As far as Vista is concerned,
your connection to the Internet is no different than your connection to
other PCs in your home or office. It's this fact that makes Windows all
at once easy to network and frustrating to troubleshoot and secure.
1. Terminology Primer
To start building a network, you should understand a few basic networking concepts:
The distinction between local and remote resources
A local resource
is an object—a folder on your hard disk or a printer physically
connected to your PC—that's accessible without a network connection. A remote resource is one that resides on another computer to which yours is connected over a network. For example, a web page at http://www.annoyances.org
is a remote file, but an HTML file on your own hard disk is a local
file, even though they may appear indistinguishable in a browser. Vista
tries to blur the line, a strategy that sometimes works and other times
causes problems: for instance, different security restrictions and
drag-drop rules apply to remote files and folders than to local ones,
and the subtlety can be a pain in one's keister.
LAN versus WAN
LAN is shorthand for Local Area Network, a small assemblage of PCs in a home or small office connected with cables or wireless signals. Likewise, WAN stands for Wide Area Network, or a network formed by connecting computers over large distances (e.g., the Internet).
is the wired technology upon which the vast majority of local area
networks is built. Any PC capable of handling Vista is likely to have a
built-in Ethernet adapter (also called a NIC, or Network Interface
standard Ethernet connection is capable of moving data up to 10
megabits per second (Mbps; see "Bandwidth," later in this list), a Fast
Ethernet connection (sometimes marked "10/100") can move data at 100
Mbps, and a Gigabit connection can move data at up to 1000 Mbps.
WiFi is a trendy shorthand term for wireless networking based on the 802.11x
standards. The early favorite was 802.11b, but with a leisurely maximum
speed of only 11 Mbps, it was quickly obsoleted by 802.11g (54 Mbps).
Further tweaking has given us multichannel 802.11g and the overhyped
802.11n standards, both of which promise even faster speeds and greater
range. Of course, all of these advertised specs assume
laboratory-perfect conditions, so unless you're interested in building a
vacuum chamber for your wireless equipment, you'll likely get about a
third of the quoted speed of your equipment (and less, the poorer the
further caveat is that you need matched equipment to get the best
performance: your laptop must have an 'n' radio to get the most out of
an 'n' network. Luckily, each of these standards (with the exception of
802.11a) is backward-compatible with earlier incarnations, so an older
'g' laptop will still work on a newer 'n' network, albeit at the slower
'g' speed. Of course, with typical DSL and cable Internet speeds at only
1–3 Mbps, a faster WiFi signal will do nothing to get you your email
is a wireless networking "standard" (the term must be used loosely
here). Bluetooth will never supplant WiFi, nor is it meant to. Rather,
it's an inexpensive, low-power technology and is commonly used in
high-end cell phones, handheld PDAs, and some laptops. Most people get
their first taste of Bluetooth with wireless cell phone headsets or
cordless mice and keyboards, but it does much more than that (at least
is the capacity of a network connection to move information (the size
of the pipe, so to speak). Bandwidth is measured in Kbps (kilobits per
second) for slow connections, Mbps (megabits per second) for faster
connections such as DSL, cable, or Ethernet LAN connections, and Gbps
(gigabits per second) for the kinds of connections used by huge
corporations and Internet providers.
is a shared resource. If a network connection is capable of
transferring data at, say, 1.5 Mbps, and two users simultaneously
download large files, each will only have roughly 0.75 Mbps (or 768
Kbps) of bandwidth at their disposal.
local networks can transfer data at up to 1,000 Mbps. High-speed T1,
DSL, and cable modem connections typically transfer data up to 1.0 to
6.0 Mbps, while the fastest analog modems communicate at a glacial 56
Kbps, or 0.056 Mbps.
translate a bandwidth measurement into more practical terms, you'll
need to convert bits to bytes. There are 8 bits to a byte, so you can
determine the theoretical maximum data transfer rate of a connection by
simply dividing by 8. For example, a 384 Kbps connection transfers 384/8
= 48 kilobytes of data per second, which should allow you to transfer a
1 megabyte file in a little more than 20 seconds. However, there is
more going on than just data transfer (such as error correction), so
actual performance will always be slower than the theoretical maximum.
protocol is the language, so to speak, that your computer uses to
communicate with other computers on a network. Now, the days of
configuring individual network protocols are long past, having died out
with the Windows 95/98 generation. As long as your stuff speaks TCP/IP,
it'll work, provided you don't mind occasionally typing in numeric IP
is a protocol, or more accurately, a collection of protocols, used in
all Internet communications and by most modern LANs. For those of you
excited by acronyms, the TCP/IP specification includes TCP (Transmission
Control Protocol), IP (Internet Protocol), UDP (User Datagram
Protocol), and ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol).
amazing thing about TCP/IP, and the reason that it serves as the
foundation of every connection to the Internet, is that data is broken
up into packets
before it's sent on its way. The packets then travel to their
destinations independently, possibly arriving in a different order than
they were originally sent. The receiving computer then reassembles the
packets (in the correct order) back into data.
