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Choosing the Right Networking Equipment

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Networking Buying Guide

The technology for networking home computers has advanced at the same torrid pace as that of the personal computer itself. As computers rapidly evolved from primitive curiosities for the technically elite to an essential part of everyday life, the number of computers in the average home grew. With that came demand for ever better means to link them together.

The price of home networking hardware has fallen dramatically over the years, keeping pace with technology that now requires little or no expertise to put it to use. Armed only with knowledge of the basics, the ideal home networking solution for any situation is within the reach.

That knowledge begins with an understanding of what networking actually means.


Networking Basics

Networking may seem like a trivial concept, but a solid grasp of what it entails is essential before committing to any technology.

Networks Defined

Networks simply connect two or more computers for the purpose of sharing information. They can be as basic as a short crossover cable connecting two personal computers sitting side by side, or as complex as the interconnection of thousands of mainframes and their satellite systems distributed around the world.

Generally speaking, networks fall into one of two broad categories, determined by how they are managed and controlled.

Domain Networks

A domain network has one or more dedicated computers, called servers, that control all network activity. Network administrators establish the rules governing the exchange of information between clients and the permissions each is granted. Domains are used mostly for commercial networks.

Peer-to-Peer Networks

Peer-to-peer networks are relatively simple systems that link fewer than 20 personal computers in the same physical location with a single connection. Each computer on the network determines which of its files and peripherals are to be accessible and sets the rules by which access is to be granted. No computer can alter the permissions of another. Home networks are almost always peer-to-peer.

Ad-hoc networks are temporary peer-to-peer connections set up for a specific purpose such as meetings and gaming.

What Home Networks Can Do

The most basic purpose of home networks is to enable the sharing resources such as files, printers, and an Internet connection. Right up to the turn of the century the technology available for home use was capable of little else. Networks could serve only a few computers, all of which had to be running the same operating system.

Home network technology has come a long way since then. Today Macs, Windows-based PCs, and a host of portable devices can effortlessly communicate with each other over a common link. Applications as diverse as multi-player gaming and remote desktop control are commonplace and more are being developed every day. The possibilities are limitless.

Often it is practical to have only one computer on a home network access the Internet through a separate connection. That computer, called the "host," can share its connection with the other computers by enabling ICS (Internet Connection Sharing).

ICS provides an effective alternative to more costly methods of Internet sharing, but there is one very important thing to consider before it is used. If the host uses a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to connect to an external network, such as one at work, every other computer on the home network will also be connected to the external network if ICS is enabled and the VPN is active.

Careful consideration of how a home network will be used is absolutely necessary before deciding which technology is best for each application.


Choosing The Right Home Networking Technology

Selecting the appropriate technology for home networking requires forethought and planning. Think of potential needs in the near future, such as a growing family, as well as current requirements. Also keep in mind that you may want to add new peripherals to the network or expand its capabilities as new applications are discovered.

The following considerations are especially important when planning a home network

What Will Be Connected to the Network

Home networks these days are capable of linking far more than a few desktop computers and a printer or two. Having a clear vision of the devices that will potentially be connected before settling on a home networking solution is of utmost importance.

One one extreme are those who will be networking numerous computers with video and audio devices along with a variety of portable devices including smart phones, PDAs, and tablets. For them it is prudent to buy sufficient additional capacity to accommodate new devices as they enter the market, especially if children will be using the network.

At the other extreme, many users are unlikely to ever want more of their network than a simple link between two computers and a connection to the Internet. Most people find their needs lie somewhere between the two extremes.

The two biggest pitfalls in setting up home networking are buying capability that will never be used and buying technology that will soon need to be upgraded or replaced. Regardless of the situation, thoughtful planning will help avert them both.

Where The Connected Devices Will Be Located

Most home networks today connect several computers located in different rooms throughout the house. Each technology has its advantages and limitations, so it is essential to include a thorough survey of the home when planning a network.

First look for wiring that may already exist. Many homes today are built with high speed communication cables pre-installed. If that’s the case, you should test the wiring in every room in which a computer will be located. Inexpensive testers are available online and at many electronics stores.

Unused standard telephone lines are another possibility for home networking. These lines have often been changed several times, especially in older homes, so they must be tested as well. A variety of testers can also be found online as well as at a few brick and mortar stores. Finally, you may have existing cable TV lines that are no longer in use. Adapters are readily available online and may be carried by brick and mortar stores.

Next examine the home for compatibility with wireless technology. Look for extensive metal in the walls, especially metal framing. Note the proximity of microwave ovens and other wireless devices, such as telephones, to each device to be connected to the home network.

Go outside and note all nearby power transmission lines and cellular towers as well as antennas used for emergency services, CB radio, and amateur radio transmissions. Making a thorough survey of the environment in which the home network will exist is the best way to avoid costly surprises after the network is installed.


The Two Classes of Home Networking Technology

All home networks fall into one of two categories: wired and wireless. Each has its own advantages and limitations. The information gathered so far will dictate which is best for almost any application.

Wired Technologies

Hard-wired technology for home networking offers a very secure connection, strong immunity to interference, and excellent speed. Two common technologies used to hard wire a home network are: Ethernet and HPNA (Home Phoneline Network Adapter).

Ethernet

Ethernet dates back to the early 1970s and has been in wide use ever since. Standard data transfer rates of 10 and 100 Mbps (Mega bits per second) are common and 1 Gbps (Gigabit, or 1000 megabits, per second) rate is possible using co-axial cables.

The principal drawback to Ethernet is that either cat 5e or co-axial cables must be run to each computer from some central location. If new wiring needs to be installed it is best to have the work done professionally. Without special skills there is a strong risk of causing personal injury and significant damage to the structure. Many contractors will provide an estimate for the work for a nominal fee.

