Physical Network Setup
For the purpose of simplicity, let's consider we are using a three PC network configuration - Two "clients computers" and one PC acting as the "server".
- Network Card Selection
Since we have more than two computers we can't use what is known as crossover cable (this cable is red in color usually), this eliminates the need of a hub or switch by using a direct connect approach from PC to PC. Since we are setting up a network with three PC's on it, you'll need to buy a hub or switch and obviously a PCI Network Interface Card for each system, that is if your motherboard doesn't already have an onboard LAN feature. Depending on what you require, a standard Realtek 10/100 base NIC should suffice for most, the best thing is they only cost around $30 Australian dollars (American dollars is half). Or, you have the option of an Intel based NIC or those from 3COM for example which have many added features and a lower fail rate, but this comes at a cost. You may have to pay up to four times as much for one of these as compared to the Realtek based NIC's. Below is a picture taken from the NETGEAR website of a typical NIC...
When buying a NIC, remember to ask specifically for a 10/100 base NIC. This means it can operate at both 10mbps and 100mbps depending on the particular network environment. Additionally, remember to ask for a NIC with RJ-45 connectors (the current standard), which use CAT5 cabling (this cable is blue in color usually) which is fully capable of 100mbps and fully backwards compatible at 10mbps speeds. A new standard is currently being developed known as "CAT6" (this cable is green in color usually), but the standard still isn't finalized nor approved. Rumors suggest it will be capable of a stunning 300mbps to 1gbps. This means possibly you'll be able to copy files over a network from one PC to another at an astonishing 125 megabytes per second. This is faster than some hard disk drives can copy from each other on the one single system! CAT5-E or Category 5 UTP Enhanced cabling is also backwards compatible with 10, 100 and 1000Mbit Ethernet connections.
The RJ-45 option is preferable over that of RJ-58, or more commonly known as BNC. This now outdated connection standard uses slower coaxial cable that is limited to 10mbps, which is what is used for cable TV to give you a better idea. RJ-45 and BCN at 10mbps respectively offer similar ping times. However, the difference in real world terms is slower ping latency in network games of roughly 30ms to 100ms depending on your specifications of your PC compared to RJ-45 at 100mbps.
- Hub vs. Switch
You have a couple options when it comes to hubs and switches. You're probably wondering just what exactly the difference between a switch and hubs is - allow me to explain. A hub broadcasts packets (data) to all ports, a switch stores in memory which IP address is connected to which port... so it is faster because it doesn't spray packets everywhere, making it much more efficient and effective. Another advantage to note is a switch can also run different ports at different speeds; a hub will kick down to the slowest speed. This would prove very favorable if say a friend brought his or her laptop to your house with only a slow 10 base NIC which would be hooked up to your network.
It goes without saying; I highly recommend a switch over a hub. When it comes to choosing a switch, you'll usually find them with combinations of 5, 8, 16, 24 or 32 ports and the price generally doubles for each jump in port numbers. Since we are setting up a network for our house, we only need a 5 or 8-port switch, unless you intend on hosting LAN (Local Area Network) parties in which case you should opt for the more expensive 16 or 32 port options. As with the choice of a NIC, the same applies for the decision on which switch you'll buy. Do you really need the quality and features of one? This is a decision you'll have to make yourself and the budget you've given yourself for this project.
- 802.11a and 802.11b
Look mum, "NO CABLES!" We also have a new wireless networking standard called 802.11a and also 802.11b. This exciting new standard includes terms like wireless access points so you have Internet connectively in every room of the house (Bill Gates nightly wet dream it would seem), but at this, I'd stick with standard switches because this technology is still developing and going through rapid change. I don't mind the idea behind 802.11a; I'm just hesitant and weary at this stage as I haven't played with this type of technology yet.
Back to standard switch talk now - As for brand name choices, there are many to choose from. Personally I use an 8-port switch from CNET, but other brands such as Kingmax, Netgear and Dlink are fairly reliable and carry a good name for their quality and are readily available for sale at most stores. I wouldn't have any problems recommending these to anyone. Below is a picture taken from the NETGEAR website of a typical switch...
Now that we've established exactly what we need to hook all the PC's up to each other on the network, we need to work out what specifications would be good for the server PC; the all important PC which will host things like the Internet, printers and games. Whilst the server isn't a requirement for the network to be successful, it's recommended basically so hosting services mentioned above on other PC's on the network have instant access at anytime needed.