It used to be that home networking was focused on connecting PCs, but the rise of other networked devices over recent years has broadened the appeal a lot. At its heart networking is about sharing data, be it from the internet or from within. Networking can also be simpler than it has ever been before, thanks to a focus on user friendliness in the hardware.
But a broadening of usage models and types of devices can also make networking tricky. Getting two PCs to talk to each other is a relatively simple affair, but when you add media players, network storage and handheld devices to the mix you often need to start running additional software to help everything place nice together.
But like most things the software comes later. In order to build a home network you’ll need to get the hardware right first. And that involves knowing what you want to do, and where you want to do it. Actual setups are going to vary greatly depending upon your home layout, how intrusive you want cabling to be and whether you are prepared to spend a bit to get cabling installed. If you are renting your options will be more limited, but there are still ways to avoid snaking blue networking cables through the house.
A lot of the time you won’t have a choice of networking hardware. The vast majority of modem/routers out there are supplied by ISPs, and while there are many different makes and models of routers on the market, you tend to only end up with one when replacing an ISP supplied model.
If your ISP has only supplied a modem then you’ll need to buy a router. While they lack the modem hardware, they’ll plug directly into your modem and run the network for you. This setup is pretty much identical to that of a modem/router, you just have two boxes and an extra cable to deal with.
You want to be able to access all those photos and videos and all that music you have locked away on hard drives, and this is easier than it has ever been
Your standard router will come with Wireless, usually the latest 802.11n standard, and more often than not four Ethernet ports. Despite the fact that most PCs sold in the past few years have Gigabit Ethernet ports, most routers stick with the older 10/100 standard (Gigabit ports are backwards compatible so they still work with these routers).
Gigabit networking hardware is actually fairly expensive to make properly. This is due to the high bandwidth requirements needing a fair bit of background grunt to use. So you’ll only really find gigabit on high end routers, and while it is handy to have, you will only really need it if you have high bandwidth requirements. 10/100 Ethernet will be fine for sharing both internet connections and streaming media over the network.
If you are selecting your own router, there are a few handy features that have become relatively common. Most routers will have a few USB ports on them. These are designed to plug printers and external hard drives into, which the router management software can then share out. Adding wireless to devices like printers ups the cost, and if you aren’t hoarding much data an external hard drive plugged into the router will likely sort out your backup and storage needs, saving on the need to get a dedicated network hard drive or NAS.
The three types of connection
Stick with a wired connection for bulky data transfers
Wireless is an awesome piece of technology right up until the moment you try to copy a large file or stream high definition video. 802.11n is theoretically capable of high bandwidth, but with wireless there are no guaranteed speeds, and packetloss can make for stuttering video and audio. Like many technologies, there is a certainty that comes with communicating via a cable, rather than relying on an access point plucking the right packets out of the air.
Because of these shortcomings you’ll ideally only want some devices using wireless. For anything that is dealing in bulk data transfers – PC, Network Storage, Media Player for example –
you’ll want a wired connection.
There is a third option that sits between Ethernet and wireless. It isn’t as speedy or reliable as Ethernet but is better than wireless. Called Powerline networking, it piggybacks on the electrical wiring in your house, much like ADSL piggybacks on copper telephone lines. You plug special receivers into the power points in the locations you need connectivity and hook these into the Ethernet ports on your device. The receivers will then communicate with each other using an encrypted signal.
The actual quality of powerline networking will vary, depending upon the wiring in your house and the number of receivers. The newer models will actually boost signals when you add more nodes to the powerline network, however this can start becoming costly and it is a technology that is best used in moderation, when you need to get a network signal between floors or rooms for example.
Most NAS boxes let you add your own hard drives
Besides desktop and laptop PCs, a home network is a useful way to share other resources. The biggest of these are printers and storage devices. Printing isn’t exactly taxing on bandwidth, and seldom so time sensitive that it matters. This makes wireless quite adequate for printing needs, and many models of printers come with Wi-Fi and/or Ethernet built in.
The other printing option is to hook a printer up to a supporting router or network storage device via USB. This is the cheapest option if all you need is the occasional black and white page. You can easily find basic black and white lasers for under $100, and at that price point networking isn’t included. But adding it via USB will enable you to share it out over the network.
Network storage is one of the most crucial parts of a network. At the bare minimum you’ll want something that you can automate backups to. Those with large media collections will likely want something more advanced, and if you want to stream media to consumer electronics devices you’ll need to plan for a bit more.
At the basic level you can use an external hard drive. This could be shared from a PC on the network, or plugged directly into a router that has data sharing capabilities. This is an adequate solution for simple backups, but a dedicated device starts looking more attractive if your needs are greater.
