You might say Nancy and Rick Cummins are at the forefront of the home networking movement. Nancy, 43, runs a secretarial service and direct-mail business, Confidential Business Services, from home. Rick, 41, is the owner of a Cincinnati-based ISP, and frequently brings work home. In 1994, the couple installed a peer-to-peer network in their Florence, Kentucky, home office so they could share files between their two PCs and access any one of their three printers.
"We networked our home office because if more than one person wanted to work on a file at the same time, it got really complicated," explains Nancy. "We also had a huge need for sharing the printers."
While few home offices have them today, networking solutions have been available for years. There are two basic types of networks: peer-to-peer and client/server. A peer-to-peer network is a system in which at least two computers are connected for sharing files or peripherals. In this type of network, no central computer--or server--is in control, although a central "hub" is recommended to allow the interconnected PCs to communicate with each other in an orderly manner. If you want to share large files and databases, a client/server solution is usually best--although it's a highly unlikely solution for home offices. In this scenario, a server, a high-speed workstation or PC with a lot of processing power and storage capability, stores all shared applications and files. A client/server solution also has a network "hub" that acts as a traffic controller.
In either case, each computer in the network must have a network interface card (NIC), which allows the device to communicate with other machines. In general, NICs use a special set of rules (protocols) called an Ethernet that carries data at a rate of 10 Mbps (megabits per second). Faster NICs that use protocols called Fast Ethernet are also available. They can carry data at rates of 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps. Finally, cabling is required to connect the devices. The most common cabling, 10BASE-T, is widely used because it's relatively inexpensive and easy to maintain.
The obvious downside to this process is the hassle of installing new wiring. Typically, installing a network involves routing unsightly cables around your home, drilling holes in the walls--even knocking down walls, if necessary. For this solution to work, you must often be willing to make a substantive investment in modifying your home's wiring. For many, the process of installing NICs and configuring computers can be technically intimidating as well.
To simplify the process, manufacturers have released products that are designed for easy installation and use. Many now offer complete home networking kits that come with everything you need. For instance, the OfficeConnect four-port Networking Kit ($119) from 3Com (www.3com.com/home) has everything you need to connect two PCs and a printer. The kit includes two EtherLink III ISA NICs (10 Mbps), one OfficeConnect four-port hub and two 25-foot unversal twisted pair cables. The kit also includes step-by-step installation instructions, as well as Installation Wizard software to guide you through the process, confirm successful installation and aid in troubleshooting.
NETGEAR (netgear.baynetworks.com) offers both 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps networking starter kits ($112 and $179, respectively). Each kit includes two NICs, two 25-foot cables, one four-port hub and network driver software. If you need to network more than two PCs, additional NICs and cables are required.