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Phillip Baker

Networking Basics


Networking Basics

A network is a group of computers, printers, and other devices that are connected together with cables. Information travels over the cables, allowing network users to exchange documents & data with each other, print to the same printers, and generally share any hardware or software that is connected to the network. Each computer, printer, or other peripheral device that is connected to the network is called a node. Networks can have tens, thousands, or even millions of nodes.

Like most things, networks are are assembled according to certain rules. Cabling, for example, has to be a certain length, each cabling strand can only support a certain amount of network traffic, etc. The rules that govern how a network is set up is called its topology. The most popular topology in use today is called Ethernet, which consists of computers and peripherals cabled together in specific ways. Ethernet is relatively inexpensive, easy to set up and use, and very, very fast.

Ethernet networks are categorized by how fast they can move information. Speed is expressed in megabits per second (or Mbps), where one "bit" is equal to 1/8th of a character, letter, or number. There are currently two Ethernet speed categories. Standard Ethernet operates at a fast 10Mbps, which is quick enough for most networking tasks. Fast Ethernet, by contrast, races along at a blistering 100Mbps, making it ideal for desktop video, multimedia, and other speed-hungry applications. The new technology behind Fast Ethernet, which was introduced in the beginning of 1995, is not readily compatible with standard Ethernet. Making the two "talk" with each other requires special equipment (see switching hub below) and some knowledge of internetworking. If you're building your first network, decide whether to go with standard or Fast Ethernet before you begin shopping around for network hardware and software. Unless you plan on using video, multimedia, or heavy graphics software, plan on using standard Ethernet. For more information on standard and Fast Ethernet, Cabling Basics

The two most popular types of network cabling are twisted-pair (also known as 10BaseT) and thin coax (also known as 10Base2). 10BaseT cabling looks like ordinary telephone wire, except that it has 8 wires inside instead of 4. Thin coax looks like the copper coaxial cabling that's often used to connect a VCR to a TV set.

Which type of cabling is best for you? Thin coax and 10BaseT can both be used exclusively or together, depending on the type of network that you're putting together. Small networks, for example, may want to use 10BaseT cabling by itself, because it's inexpensive, flexible, and ideal for going short distances. Larger networks (usually with 10 or more computers) may use a thin coax backbone with small clusters of 10BaseT cabling that branch off from it at regular intervals.

Network Adapters

A network computer is connected to the network cabling with a network interface card, (also called a "NIC", "nick", or network adapter). Some NICs are installed inside of a computer: the PC is opened up and a network card is plugged directly into one of the computer's internal expansion slots. 286, 386, and many 486 computers have 16-bit slots, so a 16-bit NIC is needed. Faster computers, like high-speed 486s and Pentiums, often have 32-bit, or PCI slots. These PCs require 32-bit NICs to achieve the fastest networking speeds possible for speed-critical applications like desktop video, multimedia, publishing, and databases. And if a computer is going to be used with a Fast Ethernet network, it will need a network adapter that supports 100Mbps data speeds as well.

If a PC lacks expansion slots (which is true with portable PCs), special network adapters are used. A PCMCIA network adapter connects a PC to a network if the PC has a credit card-sized PCMCIA expansion slot, while a pocket adapter connects a PC to a network through its printer port.


The last piece of the networking puzzle is called a hub. A hub is a box that is used to gather groups of PCs together at a central location with 10BaseT cabling. If you're networking a small group of computers together, you may be able to get by with a hub, some 10BaseT cables, and a handful of network adapters. Larger networks often use a thin coax "backbone" that connects a row of 10BaseT hubs together. Each hub, in turn, may connect a handful of computer together using 10BaseT cabling, which allows you to build networks of tens, hundreds, or thousands of nodes.

Like network cards, hubs are available in both standard (10Mbps) and Fast Ethernet (100Mbps) versions.

If you're new to networking, take a look at our new Network Starter Kits. They're just right for building your first network at home or in the office!




Client Server vs. Peer-to-Peer


Client-Server vs. Peer-to-Peer

Every network requires special software to control the flow of information between users. A Network Operating System, or NOS, is installed onto each PC that requires network access. The NOS is like a traffic cop that monitors the exchange and flow of files, electronic mail, and other network information.

