even the fastest wireless routers may show signs of bogging down when hosting ten or more active users, depending on the bandwidth demands of each. Alternatively, you can opt for a wired router (with lots of ports, of course) and a separate wireless access point that connects to it. Walls, masonry, metal cabinets, and other structures can interfere with the radio signal used by wireless ethernet, so a wired router plus wireless access point is a good option if your network wiring hub is fairly distant from your wireless workers.

For optimum performance, position your wireless router or access point as close as possible to the wireless work areas. Upgrading to the latest wireless technology—the draft 802.11n specification—can significantly speed up your wireless connections as well. Sometimes draft or nonstandard wireless technology delivers its best results when you purchase the router or access point and the wireless client hardware from the same manufacturer. Read the manual before installing a router, and be sure to heed its urgent warning to change the router’s default password before connecting it to the Internet.

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