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Not so long ago installing a computer network in your home or small office was handled by professionals and extremely expensive. Purchasing the hardware alone reached into your pocket for a thousand dollars and then you needed some type of software in order for each computer to be recognized by the network.
Welcome to the twenty-first century. Along with disposable wipes and squeeze mayonnaise small office/home office (SOHO) networks have matured and most users can do the installation. We will discuss how to install a network in a SOHO environment, what type of hardware and wiring is required and where to install it. Remember this article is for SOHO installation, normally less then five computers, a couple of printers in one location. If you have a larger home (over three-thousand square feet) or an office building with multiple floors and over five thousand square feet of space you should hire professionals to install your network. First, you need to decide on what type of network you want to install. Currently there are five technologies on the market and they all have their good and bad points. The current standard for wired networks is 10-Base-T Category five, RJ-45 twisted-pair cable. The older 10-Base-2 coax cable networks can still be found but are limited to 10 Mbps (Megabits-per-second). Wireless networks are becoming more popular but run at slower speeds and interference can become a problem. Two other options are Phone-line and Power-line networks. Although connecting two PC’s via the Internet P2P (Peer-to-Peer) is another viable alternative to physical networking it is still in its infancy and not a true network, yet!
K.I.S.S., (keep-it-simple-silly) is the key to SOHO networking. At this point I have either convinced you that the 10-Base-T wired network is the right choice or you have already left and I’m talking to myself. The rest of this article is devoted to installing a SOHO network using Cat5 wiring.
First we need to decide where we want our equipment such as computers, printers, scanners (yes, some scanners can be networked), and the all-in-one printer-scanner-fax machines. If you plan on moving them around from place-to-place or room-to-room you may want to run the additional cable at the same time. As with any electrical wiring we want to keep it as far away from other wiring and devices as possible. You should map this out on paper and label each line (Drop), at the same time. You will see how labeling becomes important later in this article. Start mapping from one central location in the SOHO and measure from that location to each device attached to the network. The central location will be the HUB (explained later) of the network. Although the actual location of the HUB is not important to the network most people place it in a centrally located closet attached to a wall or next to their main computer. The Hub is about the size of a desktop radio and won’t take up much space. As with all electrical devices do not place it where there will be a lot of heat such as the attic. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for placement. Once you have mapped out the network and decided where everything will go, it’s time to measure. DON’T GUESS at this. You cannot stretch twisted pair cable. Make sure you measure accurately including the width and height that the cable will travel for each connection.
Now we come to a major decision, you need to decide if you want to run the cable yourself or have a professional install it for you. Here is my rule on who should install it. If you are networking computers that are fifty feet or less apart and don’t need the cabling hard wired/boxed on the wall, run it yourself. If you need to cut the cable at any point and you do not have experience splicing telephone cable (Cat3), then you should hire a professional to install the cable. The rest of this article assumes that you have decided to run the cable yourself.
Ok, we now have our equipment in place; we have mapped out our network, measured and labeled each line (known as a drop). We have decided that we want to use Cat5, RJ-45 10-Base-T twisted-pair cable for our network. At this point we need to make a list of the hardware we need to purchase.
We will need:
Category five (CatV), 10-Base-T, Twisted-pair cable with RJ-45 connectors on each end.
Hub/Concentrator or Switch.
Ethernet Network Interface Card (NIC).
Each is explained below.
CABLE: First we will discuss the cable; there are three types of Cat5 cable available, shielded, unshielded and Plenum. You should never use unshielded cable, interference will become a problem. Shielded cable will work fine in most cases inside the SOHO if placed at least six inches from other wiring. Never use a cable less then three feet in length. Although more expensive, plenum is the way to go. If you run your cable outdoors you must use plenum. We have decided that that we will use the shielded Cat5 cable because all our connections are inside. Also, we can purchase the cable ready-made in common lengths, usually 6, 10, 20, 25, 50 or 100 ft lengths. This way there is no need to splice the cable or buy expensive tools to build the cable.
