Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 142 / JULY 1992 / PAGE 70

Getting wired. (computer networks for home offices)(includes related articles on advantages and disadvantages of networking)
by Gregg Keizer, Robert Bixby

If you're like many technophiles, your house is wired for sound, with a stereo in the living room feeding speakers in rooms far away. Your television down in the den is connected to cable, a VCR, and another set of speakers to crank out "The Simpsons," "Dinosaurs," and "Northern Exposure" in stereo. Your house is threaded with phone lines; you have extensions in every room, a second line for the kids, and maybe a third in your home office. Your fax machine is linked to your phone, phone to modem, modem to PC.

But your computers, crucial to your lifestyle and home office, suffer in isolation. They're islands, entire of themselves, with no way to connect other than low-tech sneakernet, where you wear out shoe leather shuffling disks from one machine to anther.

A computer network for the home office can serve the same purpose as one in the corporate office: It links PCs for easy file transfer and communication, and makes it possible to share a printer among several systems. Your home computer network can save you time--and money, too--just as a downtown business's computer connections make it a more productive workplace.

And though the word network may conjure up images of cables snaking underfoot, it can be no more difficult to create, install, and run a home office net than it is to connect a printer, plug in a cable, or dial the phone.

Full Service or a la Carte?

Office-bound networks serve four basic functions.

* Sharing files between or among computers

* Printing to a central printer from any machine

* Running applications from a central system

* Passing along electronic mail

The first three make sense in a home network, but the last, E-mail, may seem ridiculous unless your office is spread throughout a very large house. But E-mail makes sense if there are more than two employees in your office, whether it's located in a house or an office building. It allows for paperless memos, messages for coworkers who are away temporarily, and an alternate route for the friendly give-and-take that makes an office cohesive and fun.

Depending on how much money and effort you want to put into your home computer network, you can go for full service--file sharing, printer sharing, and software pooling--or simply share files and perhaps a peripheral or two.

LAN software and hardware packages are popping up everywhere--from computer store shelves to back pages of computer magazines. There are also numerous non-LAN products that can perform basic LAN tasks like file transfer. File-transfer utility programs like LapLink Pro and modem-oriented products like ProComm can handle the simplest needs.

>From this modest beginning, you can work your way from a two-node, "peer-to-peer" (which means that no one computer is dedicated to operating the network) LAN all the way to full-scale multinode networks traversing thousands of miles. To find the right LAN for you, first evaluate the equipment you want to tie together. Where is that equipment located? What do you want to do with it? And how much equipment will you add to it later?

Most small LANs operate on the Ethernet standard. The Ethernet standard is analogous to the Hayes standard used for modems. Other standards include ARCnet and IBM's Token Ring. A good LAN works in the background unnoticed by the computer user. Typical LANs require each node--each individual computer system tied into the network--to have an Ethernet-compatible or other standard network adapter card.

Most LAN starter kits come with two Ethernet-compatible cards, thereby providing a simple two-node LAN. Peripheral equipment (printers, modems, plotters, scanners, CD-ROM drives, fax boards, and so forth) generally don't require individual nodes but are linked through a computer on the LAN instead. Most LANs can share printers and CD-ROM drives. Modems, plotters, and/or scanners are handled by only a few.

At a minimum, the average LAN offers file transfer, peripheral and software applications sharing, and electronic mail. Most include security features.

There are two basic LAN configurations: peer-to-peer and client-server. In a peer-to-peer network any machine can access applications and files on any other machine on the network. A client-server network is a hierachical structure in which a client machine accesses another machine called a server. The client uses applications from and stores files on the server's hard disk. A client is also sometimes called a redirector or a workstation. Some LANs (PromiseLAN in particular) can have peer-to-peer units, client units, and a server unit on the same network. The best LANs for personal productivity are peer-to-peer, unless you have a spare 386 lying around that you can use as the network server.

When you're shopping for a LAN, variables to compare include maximum number of nodes, total RAM required, unique features, system requirements, additional purchases required, and price. See the accompanying grid ("LAN Alternatives") for information on low-cost LANs.

Number of the Network

The simplest and least expensive network is one that simply moves files from one computer to another via existing phone lines.

One file-transfer network takes advantage of your local phone company and LapLink Pro, a state-of-the-art file-transfer package for the PC. It may not be a network per se, but in a two-computer, two-phone line household, the combination gets you the same results.

LapLink Pro makes it easy to transfer files over a serial cable, but Traveling Software, the manufacturer, also sells connectors that allow you to string simple four-connector phone line between serial ports. A company spokesman said that he had successfully sent messages over 150 feet of serial cable, but if you are using unshielded phone line or live in an area with lots of radio emissions (from computers, CBs, and even garage door openers), you will need to keep the distances shorter than this or risk data corruption.

LapLink Pro's batch file transfer, clear progress gauges, and split screen--familiar to users of the earlier laptop-to-desktop LapLink software--make it a snap to use. Of course, with the program running, the source PC can't be used for anything else, but if your network needs are limited to moving files, it's a workable, bargain-basement remedy.

Mixing Metaphors

If you're connecting Macintoshes and PCs at home, you're only able to share files and printers. Since Macintoshes and PCs use different microprocessors and different operating systems, you can't run Mac applications on the PC.

Apple's own LocalTalk network, with capabilities built into the most recent Macintosh operating system software, System 7.0, lets you link to PCs. Like the LapLink Pro connection, the simplest Mac-to-DOS LocalTalk network relies on the standard telephone lines in your house or office.