Network Operating Systems are usually classified according to whether they are peer-to-peer or client-server NOSs. Peer-to-peer NOSs like Windows 95 and Windows for Workgroups are best for home & small office use--they're great for sharing applications, data, printers, and other localized resources across a handful of PCs. Client-server NOSs like Windows NT and NetWare are ideal for large-scale organizations that require fast network access for video, publishing, multimedia, spreadsheet, database, and accounting operations.

Peer-to-Peer Networks

A peer-to-peer network allows two or more PCs to pool their resources together. Individual resources like disk drives, CD-ROM drives, and even printers are transformed into shared, collective resources that are accessible from every PC.

Unlike client-server networks, where network information is stored on a centralized file server PC and made available to tens, hundreds, or thousands client PCs, the information stored across peer-to-peer networks is uniquely decentralized. Because peer-to-peer PCs have their own hard disk drives that are accessible by all computers, each PC acts as both a client (information requestor) and a server (information provider). In the diagram below, three peer-to-peer workstations are shown. Although not capable of handling the same amount of information flow that a client-server network might, all three computers can communicate directly with each other and share one another's resources.

A peer-to-peer network can be built with either 10BaseT cabling and a hub or with a thin coax backbone. 10BaseT is best for small workgroups of 16 or fewer users that don't span long distances, or for workgroups that have one or more portable computers that may be disconnected from the network from time to time.

After the networking hardware has been installed, a peer-to-peer network software package must be installed onto all of the PCs. Such a package allows information to be transferred back and forth between the PCs, hard disks, and other devices when users request it. Popular peer-to-peer NOS software includes Windows 95, Windows for Workgroups, Artisoft LANtastic, and NetWare Lite.

Most NOSs allow each peer-to-peer user to determine which resources will be available for use by other users. Specific hard & floppy disk drives, directories or files, printers, and other resources can be attached or detached from the network via software. When one user's disk has been configured so that it is "sharable", it will usually appear as a new drive to the other users. In other words, if user A has an A and C drive on his computer, and user B configures his entire C drive as sharable, user A will suddenly have an A, C, and D drive (user A's D drive is actually user B's C drive). Directories work in a similar fashion. If user A has an A & C drive, and user B configures his "C:\WINDOWS" and "C:\DOS" directories as sharable, user A may suddenly have an A, C, D, and E

drive (user A's D is user B's C:\WINDOWS, and E is user B's C:\DOS). Did you get all of that?

Because drives can be easily shared between peer-to-peer PCs, applications only need to be installed on one computer--not two or three. If users have one copy of Microsoft Word, for example, it can be installed on user A's computer--and still used by user B.

The advantages of peer-to-peer over client-server NOSs include:

  • No need for a network administrator
  • Network is fast/inexpensive to setup & maintain
  • Each PC can make backup copies of its data to other PCs for security. By far the easiest type of network to build, peer-to-peer is perfect for both home and office use.

Client-Server Networks

In a client-server environment like Windows NT or Novell NetWare, files are stored on a centralized, high speed file server PC that is made available to client PCs. Network access speeds are usually faster than those found on peer-to-peer networks, which is reasonable given the vast numbers of clients that this architecture can support. Nearly all network services like printing and electronic mail are routed through the file server, which allows networking tasks to be tracked. Inefficient network segments can be reworked to make them faster, and users' activities can be closely monitored. Public data and applications are stored on the file server, where they are run from client PCs' locations, which makes upgrading software a simple task--network administrators can simply upgrade the applications stored on the file server, rather than having to physically upgrade each client PC.

In the client-server diagram below, the client PCs are shown to be separate and subordinate to the file server. The clients' primary applications and files are stored in a common location. File servers are often set up so that each user on the network has access to his or her "own" directory, along with a range of "public" directories where applications are stored. If the two clients below want to communicate with each other, they must go through the file server to do it. A message from one client to another is first sent to the file server, where it is then routed to its destination. With tens or hundreds of client PCs, a file server is the only way to manage the often complex and simultaneous operations that large networks require.