HUB/Switch: Now we need to decide which Hub we need. A Hub or Concentrator will be the central point of the network. Hubs come in a variety of shapes, sizes and ports. The ports (connectors) on the Hub are where we will run our cable from the device to the Hub. You will need one cable (the length that you measured plus at least four feet), for each connection to the Hub. Hubs are sold in various configurations and if you are planning to use a Cable Modem or DSL line for Internet connection you should buy a Router/HUB. Cable Modem/DSL Routers are required to network your Internet connection to several computers allowing you to connect to the Internet from each one. The rule is to purchase a Hub with twice as many ports as you currently need. This allows for expansion in the future. If you know that you will never need more than two or three computers networked then a small four port Hub will work fine and can be purchased for less than fifty bucks. Make sure you purchase a 10/100 switchable Hub or better yet a slightly higher price switch. Networks can transmit and receive data at different speeds. The current standard is from 10 Mbps (Megabits-per-second) to 1 Gbps (that’s 1000 Megabit per second). The 1 Gbps networks are still a little pricey so you may want to use the 10/100 devices.
Ethernet Card: Each computer attached to the network will require an Ethernet NIC (Network Interface Card) to be installed. There are a number of speeds and types of Ethernet (NIC) cards on the market today. If your computers are less then five years old you will probably need a NIC for a PCI bus. This sounds complicated but the best way to find out which type you need is to read the computer manual and find out the available slots and what type they are. Computer manufacturer’s Web sites can normally give you this information also. Again, make sure the NIC’s are rated at 10/100 Mbps (all the network devices need to be 10/100). Yes, you can install them yourself. Most are shipped with good instructions for installation. You can also get hardware installation how-to at www.mpl1.com.
Ok, this is the fun part, we’re going shopping! There are a number of ways and places to get this stuff. Mail order is one option, ordering online is another. But there is nothing like physically holding the box in front of you at the store. Most reputable computer stores will have what you need, just watch their prices. I have checked other places and found the equipment I needed at Staples and even at WalMart. In fact I bought my Cable/DSL Router with four port Hub at WalMart for less then eighty dollars. Cable varies widely so shop around for that. A four-port Hub should not cost more than fifty bucks, Ethernet cards should not cost over twenty-five dollars each. You should also buy the same brands for all your devices. This is not a must but, will make the installation easier and you won’t go crazy trying to find out which software driver goes with which device in the future. Also make sure each device will work for your operating system. If you are using Windows XP make sure the documentation says it is Microsoft XP certified.
We now have all the toys we need to complete our wiring and network install. Although it is not necessary, most people will run their cable through the walls or behind the wall/floor molding. This works fine, I have mine slung all over the floor. My wife says that’s not normal but I’m cool with it. Whichever way you decide just remember that you should keep the CatV cable at least six inches from other household cables and outlets. Label each cable at the Hub end and the Ethernet NIC end. This way you will know which device is plugged in to which port at the Hub. Run the cables so they are not easy to get to. You don’t want someone to trip on them and pull the cable out of the Hub or worse yet the computer. Run the drops the shortest way possible without having them to close to other existing cables. Never fold, bend hard or puncture the Cat5 cable. Never use a staple gun to attach the cable to walls. A staple gun can easily puncture the cable and you may not even be able to see it. Always use cable mounting devices to attach the cable to a wall. Never bend the cable at a 45 degree (elbow) angle. This will apply too much pressure on the wiring and may cause the sheathing to separate.
Great! We have our cable drops in place, our network Hub mounted somewhere and plugged in, and have our Ethernet cards installed. Now all you need to do is connect one end of the cable to the Hub and the other end to the computer. Really? Well, in theory. You and I both know nothing is that simple. You may get lucky and have everything connected just right and your operating system such as MS Windows will recognize the network right off. This is the exception, not the rule. That’s another story, this article is about wiring and components of the network. You can find additional information on the hardware and software installation at www.mpl1.com.