You'll need a PhoneNet Card PC from Farallon for your PC, one of the company's PhoneNet connectors for the Macintosh, and a phone outlet near each computer. Farallon's PhoneNet is completely compatible with Apple's own LocalTalk, but it sends the bits and bytes across the two unused wires found in most home phone lines (if your phone line doesn't have them, you can install separate phone wire and jacks yourself or have a phone-company installer do it). By relying on existing cabling, PhoneNet can save you a considerable amount of money, particularly if your computers are at some distance from one another.

The PhoneNet Card PC only works with PCs that operate at 25 MHz or slower, but for those computers, it's a terrific way to share files with Macs or to use a laser printer with two different systems. In effect, the PhoneNet Card PC and its accompanying software turn the PC into just another workstation on the LocalTalk network. You can share files and transfer them from Mac to PC, PC to PC, or PC to Mac, as well as print to a PostScript printer connected to the net.

If your PCs are using DOS 5.0, you can move all but 2K of the 134K required for the PhoneNet memory-resident software into high memory, out of the way of your applications.

Of all the true network alternatives, PhoneNet is the quickest way to get your Macintoshes and PCs talking.

Dollar Net

You might think full-fledged networks are prohibitively expensive. If your image is of tens of computers, yards of cable, and pricey network software, then you're probably right. In a home office, though, you can get by inexpensively, even if you need a full-blown network that's capable of moving files, sharing printers, and running applications from a central system.

MOSES Computers' PromiseLAn is a good example. For $199 (about a third less if you buy it by mail), you get a starter kit that links two PCs in a full-service network. Included in the kit are the necessary network adapters, software, and telephone cabling.

PromiseLAN is a real network, in that you can transfer files between computers and run applications from one PC's hard drive on another machine. You do get what you pay for, though. PromiseLAN can only connect as many as five computers, and it transmits data at a slow 1.79 megabits per second (Mbps), while most office networks move data at the Ethernet standard of 10 Mbps. But in many home offices, where convenience and low cost are as important as a long features list, neither limitation matters.

Do you want to stretch your cash even farther? Then The $25 Network may be just the thing. This software and cable package really costs only $25, and it connects as many as five systems with phone wire jacked into a serial port in each machine. Transmission speed is even slower than Promise-LAN's--only 115 kilobits per second (Kbps)--but certainly acceptable for printing and file copying (a 150K file moves from PC to PC in just over ten seconds, for instance). The $25 Network lets you run programs on any of the networked PCs, but unless the programs are fairly small, the data-transfer speed makes this impractical.

Much faster and more complete in its features than either PromiseLAN or The $25 Network, LANtastic is a network that's inexpensive enough for the home office. Buy the LANtastic AE-2 Ethernet Starter Kit for $699 (less by mail), and you get two AE-2 Ethernet adapter cards, a 25-foot length of coaxial cable, and the software to connect as many as 300 workstations.

Expandability is less important than the fact that the network runs at a full 10 Mbps, you get built-in electronic mail (in case you have an assistant), and you have access to all disk and printer resources on the network. This is called a peer-to-peer network--all the networked PCs act simultaneously as both servers and workstations.

The result is a lightning-fast network that can take advantage of a large hard disk on one system and a laser printer connected to another.

Through the Ether

But what if you don't want to drill holes through walls or floors, or even go to the trouble of laying cable? Though it may seem like science fiction, you can connect computers in the home office with a wireless network that sends its signals via radio waves.

The LAWN (Local Area Wireless Network) boxes from O'Neill Communications cost $398 each (the printer node needs a special adapter, so it costs $489); connect to the serial port of each PC and printer on the network; and though not extraordinarily fast (19.2 Kbps), offer file transfer, E-mail, and printer sharing.

If you have computers scattered around the house, LAWN dramatically cuts the network-setup time. It easily transmits data through walls, even floors. It's rated as an FCC Class B device, which means that it won't interfere with other computers, televisions, or high-fidelity equipment in the house.

LAWN is expensive to install--a two-computer-one-printer network runs nearly $1,300--but if you'd rather compute than lay cable, it's an excellent alternative for a 1990s home office.

Tomorrow's Home Office Today

You may think that a home office network is a frivolous expense when you've got a business to run and money to make. But put a network purchase into the same context as any other office upgrade, like a hard disk or a CD-ROM drive, and you may discover that the money (and perhaps time) spent will be worthwhile.

If you work by yourself in a one-computer office, a network is obviously unnecessary. But if your home sports more than one computer (whether they are used for business or not), a network can pay for itself.

Home-based businesses with more than one PC and more than one worker benefit most from a network. If you hire help, even for such clerical concerns as correspondence or filing, link another PC to your primary machine, and you can improve your employees' productivity and your own. In fact, the more computers and workers you have to coordinate, the greater your network payoff will be. Therefore, any small business with five or more employees, all using computers, should seriously consider the network alternative.

Next in line is the single-system office that shares the house with another PC, perhaps one used by your spouse or children. With a peer-to-peer network like PromiseLAN, it's easier to justify the cost of a large hard drive or a laser printer because the end cost is distributed over several users and machines. Your kids can keep their applications and files on your PC's drive, even use your laser printer, if you have a network.

A home computer network may sound like an exotic beast, but it can be an inexpensive way to multiply the capabilities of all the machines--and computer users--under your roof.