Network Printing

In client-server networks, network printing is normally handled by a print server, a small box with at least two connectors: one for a printer, and another that attaches directly to the network cabling. Some print servers have more than two ports--they may, for example, support 2, 3, or 4 printers simultaneously. When a user sends a print job, it travels over the network cabling to the file server where it is stored. When the print server senses that the job is waiting, it moves it from the file server to its attached printer. When the job is finished, the print server returns a result message to the file server, indicating that the process is complete.

In the diagram below, the laptop client PC sends a job to the file server. The file server, in turn, forwards the job to the print server, which sends it to the laser printer when it's available. Any client on the network can access the printer in this fashion, and it's quite fast. The print server can be placed anywhere on the network, and a network can have more than one print server--possibly one in an office's accounting department, another in marketing, and so on.

Print Servers are available for both client-server and peer-to-peer networks. They're incredibly convenient because they let you put a printer anywhere along your network even if there isn't a computer nearby. However, users often opt not to use a print-server with their peer-to-peer network. Why? Because every computer's resources are available to everyone on the network, Sally can print a job on John's printer--just as if Sally had a printer attached to her computer.

In this example, the printer is attached to the computer on the right. When the PC on the left sends a job, it "thinks" that it is printing to a printer of its own. In actuality, the job travels over the network cables to the PC on the right, which stores and prints the job in the background. The user at the PC with the printer is never interrupted while his computer processes and prints the job transparently.

Remote Access & Modem Sharing

When a client-server network needs a gateway to the world, the network administrator usually installs a remote-node server, which serves up two functions: remote access and modem sharing. Most remote-node servers attach directly to the network cabling; they provide a bridge between the network, a modem, and a telephone line.

Remote access allows users to dial into their home networks from anywhere in the world. Once a connection has been established over ordinary phone lines by modem, users can access any programs or data on the network just as if they were seated at one of its local workstations. Some remote access servers only provide access to a file server's disk drives. Others can provide access to both the file server and direct access to any PC's hard disk on the network. This saves time because it allows a remote user to communicate directly with any network user without having to go through the file server.


Modem sharing lets local network users dial out from their individual network computers to access the Internet, bulletin boards, America On-Line, and more. After firing up their favorite communications software, local users establish a link with the remote-node server over the network, which opens up an outgoing telephone line. Users' individual PCs don't need modems, which is a big money saver--only a single modem & phone line are required for tens or hundreds of users. In the case of peer-to-peer networks, by contrast, every PC requires its own modem for access to the outside world.


All About Cabling


All About Cabling

The two most popular types of network cabling are twisted-pair (also known as 10BaseT) and thin coax (also known as 10Base2). 10BaseT cabling looks like ordinary telephone wire, except that it has 8 wires inside instead of 4. Thin coax looks like the copper coaxial cabling that's often used to connect a VCR to a TV set.

10BaseT Cabling

When 10BaseT cabling is used, a strand of cabling is inserted between each computer and a hub. If you have 5 computers, you'll need 5 cables. Each cable cannot exceed 325 feet in length. Because the cables from all of the PCs converge at a common point, a 10BaseT network forms a star configuration, or geometric design, when viewed from above. In the figure below, three computers are connected together with 10BaseT cabling and a hub.

A 10BaseT hub is basically a box with a row of 10BaseT jacks. Most hubs have 5, 8, 12, or 16 jacks, but some may have more. Most hubs also have an uplink port, which is a special 10BaseT or thin coax port that allows the hub to be connected to either (1) other hubs, or (2) a thin coax backbone (see below for information on backbones). By uplinking multiple hubs together, you can add additional computers to your network whenever you need to.

10BaseT cabling is available in different grades or categories. Some grades, or "cats", are required for Fast Ethernet networks, while others are perfectly acceptable for standard 10Mbps networks--and less expensive, too. About 85% of the networks in the U.S. use standard unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) Category 5 10BaseT cabling because it offers a performance advantage over lower grades. If you are using a 10Mbps network, category 3 is fine. If you plan on building a Fast Ethernet network at some time in the future, it's best to install Category 5 cabling.

