To the home user there is a multitude of networking equipment on sale. The naming and specifications of these devices can be confusing to the novice. The following guide is designed to cut through all the jargon and explain the terms, names and specifications making it easier to make the correct decisions when setting up a home or small office network.
What is a Network?
A network usually consists of multiple computer devices which can communicate with each other enabling the sharing of information or data between them. With today’s technical advances networks are not limited to computers and laptops as they have extended to televisions, stereo equipment and even mobile devices such as phones and tablet PCs.
Before the advances in wireless technology networks would mainly be “wired”. This would involve various devices between computers that would allow cables to be plugged into the machines enabling communication. These cables would limit the movement of the devices and on home networks would be impractical as it would usually require the drilling of holes.
In the last few years wireless networking has improved and now operates at speeds that allow networking of equipment reliably and more easily than ever before.
Network speeds are important when deciding which way to go when building a network for the home or office. Wired networks currently run at three speeds. These are measured in Megabits Per Second, the current speeds are 10Mbps, 100Mbps and Gigabit which runs at 1000Mbps. 10Mbps is very outdated in today’s networks as it cannot really cope with the transfer of data required by today’s applications and file sizes. 100Mbps can still be acceptable as long as there is not too much multimedia requirements as these files are large and usually take up a lot of network bandwidth.
There are currently four wireless standards for use around the home or office, 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, or 802.11n. The first two standards 802.11a and 802.11b are very slow and also very insecure to the point where they should not be used on networks at all. 802.11g operates at 54Mbps and is still useable on networks. It will work adequately when surfing the internet and handles the transfer of data at home or in the office. 802.11n is the latest standard to be introduced and can operate at speeds up to 100mbps. This is the standard that should be implemented if using wireless networks.
Wired networks require special cables or network cables to function. The computer, laptop or network equipment has to have a network port to enable these cables to be connected to them. The port is called a RJ45 port. There are a couple of types of network cable that can connect network enabled devices to a wired network, these are CAT5, CAT5e and CAT6 cables. For the majority of uses the CAT5e should be used as this can handle all network speeds including Gigabit 1000Mbps speeds. Note that CAT5 does not support Gigabit networking.
A network switch is used to connect multiple computer devices using network cables. They usually have a number of RJ45 ports used to connect the devices to the switch. They can come in various sizes and have a differing amount of ports built-in. A network switch can have as little as four ports for home or small office use but they also can come with 8, 16, 32 and 48 ports, obviously the larger switches are usually found on larger business networks.
Some switches come with a management interface which can be accessed via a web browser allowing certain settings to be manipulated in the switch such as enabling and disabling ports. It will also allow segmenting of the network but this is not usually a requirement for home and small office networks.
As the name suggests, the role of the network router is to route traffic around a network. They take the data being transmitted around the network and analyse it and then send it to the required destination.
Typically a home router will interface with the various network equipment around the home and manage the passing of information between these devices and even the internet via the modem. Before the common application of modern routers, internet connection sharing between multiple devices was long winded and very unreliable. These days many ISPs (Internet Service Providers) supply a router as part of their installation or package.
A router may also have wireless technology built-in allowing the connection of wireless devices to the network. These wireless devices then have the ability to access and share resources on the network via the same router.
A typical home router will have four RJ45 ports, a port for connecting it to the internet and wireless capabilities allowing it to become the central networking device around the home.
Network Attached Storage
NAS or network attached storage was once only used for business to store data shared amongst devices on the network. There are now devices designed to do this for home use. The network attached storage is basically one or more hard disk drives contained in a box which interfaces with the home network using a cable. These can be connected to the router or switch. They have an interface that can be accessed by a web / internet browser allowing simple configuration and backing up etc. These devices are accessed by computers, laptops etc using built-in networking allowing browsing, copying of files to and from the network attached storage directly.