There are a few varieties of network hard drive on the market. These are designed to hook directly into an Ethernet or wireless connection and offer managed shares over the network; some even manage media streaming as well. Where limitations lie is in capacity, although some solutions like Seagate’s GoFlex system use a dock with replaceable drives. A lot of these devices will also have USB connections through which printers or additional external hard drives can be attached and shared.
If your needs are heavier than this you’ll have two options. Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices used to be business focused products, but are increasingly gaining consumer features. Most small business NAS lines are also designed for home users, and these bring with them various advantages. The main one is that most are user serviceable – you can add your own hard drives to the units in order to tailor them to your needs.
The other is a home server. Microsoft makes Windows Home Server, which is designed to integrate with a Windows network, providing everything from backup to media streaming. Unfortunately it removed one of the most useful home features from the latest version – a technology called drive extender that automatically managed physical hard drives and created a centralised storage pool. Without this the new version of Windows Home Server looks a little lacklustre.
You don’t really need fancy hardware to run such a server. You can easily recycle an old PC as a server, and your main concerns will be that the power supply is powerful enough to support the hard drives you are adding and that you have enough SATA ports on the motherboard to drive them.
On an old system you can use up to 2TB hard drives – you need one of Intel’s new Sandy Bridge platforms to take advantage of 3TB drives. You can use any old hard drives, but if you are grabbing new ones then you’ll want to go for lower power drives like the Barracuda LP lineup. You don’t need high hard drive speeds, as you’ll ultimately be limited by the speed of your network, which is lower.
Panasonic's TH-L37DT30A: can connect to your network via your router
Being able to print and backup is important, but it is hardly sexy. Where a home network really shines is media consumption. You want to be able to access all those photos and videos and all that music you have locked away on hard drives, and this is easier than it has ever been.
There are a myriad ways to watch content over a network. A lot of new TVs for example come with Ethernet built in, and can stream video shared by DLNA-compatible devices (DLNA is a networking standard for media streaming).
But most people don’t have networked televisions, and aren’t prepared to upgrade their current sets just to get Ethernet. In this case there are several ways to see your content. There are a vast number of media players out there, little boxes that hook into your network and connect to your TV via HDMI. They usually come with their own interfaces and remote controls, and can access a wide variety of formats over network shares.
You can also hook an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 into your network (which you will likely be doing anyway in order to access online functions) and use them to play back media. These will hook in via DLNA but need a bit of tweaking to get working (the PS3 in particular is finicky about file formats and will likely need a third party program to handle media streaming).
Again the other option is to build something yourself. All versions of Windows 7 come with Windows Media Centre, and there are also a plethora of Linux distributions designed with media playback in mind. You can cobble together a perfectly functional box from old parts, or something near silent using new technology like AMD’s Fusion APUs. If you have networked storage then you don’t even need much disk space, just enough for the operating system and applications.
Putting it all together
Powerline networking uses the electrical wiring in your house
Most people’s network configuration will ultimately be defined by where the modem lives. It is ideal to try and put as much of the network hardware near the modem – it saves on cable tangles and the like, especially if you are using a USB printer or storage. The corollary to this is that you ideally want a cabled connection between your storage and any media playback devices.
Trying to stream high definition video over wireless or powerline connections is an ultimately unsatisfying experience. You’ll find that while most of the time it is smooth you’ll get moments of stuttering regularly enough that it will become frustrating. If you do find your network setup just doesn’t play nicely with your television location, you can always choose a media player that is designed to use a portable hard drive and just restock your viewing manually. It isn’t ideal but it makes for a better viewing experience.
So ideally your network will involve a cluster of devices around either your media centre or your desktop PC. As much as possible should be connected via wires, with powerline connections for devices in far flung rooms, and a secure wireless connection for your handheld devices. Next month we’ll get into the specific technologies needed to get everything working harmoniously, but now is a good time to work out just where you want your bits and pieces to live.
Make sure to turn off your router’s SSID
One area in which router manufacturers have improved significantly is security. Historically, end users have been pretty lax when it comes to this, and routers with security features turned on often used easily-found default logins. This is changing, with some manufacturers now shipping routers with unique keys preset.
You want to make sure that WPA2 security is enabled, and that if your router doesn’t have a unique key then you’ll want to change the default. Write down the key so it is easy to connect devices when, say, friends come around. The best security move is also to turn off your router’s SSID, which is normally broadcast so people can discover it. This can become inconvenient if you are frequently adding devices to your network though, so setting a strong WPA2 password should be your first line of defence.
Most routers now come with an additional security measure called WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup). This takes the form of a button on the front of the router. When you attach a compatible device you can use this button to connect instead of having to enter a WPA2 key.
It is also a good idea to ensure any powerline networking kits that you use have encryption. Kits will usually come pre-paired, and this is important if you live in an apartment building, for example. While powerline networking isn’t as easily snooped upon as wireless, it will still be insecure if you aren’t encrypting the data.
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