Category What It's Used For
 5  Fast Ethernet (and everything below)
 4  Networks other than Ethernet
 3  10Mbps 10BaseT 
2  Alarms, telephone voice lines
 1  Unknown (not rated for anything specific)

If possible, decide whether you'll be using standard Ethernet or Fast Ethernet technology before you begin building your network. If you're not sure which technology you'll eventually use, choose to install Category 5 cabling. Remember, Fast Ethernet network adapters and hubs are not directly compatible with each other. It is possible to have both 10Mbps and 100Mbps segments on the same network, provided you have a switching hub between them that allows them to communicate.


Want to know more about 10BaseT wiring configurations? Check out our wiring guide.

Thin Coax Cabling

The geometric design that is formed when thin coax cabling is used is called a linear or backbone configuration. The reason for this is that thin coax is always arranged in a straight line of PCs, hubs, or other devices. Thin coax networks always require termination, which is the act of "plugging up" both ends of the network. Instead of inserting an incoming thin coax cable directly into a PC, a T-connector is inserted instead, splitting the network adapter's input port into two separate ports. One port receives an incoming network cable; the other receives an outgoing network cable. If the PC is at the end of the network chain, a terminator plug is inserted into the empty hole of the T-connector.


Thin coax is only used with 10Mbps Ethernet networks. Fast Ethernet networks, which are 10 times faster than standard Ethernet, use category 5 10BaseT cabling.


The figure below shows three PCs connected together in a backbone configuration. Note that the backbone has termination at both ends, and each "T" connector plugs directly into a PC, where it allows for an incoming and outgoing connection. The maximum length for any thin coax segment is 607 feet.

Mixing 10BaseT & Coax

Finally, thin coax backbones and 10BaseT cabling & hubs can be connected together to allow for a wide variety of expansion options. In the more complex example below, a thin coax backbone connects two 10BaseT hubs together, along with a computer in-between. Each hub, in turn, branches off to still more computers with 10BaseT cabling. Note that the ends of the thin coax backbone are properly terminated.

How to Pick Cabling

There are two things to consider when deciding on the type of cable to use for your network.

1. How many PCs do you want to link together?
2. How long (in feet) is your network going to be?

The answers to these two questions will determine the cabling that's best for you, and whether or not you'll need a hub.

Use thin coax cabling if you...

  • have fewer than 10 PCs,
  • don't have any portable computers,
  • and don't plan to expand

    Use 10BaseT cabling with a hub if you...
  • have 16 or fewer PCs within a 325 foot radius of each other,
  • have portable computers,
  • and/or you plan to expand

    Use both thin coax and 10BaseT together if...
  • you have more than 16 computers,
  • or the radius of your workgroup is more than 300 feet

Common Problems & Solutions

Here are some ways to avoid the most common cabling pitfalls that network installers face.

         Avoid Interference
Network cabling can be run under floors, around office dividers, or over dropped ceilings. When planning your wiring layout, try to keep cables away from power outlets, florescent lighting fixtures, uninterruptable power supplies, and other sources of strong electromagnetic interference. Coiling up cables can also cause interference.

  • Thin Coax Cabling
    When using thin coax cabling, you must always use a T-connector at each PC and termination at both ends of the network, even if you're only connecting a couple of computers together.
  • 10BaseT Cabling
    When using 10BaseT cabling, you must use a hub--even if you're only networking 2 PCs together. Many first time networkers forego a hub and simply plug a 10BaseT cable between two PCs' network cards. Such an installation is guaranteed to either (1) not work, or (2) be unrel

How to Wire a Network


How to Wire a Network

Twisted Pair Cabling

Twisted-pair (sometimes known as 10BaseT) is ideal for small, medium, or large networks that need flexibility and the capacity to expand as the number of network users grows.

We highly recommend using 10BaseT cabling for its amazing flexibility and reliability.

In a twisted-pair network, computers are arranged in a star pattern. Each PC has a twisted-pair cable that runs to a centralized hub. Twisted-pair is generally more reliable than thin coax networks because the hub is capable of correcting data errors and improving the network's overall transmission speed and reliability. Also known as uplinking, hubs can be chained together for even greater expansion.