Ethernet also requires that cables be connected through a router, switch, or hub if more than two computers are to be connected.

HPNA (Home Phone Network Adapter)

As the name implies, HPNA takes advantage of existing telephone outlets common to most homes. Although HPNA adapters are somewhat more expensive than those for Ethernet, no special equipment is necessary to connect multiple computers. With transfer rates up to 128 Mbps, HPNA is offers an attractive alternative to Ethernet in many homes.

Wireless Technologies

If the home network will be used primarily to connect mobile devices such as smart phones and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant) to one or two computers, a Bluetooth PAN (Personal Area Network) is an ideal solution. Most handheld devices have Bluetooth capability and USB adapters are widely available for personal computers.

To connect two computers in close proximity, a direct crossover connection will probably suffice. For most applications, however, a LAN will be the optimal solution. The biggest advantage of wireless technology is convenience. Because there is no need for cables, computers can be located virtually anywhere within the structure. In addition, most portable computers can automatically detect and connect to a wireless network.

On the other hand, wireless connections are susceptible to interference from a host of other devices operating at the same frequency as cordless telephones and even microwave ovens. Furthermore, metallic structures can severely impede wireless transmissions. Because of that, actual wireless transfer rates seldom exceed 50% of their specified rating.

Industry Standards For Wireless Technology

Wireless home networking technology is normally specified by the applicable industry standard, usually either 802.11b, 802.11a, or 802.11g. These standards ensure that all devices subscribing to the same standard will be compatible.
 

Standard

Standard Defined

802.11b

Of the three, following this standard is usually the least expensive. Maximum transfer rate is 11 Mbps

802.11a

Equipment using this standard tends to be more expensive than the others and can transfer at rates up to 54 Mbps.

802.11g

With greater range than the other two, a price typically somewhere between the others, and transfer rates equal to that of 802.11a equipment, devices that employ this standard are an excellent choice for many applications.


Security of Wireless Networking

Because wireless networks can be received by any computer in proximity to the transmitter, such as an adjacent apartment, additional security is necessary to prevent unauthorized intrusion. Two methods are in common use.
 

Method

Method Defined

WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy)

WEP uses basic encryption technology that requires a key to decode information sent from one computer to another.

WPA (WiFi Protected Access)

WPA adds another layer of protection by detecting changes made to the key and authenticating users. WPA2 further enhances security but is not compatible with some older network adapters.


The optimal technology for every situation boils down to a balance of cost, performance, and security. If those are carefully weighed against existing conditions the choice of home networking hardware should be clear.


Wired Home Networking Hardware

When more than two computers are to be connected to a wired home network an additional hardware will be required. The three most common devices are hubs, switches, and routers.

Networking Hubs

Hubs These are the most basic and least expensive devices to connect computers using Ethernet. Every computer connected to a hub receives every transmission regardless of the source (including the source itself). Hubs do not allow full duplex operation (simultaneous transmission and reception) which slows down communications considerably.

Switches

Switches direct information only to the intended receiver and operate in full duplex mode. Although more expensive than hubs, switches are much better for transferring large quantities of data and are clearly superior to hubs when there are more than three computers on the network.

Routers

A router is like a traffic cop, directing traffic between two networks. This is essential for sharing Internet connections through one modem. In addition, most routers provide the security of a hard-wired firewall to protect networked computers from intrusion from outside sources. Routers are somewhat more expensive than hubs or switches but should be considered absolutely necessary when the home network is connected to the Internet.


How to Find Networking Equipment on eBay

Finding what you need to set up your home network on eBay could not be easier. You can go to the "Computers" category and follow the chain through "Networking" or simply type the keywords "computer" and "networking" (without the quotes, of course) in the search box and you will be provided with a number of options to further narrow your search.

You will also find it worthwhile to browse through the many eBay stores specializing in computer hardware. If you can’t find what you are looking for, you can create a post on "Want It Now" and sellers who have what you want will come to you. You can even save your search and eBay will send you an email the moment a seller has what you are looking for.


Buy Home Networking Hardware With Confidence

Before you bid on any item, take the time to make certain that you know exactly what you're buying and the conditions of the sale. Here are a few rules of thumb:

  • Read the description carefully, paying particular attention to the product’s condition and functionality.
  • Note if the pictures are of the actual item or are only representative.
  • If you have any questions, ask the seller before you bid.
  • Know what the shipping and handling charges will be. The lowest price may not be the best deal. And see if you could save some money by combining multiple items in one purchase.
  • If the item is expensive, make sure the shipment will be insured. Add the cost of insurance to the price if it is not included.
  • Carefully examine the seller’s return policy, especially the conditions under which they apply.
  • See if eBay or PayPal buyer protections apply.
  • Check out the seller’s feedback to see what others think of their transactions with the seller.
  • If you decide to buy, use PayPal. It is the safest and most secure method available.
  • NEVER agree to conduct any transaction outside of eBay. Report any attempt to get you to do otherwise.
  • If you experience any problems, please try to resolve them with the seller before leaving negative feedback. Problems are almost always due to a misunderstanding that the vast majority of sellers will be eager to correct.

Once you have a few eBay transactions under your belt you will wonder why you ever went elsewhere for your home networking needs.


Conclusion

Choosing the right networking equipment for a home or office can be a challenge for a potential buyer. With new products and terminology hitting the scene each day, it’s hard to keep up. Thankfully, online marketplaces like eBay are there to not only help with the buying process, but also aid in the research into which products work for particular customer needs.

 
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