TCP/IP data moves in and out of your PC through ports,
virtual doors opened by the software that uses your network connection.
For example, your email program uses port 25 to send email (using the
SMTP protocol) and port 110 to retrieve email (using the POP3 protocol),
while your web browser downloads pages through port 80 (using the HTTP
and some applications typically leave more ports open than you probably
need, potentially making your PC vulnerable to spyware, pop ups,
viruses, intruders, and other annoyances.
An IP address is a set of four numbers (e.g., 126.96.36.199)
that corresponds to a single computer or device on a TCP/IP-based
network. Each element of the address can range from 0 to 255, providing
2564 or nearly 4.3 billion possible combinations. On the Internet, dedicated machines called domain name servers are used to translate named hosts, such as http://www.microsoft.com, to their respective numerical IP addresses and back again.
two computers on a single network can have the same IP address, but a
single computer can have multiple IP addresses (one for each network to
which it's connected).
connect two different networks to each other, while still maintaining
two separate sets of IP addresses, you'll need either a bridge or a router.
Provided that you install two network adapters in your PC, Windows can
act as an impromptu bridge; just highlight two connections in your
Network Connections window ,
right-click, and select Bridge Connections. A router, of course, is a better choice because it works even if your PC is off, and includes firewall protection to boot.
Firewalls, and why you need one
firewall can be used to restrict unauthorized access to your system by
intruders, close backdoors opened by viruses and other malicious
applications, and eliminate wasted bandwidth by blocking certain types
of network traffic.
firewall is a layer of protection that permits or denies network
communication based on a predefined set of rules. These rules are
typically based on the TCP port through which the data is sent, the IP
address from which the data originated, and the IP address to which the
data is destined.
problem is that an improperly configured firewall can cause more
problems than it ends up preventing. Windows includes a rudimentary
firewall feature, but software-based
firewalls simply don't work as well as hardware firewalls like those
found in routers.
Switches, access points, and routers
A switch allows you to connect more than two computers together—using cables—to form a local network . (Note that a hub
does pretty much the same thing as a switch, but much less
efficiently.) Without a hub or switch, the best you could do is connect
two computers to each other with a crossover cable.
wireless access point is essentially a switch (or a hub) for a wireless
network, allowing you to connect multiple computers wirelessly. Without
an access point, you could only connect two computers wirelessly in "ad
hoc" mode (more on that later, too).
Finally, a router is a device that connects two networks, and routes
traffic between them. For example, a router can connect a peer-to-peer
workgroup to the Internet, allowing you to share a single Internet
connection with all the computers in your office. Most routers also double as switches, just as wireless routers
double as wireless access points. Plus, any modern router (wireless or
otherwise) will have a built-in firewall (typically superior to a
software firewall that runs on your computer), so you can basically get
everything you need in one inexpensive package.
good news is that Vista comes with everything you need to take
advantage of all of these standards, and use them to access the Internet
or share files and devices with other PCs on your network. The bad news
is that it's almost never as easy to get it working properly as the
industry would lead you to believe.
2. To Wire or Not to Wire
is a pain, but it works. Wireless is convenient, but flaky. Luckily,
you don't have to just stick with one system, nor have it all planned
out ahead of time.
best results, wire your nonmobile desktop system to your
router/switch/hub when it's nearby. Cables aren't affected by poor
reception, security codes, or interference, and they provide full speed
all the time.
Plug one end
of an Ethernet cable into your router or DSL/cable modem, and the other
end into your PC, and you're done; Vista will set up the connection and
get you on the Net in less than two seconds, no questions asked. And
unless a small rodent chews its way through said cable, it'll keep
working until you unplug it.
If you see a prompt that entices you to Connect to a network,
resist the urge if you're using cables; even though it doesn't
explicitly say it, the window that appears when you click this link is
only for connecting to wireless networks.