10BaseT Diagram

There are different grades, or categories, of twisted-pair cabling. Category 5 is the most reliable and widely compatible, and is highly recommended. It runs easily with 10Mbps networks, and is required for Fast Ethernet. You can buy Category 5 cabling that is pre-made, or you can cut & crimp your own.

Category 5 cables can be purchased or crimped as either straight-through or crossed. A Category 5 cable has 8 thin, color-coded wires inside that run from one end of the cable to the other. Only wires 1, 2, 3, and 6 are used by Ethernet networks for communication. Although only four wires are used, if the cable has 8 wires, all the wires have to be connected in both jacks.

Straight-through cables are used for connecting computers to a hub. Crossed cables are used for connecting a hub to another hub (there is an exception: some hubs have a built-in uplink port that is crossed internally, which allows you to uplink hubs together with a straight cable instead).

In a straight-through cable, wires 1, 2, 3, and 6 at one end of the cable are also wires 1, 2, 3, and 6 at the other end. In a crossed cable, the order of the wires change from one end to the other: wire 1 becomes 3, and 2 becomes 6.

To figure out which wire is wire number 1, hold the cable so that the end of the plastic RJ-45 tip (the part that goes into a wall jack first) is facing away from you. Flip the clip so that the copper side faces up (the springy clip will now be parallel to the floor). When looking down on the coppers, wire 1 will be on the far left.



Thin Coax Cabling

Thin coax (also known as 10Base2) is great for small home or office networks with two or three computers. Similar to the cabling used to connect a VCR to a TV set, coax cabling is inexpensive and easy to set up.

In a thin coax network, which is sometimes called a backbone, computers are arranged in a "chain" with a beginning and an end.

Each computer in a backbone requires a network card, a T-connector, and at least one incoming or outgoing coax cable.

The computer at each end of the network will also require a 50-ohm terminator plug.

Coax Diagram

The Big Picture


The Big Picture

Decide on a peer-to-peer or client-server NOS.

Choose one or the other depending on the size & complexity of your network. Peer-to-peer allows individual PCs to share each other's hard disks, printers, and other resources. It's perfect for small networks with 16 or fewer users, or for workgroups with one or more portable PCs. Popular packages include Windows 95 and Windows for Workgroups. Client-server NOSs, by contrast, can handle heavier and more complex traffic loads than peer-to-peer, and are designed for large networks or speed-critical applications like video and multimedia. Popular packages include Windows NT and Novell NetWare.

Plan your cabling layout.
After you've decided on a network operating system software package, diagram how your network will go together. Plan on running cables under floors, over ceilings, or around dividers. If you're installing a small network over a short distance, use 10BaseT with one or more hubs. If you'll be running long distances (the radius of the network is more than 325 feet), plan on using thin coax cabling, possibly in combination with 10BaseT hubs.

Make a hardware & software checklist.
Get each of the items shown below. Be especially careful when choosing a network adapter for your PCs. Get ones that support your PC's PCMCIA, parallel port, or internal bus slots, as well as your network software. They should have both 10BaseT and thin coax ports on-board for flexibility. And if you'll be using Fast Ethernet, be sure they support 100Mbps speeds.

If you plan to install a 10BaseT hub, make sure that it's expandable, and that it has enough ports to service all of your PCs. If you'll be using the hub in conjunction with a thin coax backbone, make sure that it has both 10BaseT and thin coax ports on-board. Get the correct hub for the type of Ethernet network that you're installing--either standard 10Mbps Ethernet or Fast 100Mbps Ethernet. If you'll be joining standard and Fast Ethernet segments together, you'll need a switching hub in-between.

After obtaining the network software, adapters, cabling, and hub(s) (if any), install the network cabling first, followed by the network adapters, and finally, the network software.

Here's what you need:

  • a peer-to-peer or client-server NOS software package
  • a PCMCIA, pocket, or internal network adapter for each PC

If you're using 10BaseT...

  • one Category 3 or 5 10BaseT cable for each PC (max length: 325 feet)
  • one expandable 10BaseT hub with enough ports to service all of your PCs

If you're using thin coax...

  • one RG58/U thin coax cable for each PC (max length: 607 feet)
  • one T-connector for each PC
  • two 50-ohm terminators (one for each end of the network)

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