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ATPM 16.08
August 2010



How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Networking

Let’s face it: there are some household chores, such as washing dishes or getting rid of the scary insect on the living room floor, that no one really likes to perform. In this age of “always on” Internet and Internet-enabled everything, managing the household network probably falls into that category of unpleasant jobs. I think every household has unwritten rules for deciding who’s responsible for which unpleasant jobs. Apparently, in our household the rules say that networking issues are my job. I don’t remember actually being consulted about this. Like the extra pounds I have added over the years, the networking chores seem to have become mine over time.

My first foray into Mac network settings came when we shifted from AOL to a local Internet provider sometime in the mid-90s. We went in on a Friday afternoon near closing time, set up the account, and things went pretty well. The gentleman I talked to admitted that they were far more familiar with PCs than they were with Macs, but he offered to come set things up for us anyway on Monday. Anxious to be connected before then, I assured him that I knew my way around a Mac reasonably well and could probably work things out on my own. Armed with a copy of their directions and a copy of Internet Valet purchased a few days before, I was sure I’d be surfing in no time. Without going into detail, on Monday we still weren’t on the Net and I had to call them, anyway. The one guy who knew anything at all about Macs came by late that afternoon and fixed a setting in five minutes that I couldn’t find all weekend. Thus began my Mac networking career.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Things have changed for the better since that first experience so long ago. Settings that were scattered over three or four different control panels in the System 7 days are now collected in the Networking preference pane. Even sharing files with Windows users is easier over a network now. What used to require third-party software and a bit of hope can now be accomplished with much less effort and extra software. I bet most of you don’t remember having to use software such as Miramar’s PC MacLAN to share files.

Although things have gotten better, I’ve had some experiences recently that brought me back to the bad old days of confusing settings and, in some cases, less-than-stellar documentation. Let’s look at what I have learned so far. If you’re setting up your first network, or expanding an existing one, perhaps you will get some food for thought. We won’t dive into all of the settings this month. Instead, we’ll start with some things to consider before even touching the first piece of equipment or typing in the first setting.

A Few Basics to Get Us Started

Home networking has become a big business. I guess that’s because almost everyone wants to share a broadband Internet connection among several devices, pass files from one computer to another, or use devices connected to one computer while sitting at another computer. In fact, it seems that this type of sharing was a force in the development of AppleTalk. In order to understand how all of this works, let’s look at some basics.

In order for networks to function properly, every device on the network has to have a unique IP address. This address consists of a series of numbers which allows other computers to know which computer requested a piece of information, where that computer is located, and how to get the information to that computer. IP addresses do for the computer what your physical address does for the postal service.

This system works fine if there is one computer per household, but what happens if there is more than one computer there? Let’s return to the postal analogy for a moment. At this point, the postal carrier has gotten all of the mail to your address correctly but doesn’t know which member of the household is supposed to get a specific piece of mail. Now, in the real world, someone in the household would look at a piece of mail and route it to the right person—or everyone could grab their own mail. In the computer world, having everyone try to grab their own information would cause too much chaos, so the work is accomplished by a router. The router assigns each device on your network a number and routes information coming in from the modem to the device that requested that information. This is how you can be reading this e-zine online at the same time someone else is reading their e-mail.

In order for routers to pass information to a given computer, that computer has to be connected to the router in some way. By the time I started experimenting with networking, Ethernet was becoming the dominant form of connection. Today, wireless connections are becoming increasingly more common. No matter the technology, there have to be working connections among the modem, router, and connected computers before any information transfer can take place. We’ll get into the established protocols for that transfer next time, perhaps. For now, we have gone far enough to look at some of the problems I’ve had recently.

Leave Your Wireless Options Open

Twice in the last several years, I have had Mac desktop models that did not ship with wireless cards built in. They were available as an option, but I didn’t need it at the time, and waiting for the installation would have added a few days to the delivery date. Come on. Who wants to wait a couple of extra days for their new Mac to be delivered? Besides, being reasonably handy working on the inside of a Mac I figured I’d just install it later. Until then, there was an Ethernet wire running from the router, part way around the perimeter of our computer area, into the next room where the Mac Pro would be located. The distance would still be well within the 100-meter recommended maximum distance for Ethernet connections.