Wiring can vary in complexity and cost, depending on your needs, budget, and office layout. (See the upcoming "Cabling Tips"
sidebar for additional help.) For example, if you have two or more
desktop computers in the same room, wiring is a simple matter of adding a
switch and one category-5 patch cable for each machine, as shown in Figure 1. More PCs require a switch with more ports, or possibly multiple switches connected together, and of course, more cables.
Figure 1. An example of a wired peer-to-peer network (LAN) comprised of
three computers connected with a switch (or hub); the printer is
connected to one of the PCs, which shares it with the others
If you only have two computers, you can eliminate the switch and simply connect them with an inexpensive category-5 crossover cable, as shown in Figure 2. Total cost: $3.99.
Figure 2. A quick and dirty hubless workgroup; given its limitations, however, it's best suited as a temporary solution
of the time, it doesn't make sense to use cables to connect a laptop to
your network unless its wireless doesn't work. (Of course, if you're
using a docking station, plugging in is more practical, but that's up to
you.) Wireless, of course, is slicker than using cables, and works
anywhere within range of the router; no drilling holes in walls so you
can feed cables to all parts of your home or office. Figure 3 shows a typical wireless network with four computers (three PCs and one PDA).
Figure 3. A wireless router acts as both a wireless access point and a
switch, allowing you to connect any number of computers—and even
WiFi-enabled PDAs—to form a wireless LAN (WiFi antennas are typically
internal, and are shown here only for illustrative purposes)
a second or two of connecting both ends of a network cable, the
corresponding lights on your hardware should light up. Lights should be
visible right on the network adapter, whether it's in the back of your
desktop computer or in the side of your laptop. (Note that some devices
use multicolor LEDs that appear green if the connection is correct, and
red if it's wrong.) Flashing lights usually mean data is being
your cables while your switch and any other equipment are turned on and
while Windows is running. That way, you'll see the corresponding lights
go on, indicating that the switch, router, or NIC has detected the new
connection. Note that the lights only confirm that the cabling is
correct; they won't tell you whether the drivers and protocols are
Use only category-5 (Cat-5) patch cables, except for a few very specific situations that require category-5 crossover
cables. Use a crossover cable to connect two computers directly
(without a hub, switch, or router) or to connect two switches. In some
cases where a DSL/cable modem connects directly to a computer with a
patch cable, a crossover cable may be required to connect either of
these devices to a hub or switch (naturally, consult the documentation
to be sure). Either way, if the lights go on, you're using the right
kind of cable.
measuring for cables, always add several extra feet to each cable; too
long is better than too short. Also, bad cables are not uncommon, so
have a few extras around in case any of those lights don't light up.
around when looking for cables. Most of the huge mega-computer stores
charge too much for cables; you can often find longer, better cables at a
fraction of the price (sans the fancy packaging) by shopping at smaller
mom-and-pop computer stores.
if your cables are to pass through walls, you may want to install
category-5 wall jacks for the tidiest appearance. Note that these
accessories can be expensive and cumbersome to wire properly, and are
typically unnecessary for all but the most compulsive neat-freaks among
needs more setup than cables (if you do it right) and is less reliable
than Ethernet. Windows needs at least 5–10 seconds to connect to a
previously configured wireless network (more for the first time), and
may drop your connection as you move around.
may or may not be a factor in your decision. WiFi is not nearly as fast
as wired Ethernet; common 802.11g wireless connections (rated at 54
Mbps) transfer data at about 20–30 Mbps, and this speed drops rapidly as
reception worsens. The fastest Ethernet connections move data at 1,000
Mbps (1 Gbps), reception notwithstanding. Of course, the difference is
moot if you're only doing Internet (typical broadband is only about 1–3
Mbps), but if you need to transfer files between PCs in your workgroup,
wired Ethernet will do it in a fraction of the time.
what if you want the convenience of wireless, but the speed and
reliability of cables? The short answer is to wait about five years for
the technology to improve. The even shorter
answer is to simply connect your WiFi-equipped laptop to your network
with a cable when your wireless gets cranky or you need to transfer
files. Luckily, a properly configured network should have no trouble
handling both wired and wireless PCs. Figure 4 shows a common peer-to-peer network setup with two wired desktop computers and a wireless connection to a laptop.
Figure 4. You can mix and match wired and wireless devices with a wireless
router; these three computers are on the same network, despite the
different means of connection
one crucial aspect of wireless networking that simply doesn't exist on a
wired network: intruders. By default, most wireless routers have no
security features enabled, meaning that any WiFi-enabled computer within
range can connect to your workgroup and use your Internet connection.