What Kind of Network Do You Need and How Much Will It Cost?

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I’ve written this for the “layman” who wants to know what he/she’ll need to set up a home network. I do not use the cheapest stuff I can find nor do I use shortcuts to save money. If you want to do it right, follow these guidelines; sure, you can save a few cents if you want but I never have network headaches because I’ve tried to save money.

First of all, what are you going to use this LAN for?

File swapping is the only real reason to have fast LANs. And I’m talking about LARGE files. I’ve had 10 computers at my house running on a 10baseT network playing Unreal Tournament or Quake and none had any lag or ping problems.

A typical CD is about 650 megs of info and if you’re moving that much stuff often then you may want the higher speed. 650 Megs will take around 7 minutes to move from one computer to another over a 100baseT network, about 10X that long over a 10baseT network.

What will be your connection speed?

56.6 modem, DSL or Cable user? Well you’ll probably definitely not want a 100baseT network (again only if you’re not moving large files internally). Let’s take DSL as an example – it promises speeds up to 1.5 megs per second. A 10baseT network card moves 10 Megs per second. So even if your DSL line ran peak speed, you still wouldn’t be able to utilize the other 8.5 Megs in the card’s ability.

The real issue is cost:

First of all, a good 10/100 LAN card will run around $30. What makes a good card? Well don’t pay attention to the brand on the outside of the box, that’s for sure. It’s the chipset on the card itself. I highly recommend Intel or Kingston chips. Any company can buy the cards from China or Japan and stamp their names on the box, but it’s the chips themselves that actually do the work.

Size is also something to look for. If the card you’re looking at is about an inch wide and 4 inches long, forget it. You are missing some important processing components as well as buffers. A cheap card will force the processor to do some work since it’s unable. A better card (slightly smaller than an average sound card) will do all the buffering and processing itself and not force an extra burden on the CPU.

Now IF you’re going to run 10/100 cards, you’ll have to run ALL 10/100 cards. I know of several problems plugging a pair of computers in the same switch that run different speed cards.

An inexpensive (if not free) 10baseT card can be found on clearance shelves of local computer stores for $10 or less. I mentioned free because most people that upgrade to the 100baseT networks throw out their old NIC cards or stick ’em in a closet somewhere, so you may want to ask around.

If you’re running a network on a 10baseT design, any 100baseT computer can plug into it and just adjust their settings in the NIC’s properties. Fast way to tell if a card is 10 or 100 is to look at the back. The side that you can see outside your computer where you plug your net cables in to. If there is just an RJ45 jack in the back, more than likely it’s a 10/100 card. If it has an RJ45 and a BNC (looks like a coax cable connector) it’s a 10baseT card.

Now HOW will you connect them?

Well, if you’re only using 2 computers and don’t expect to hit the lottery anytime soon to buy a house full, you simply need 1 cable. Called an x-over or “cross over” cable. You’ll just plug it into the NIC’s on both computers. If you’re going to have more than 2, you’ll either need a hub or a switch.

A hub is really kind’a dumb. All it does is take a 10baseT or 100baseT network and connect everything (read this whole section before you start scratching your head). If you have 3 or more systems, you’re going to need one since there’s not really any way of connecting more than 2 computers without one.

If you have a 10baseT network hub you must have all 10baseT network (or 10/100 with 10 set in the NIC’s properties) cards. Same for 100baseT network hubs (you must have all 100 MB LAN/NIC cards or you may have problems later). You’ll plug each of you computers into this hub so they can communicate with each other and share information or network access.

A switch however is slightly smarter. It’ll allow you to connect any computer no matter which card (10baseT or 100baseT) it has and still communicate.

Then there’s the Smart Switch

It not only allows you to connect any type of LAN/NIC card, but also remembers who’s who and sends info directly to that computer. Confusing? Hehe – wait – it gets better. Normally when you use a hub it sends a signal out and says “OK – this guy is looking for the “yadda yadda” file on a computer named “whatever” to every computer on your network and waits for a response from computer “whatever”.

A smart switch says “Hey – This guy named “X” is plugged into port 1 on me and this guy named “Y” is plugged into port 2 and this guy named “Z” is in port 3″. Now when you computer says “OK – This guy is looking for the “yadda yadda” file on a computer named “whatever” the smart switch, instead of sending that to everyone, says “Oh! I know who that is…..” and sends the request directly to the computer you’re looking for.

If you think about it, you can see how it would cut down on network traffic since the signal isn’t going to everyone but only to the computer it needs to go to. Also, when asking for internet information and only one computer has access to the web, the smart switch will send all requests for “Show me www.whatever.com” directly to the only computer with internet access.

A typical 4 port 10baseT hub will cost about $20-30 where a smart switch will run around $80.

Now the cables

If your computers are close, you can use prefab cables. They will handle both the 10 and the 100 LANs. However, if you have some distance to cover, you’ll have a few more options:

  • A 10baseT net will work fine with typical Cat 5 (Category 5 wire consists of 8 wires twisted together in pairs and is also known as twisted pair wire) and crimp-on type ends. By far the cheapest wiring type network.
  • A 100baseT network needs some more precise wiring since the signals are FAR more sensitive. The best way to handle this is to run Cat 5 between each computer on the network and the hub/switch, then put terminals on each of the ends. Then you’ll need a patch cable (which is just a factory made cable) between the terminal on the end of the Cat 5 wire and the NIC card or hub/switch.

You can see why this is getting more expensive.

Now the reason for all of this:

I once had a switch go bad and made a quick patch cable with crimp-on ends. I could actually see the difference, so I ran a throughput test on WS Ping Pro Pack to verify it. Sure enough – my speed was almost cut in half!

100baseT networks are so sensitive that the electrical impulses may cause the wires to move ever so slightly on the crimp-on ends. You’ll never be able to see it, but it’ll cause “noise” on your network and slow down the entire system. Plus the crimp-on ends (or RJ45 terminals) only have a sliver of metal actually touching the wires themselves.

Cat 5 Terminals have much thicker metal slots that touch a lot more of the wire and are less likely to move or generate “noise”. Another Cost: You’ll either need the Crimping Tool for the 10baseT network which generally runs about $10 or you’ll need a “punch down tool” for the 100baseT network which’ll cost ya’ about $35.

So let’s figure it up w/o the Cat 5 itself – A 10baseT network with 3 computers:

  • 3 NIC’s @ $10 each (if you can’t find ’em cheaper or free)
  • 1 10baseT Hub $25
  • 1 RJ45 Crimping Tool $10
  • 6 RJ45 Terminals $2

That’s $67 w/o wire for 3 computers.

A 100baseT network with 3 computers:

  • 3 NIC’s @ $30 each
  • 1 100baseT hub/switch $60 or Smart Switch $80
  • 6 Cat 5 terminals $6
  • 6 patch cables $30
  • 1 punch down tool $35

That’s $221 or $241 with the Smart Switch.

Now tell me….how bad do you REALLY need that 100baseT network? =)

Chances are you can borrow the tools or find a local computer shop and bring them the parts – they’ll probably charge little or nothing to set them up for you and will also be responsible if they’re not making a good connection.

OK – I’m almost out of breath…….

Now – Setting up a Home Network

Do you use a Proxy server? Internet Connection Sharing? Firewalls? Well that’s something to save for my next “article”. Stay tuned – same bat time – same bat station (anyone remember that?).

John Whitefield

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