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SMALL BUSINESS | BUSINESS TOOLS / Software, Technologhy
and New Products To Help Your Company

Computer Networks Now Viable for Small Offices

September 09, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you have more than one PC in your office, consider installing a local area network. Until recently that would have been an expensive and daunting task, but today it's quite affordable and reasonably simple.

There are all sorts of advantages. You can easily move or share files between computers. Printers, modems and high-speed Internet connections can be shared, cutting down on costs.

There are many options for installing a network, and if you have a complicated situation with lots of users or unusual needs you might want to hire a consultant. But if your needs are straightforward, you might be able to do it yourself using one of the "network in a box" kits that you can buy from a computer retailer.

A network typically consists of five elements: the PCs that you connect, network interface cards in each PC, a hub that serves as a central junction box, the cables that hook everything together and the software that makes it all work.

Some offices also have a dedicated server, a computer that controls the network and stores files. But if you mainly want to share files, printers, Internet access and other resources among eight or fewer PCs, then you're probably better off with a peer-to-peer network that doesn't require a server.

LANs typically come in two speeds. There is the standard ethernet, which runs at 10 megabytes per second, and the fast ethernet, which runs at 100 mbps. The slower speed is fast enough for most office applications that don't involve playing video over the network or quickly moving vast amounts of data.

But the difference in price between 10 mbps and 100 mbps is pretty small. Unless you're pinching pennies, you may as well go for the faster network. At the very least, install Category 5 cables that can accommodate either speed in case you later want to upgrade your equipment.

Each computer on your network will need an ethernet connector. Most Macs come with built-in ethernet connectors, but most IBM-compatible machines require that you add one by inserting a network interface card, or NIC.

The good news is that NICs can be bought for as little as $20. The bad news is that you have to take the PC apart to install them. You also have to run software to transfer the card's driver to your hard disk. Configuring that card to work with Windows is sometimes difficult, so it's a good idea to get a card from a company that offers telephone support.

The software required to set up a peer-to-peer network is included as part of both Windows (95 and 98) and Macintosh operating systems.

Companies that provide NICs and other networking equipment include 3Com (http://www.3com.com), Linksys (http://www.linksys.com), Bay Networks (http://www.baynetworks.com) and NDC (http://www.ndclan.com).

These companies also offer networking kits that typically come with a hub, two NICs, two cables and installation software. NDC's SohoWare starter kits begin at $80 for a 10 mbps system with two 10 mbps NICs and a five-port hub. The 100 mbps version costs about $149.

Linksys has a fast ethernet starter kit with a four-port hub, two NICs and two 15-foot cables for about $100. Bay Networks offers a fast ethernet kit with an eight-port hub, two NICs and two 10-foot cables for $199. You can mix components. My network has both a Hewlett-Packard and Linksys hub and NICs from a variety of companies.

Most Windows notebook machines don't have ethernet connectors, but you can plug one into the machine's PC card slot. 3Com makes a series of stand-alone ethernet cards as well as cards with both a modem and ethernet connector. If you want the ultimate modem-ethernet card combination, I suggest you check out one of the RealPort Integrated PC Cards from Xircom (http://www.xircom.com) which start at about $150. Unlike most laptop ethernet cards, these don't require a separate cable (called a dongle) between the card and the ethernet cable.

All the computers on the network are plugged into one or more hubs. A hub is simply a box with an RJ-45 connector for each machine. It isn't a complicated or expensive piece of equipment, but you need to think about how many machines you plan to connect. When you buy a hub you have to specify the number of ports or connectors. The cheapest come with four ports, but you can also buy them with five, six, eight, 12, 16 or more ports. Connecting a cable's RJ-45 plug to a hub is as easy as plugging in a phone. Hubs don't require special software or drivers.

If your computers are in the same or adjacent rooms, connecting them to a single hub is easy. But if you have clusters of machines in different parts of the building, you should consider getting a separate hub for each area. You can connect one hub to another by using the same type of cables used to connect PCs to hubs. Once connected to the network, you can plug additional PCs into the new hub.

For some businesses, cabling can be the most time-consuming and expensive part of the job. Licensed electricians can do the job, but a growing number of people specialize in telephone and LAN wiring. Unlike electrical wires, LANs don't carry high voltage, so there aren't as many safety issues.

You can buy cables with or without the RJ-45 connectors. If you buy them without the connector, you'll need a crimping tool to put connectors on both ends of each cable. You can find 50-foot cables with connectors for about $25 each. You can also find them in other lengths ranging from a couple of feet to 250 feet or more.

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Find out more about small business and technology at The Times' Small Business Strategies Conference Oct. 17-18 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. You can e-mail Lawrence J. Magid at magid@latimes.com and visit his Web site at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."

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