small business office network

by Crucible Multimedia

In this information sheet we look at the basics of setting up a local area network (LAN) with two or more PCs.

Connecting computers with a peer-to-peer network

To connect two PCs all you need is a length of cable (cost: around GBP10-GBP20) and a little technical aptitude. Connect the cable to either the serial or parallel ports - serial ports are restricted in their speed, but you may find that a printer is already using a parallel port. A PC with a USB port may offer direct cable connectivity.

Perhaps a more satisfactory way of connecting two computers is to install an Ethernet network card in each PC and connect the two via a hub with two cables (cost: around GBP50-GBP60). This is a two PC "peer-to-peer" network.

With Ethernet cards and a hub you have the start of a standard Ethernet network, which can be added to as the number of PCs and network peripherals you use grows.

The prices quoted above are for 10Mbps (Mega bits per second) Ethernet. If you intend to transfer, or share, large graphics or video files, you may want to consider 100Mbps cards and hub, which are a bit more expensive but quickly becoming the standard.

Each PC has a name and belongs to a named workgroup - you can call them whatever you like. Then each drive/folder/file/printer on a PC can be "shared" (and password protected if required) by other PCs or workgroups.

Printers can be connected directly to the hub using a print server (cost: around GBP100-GBP200). This has the advantage of taking the pressure off the PC the printer would otherwise be attached to. When a printer attached to a PC is printing it can slow down other applications you may be trying to use at the same time, for example word processing, which can be very frustrating, particularly if it is someone else who is printing!

Connecting computers in a client/server network

A peer-to-peer network, with a network card in each PC and a hub, is able to handle file and printer sharing for up to five or six PCs. When you get to this level it begins to get a bit unwieldy; in particular the PCs that are connected to printers will be very slow when handling everyone else's printing. At some point it will be time to move to a client/server as opposed to a peer-to-peer network.

On a client/server network a main server administers and controls all the traffic on the network and acts as a central file and maybe program store. The network server could run Microsoft Windows NT or Novell NetWare, the market leading network administration operating systems, while the client PCs could continue to run Windows 95 or 98, or the Windows NT client operating system.

The server can also act as a proxy server for e-mail and Internet browsing, or as a fax "gateway" from the network to the public telephone system. Alternatively, some of these network functions can be performed by individual client PCs, in which case they are nominated as servers for those particular functions.

Network printers, with their own built-in memory, processor, Ethernet card and network address, are also available and can plug into a hub and release a PC workstation from printer duties.

The danger with client-server networks is that if the server goes down you can only work with the programs and files which are stored on the client PCs' hard drives - which can be seriously disruptive in a business context. It is therefore essential to have a reliable, fast-response maintenance contractor and a non-network dependent contingency plan.

Having all your files stored on a server makes information management and back-up easier, as you will no longer have to back-up each PC workstation individually, however you must ensure that the back-up procedures are carried out properly and that back-up copy files are checked. It's no good waiting until you need them before you realise that the back-up copies are faulty.

Networking your Internet connection

In the same way as you can share files and printers over a network you can also share a modem and a single Internet access account, without the need for any additional hardware or software. But as you and your staff make more use of the Internet and e-mail you may decide to network your Internet connection itself.

On a client/server network each PC and network peripheral has its own network "address", rather than just a name and workgroup. With the rise in popularity of the Internet more and more networks are using Internet protocols (TCP/IP) for this purpose, and adopting IP addresses as a format for network addresses. This makes the integration of the Internet into the network much easier. 

To connect to the Internet over a network you need an ISDN PBX, ADSL or Cable connection and a router. Individual desktop access over the network needs a software "proxy server", or hardware router to direct the incoming and outgoing data packets over the network.

Reviewed January 2011

last updated : 21/01/2011

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