That arrangement worked fine until we moved to a new address. Running Ethernet wire from the router to the computer is still well within the distance maximums, but now it is either unsightly and highly visible or easy for someone to trip over. Needless to say, my spouse vetoed the option to use another long Ethernet wire. When I looked at the instructions for installing an AirPort card in my 2007 Mac Pro, I decided it was a bigger hassle than I wanted to tackle given my clumsy fingers. For the present, I have settled on the MAXPower Wireless USB Stick Adapter as a solution. The moral of the story is that if you are buying a new Mac and wireless capability isn’t already built-in, ask about your options for having the seller add it. You may not need it now but might well avoid a hassle later.

What Are Your Network Expansion Options?

When I discovered that a wired Ethernet connection wasn’t a good option in our current setting, I looked at options to extend the network. Most routers readily support extending a network via Ethernet by adding a second router and Ethernet cable. That wasn’t an option, but I did have an older router with built-in wireless, so maybe that would work. After all, the documentation suggested that it could be used as a wireless access point.

After a couple of days fighting with this, a friend and I reached the conclusion that the router I was trying to use did not support extending an existing network wirelessly. If you are buying a new router, download the documentation and at least glance at the options that are possible for extending an existing network. No matter how clueless you think you may be about networking, the manufacturers ought to be able to make it clear whether it is possible to extend a network using their equipment. Since the whole world is going wireless, shoot for routers that support extending the network that way.

Some of you may wonder why I did not use the older router as the base of the network and use our dual-band Time Capsule to extend the network. The first problem is that the Ethernet ports in the older router are slower than those on the Time Capsule. We would like to have our primary machines always connected to the faster equipment. The second problem is that in the testing I have done so far, the Time Capsule refused to extend the network wirelessly and simultaneously keep the Ethernet ports active. There may be a way to make this work without purchasing additional gear, but for now I have solved the problem with the USB wireless adapter. I guess the moral of this story is to keep future expansion in mind. Look for gear that not only clearly states what it can and cannot do but also gives you the most flexibility that you can reasonably afford.

What If You Don’t Need Wireless Access All the Time?

I have noticed recently that some routers are offering the option of turning off the wireless access functions while the firewall and wired access functions continue to work. If it’s available on your router, it is relatively easy to implement. The idea here is that wireless access can be disabled at times when you are pretty sure it will not be used and re-enabled when it is needed. Suppose you are going on that long awaited trip for the next several weeks. While you are getting some hard-earned rest and relaxation, why should your wireless network be sitting there just waiting for someone to guess your password and poach your bandwidth?

Some devices take this option one step further, allowing users to disable wireless access at certain days and times. The current Time Capsule supports this, and it’s a potentially useful feature. Want your wireless network deactivated while the family is off to work and school, but don’t want to have to remember to reactivate it later? It wasn’t possible when I bought my first router, but it is now.

Final Thoughts

That pretty well covers some of the networking lessons I have learned in the last few weeks. Next time, I plan to look at some basics of configuring the settings for a network. Of course, if I get distracted by some other project that is much more interesting, that may change. I will have to think very carefully about that article. It would be easy to get bogged down in terminology and the nuts and bolts of getting things up and running. Stay tuned, though. I may have a few tricks up my sleeve.

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Reader Comments (2)

John · August 3, 2010 - 12:45 EST #1
I generally recommend any router capable of running DD-WRT firmware. Bridging multiple routers, setting up hotspots, adding USB file storage, and extending the range of the router is all very easy to accomplish. Plus, the interface is the same regardless of which router you have.

I also generally recommend an expandable NAS in place of a Time Capsule since those don't contain nearly enough storage to accommodate Time Machine backups for several systems, as well as an entire digital library of CDs, DVDs, photos, movies, and other files.

Apple makes nice products, but they are definitely not "one size fits all".
Sylvester Roque (ATPM Staff) · August 3, 2010 - 16:25 EST #2
You raise some valid issues. I hope to address some of them in future articles. Each of the issues that you mentioned, along with other issues such as wireless security, could be separate articles in their own right. I recently became aware of the DD-WRT firmware but haven't taken enough time to really become familiar with it just yet.

You are also correct in that the Time Capsule is not right for everyone. Its firewall, for example, might not be adequate for some applications. In my case the Time Capsule replaced a NAS that went bad on short notice. Although my 2TB model isn't full I have a USB hub attached with additional hard drivers that are used for backup.

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