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Setting Up a Small Office or Home Network : Introducing Windows 7 Networking

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3/21/2011 10:01:19 PM
With a minimal investment in hardware, you can connect two or more computers and form a simple peer-to-peer network. Because these networks aren't built around a server, they don't allow you to manage users and shared resources centrally; instead, each computer contains its own database of authorized user accounts and shared folders, drives, and printers. Setting up a workgroup-based network offers the following advantages:
  • Shared storage By designating certain folders as shared resources, you avoid the need to swap files on removable media or to maintain duplicate copies of files; instead, everyone on the network can open a shared document.

  • Shared printers Sharing a printer allows any authorized network user to print to that device.

  • Shared media You can open shared media files (music, pictures, and video) stored on another computer or device or stream media from one computer to other computers and devices on the network.

  • Shared internet connection With a router to which all your networked computers are connected, every computer can use the router's connection to the internet. An alternative is to use Internet Connection Sharing (ICS), with which you can set up internet access on a single computer and then allow every computer on the network to share that connection. ICS is an acceptable sharing method if you have a dial-up connection to the internet; ICS lets you control it from any computer on the network. However, using a hardware router offers significant security and performance advantages over ICS and is clearly the way to go if you have high-speed, always-on internet service, such as that provided by cable or DSL.

1. What's New in Windows 7

Networking in Windows 7 improves on earlier versions primarily with ease-of-use enhancements. Among the most useful improvements:

  • HomeGroup makes child's play of the previously daunting tasks of connecting the computers in your home and sharing the information they contain. When you join a home network, Windows automatically invites you to join a homegroup. Documents, pictures, music, and other files you choose to share are then accessible among all your home network's computers. 

  • Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), a standard promulgated by the Wi-Fi Alliance (wi-fi.org) and embraced by many hardware manufacturers, enables simple and secure configuration of the gamut of wireless network devices, including routers, wireless access points, computers, printers, cameras, game consoles, media extenders, and personal digital assistants (PDAs). WPS is fully integrated in Windows 7.

  • Mobile broadband support provides a driver-based system for working with connections to mobile broadband services such as 3G. Instead of having to install and learn proprietary connection software, you can now connect a mobile broadband adapter and begin using it in essentially the same way as any other network adapter.

In addition, Windows 7, when connected to a server running Windows Server 2008 R2, enables new networking features such as DirectAccess, which enables connections to an enterprise server without creating a virtual private network (VPN) connection; VPN Reconnect, which automatically re-establishes a VPN connection when internet connectivity is restored; and BranchCache, which improves response time and reduces wide area network (WAN) traffic by caching server content in a local office.

These usability improvements come atop a major networking makeover in Windows Vista, which is based on a protocol stack that was completely rewritten for Windows Vista. Dubbed the Next Generation TCP/IP stack, this redesign of the network underpinnings provides improvements in security, performance, and convenience that are largely invisible to ordinary users.

For example, additional security comes in the ability of the Windows Filtering Platform to implement packet filtering at all levels of the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) stack. Performance is enhanced by Receive Window Auto-Tuning, which dynamically determines the optimal receive window size based on changing network conditions; in previous Windows versions, you were required to tweak the registry to set a fixed-size receive window for your type of internet connection. The Next Generation TCP/IP stack implements Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) in a dual-stack architecture; instead of having to install a separate protocol (with its own transport and link layers) as in previous versions, IPv4 and IPv6 are incorporated in a single Windows driver, with a shared transport layer and link layer. Enabling IPv4 and IPv6 by default is more convenient for the user who needs both—because there's nothing extra to install—but also easier for developers. Native support for wireless devices is built in to the Next Generation TCP/IP stack, which also reduces demands on developers and users who must deal with add-in support in earlier versions of Windows.

And if all of the preceding jargon means nothing to you—well, that's the point. Improvements like these (and dozens of others) have made networking almost transparent to users so that you don't need to spend time understanding how the layers in a protocol stack communicate and, worse, how to configure them to do so.

2. Using Network And Sharing Center

Many of the tasks related to configuring the hardware and software for a network, viewing network resources, setting up shared resources on your own computer, and diagnosing network problems can be managed from Network And Sharing Center, which is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Clicking one of the icons at the top of Network And Sharing Center opens your Computer folder, Network folder, or default web browser's home page.

You can open Network And Sharing Center in any of the following ways:

  • In the notification area, click the Network icon and then click Open Network And Sharing Center.

  • In the Start menu search box, begin typing network until Network And Sharing Center appears; click it.

  • If your Start menu includes a Network command on the right side, right-click it and then click Properties.

  • In Control Panel, click Network And Internet, and then click Network And Sharing Center.

  • In Windows Explorer, with the Network folder displayed, click the Network And Sharing Center button on the toolbar.


Many of the tasks related to configuring networks require elevation to administrator privileges, as indicated by the shield icon next to commands and on command buttons.

3. Understanding Network Locations

With computers that connect to different types of networks—such as a corporate domain, an internet café, and a private home network—often within the same day and sometimes even simultaneously, using the same network security settings for all networks would lead to security breaches, severe inconvenience, or both. Windows uses network locations to categorize each network and then applies appropriate security settings. When you initially connect to a network, Windows asks you to select a network location, as shown in Figure 2. Select one of the three options:

  • Home Network Select this option when you're connecting to a trusted network, such as your own network at home. You should select Home Network only for a network that is protected by a residential gateway (a term we'll explain shortly) or comparable internet defense, and one where you're confident that malicious users aren't connected. With this choice, Windows enables the HomeGroup feature for sharing with other users on the network.

  • Work Network Select this option when you're connecting to a trusted network, such as your company network at work. With this choice, Windows turns on network discovery, which lets you see other computers on the network and lets other users see your computer.

  • Public Network Use this option for networks in public places, such as wireless hotspots in coffee shops, hotels, airports, and libraries. This type of network typically has a direct connection to the internet. Network discovery is turned off for public locations.

Figure 2. Windows asks you to choose a network location the first time you connect to a new network.


In Windows Vista, the Home and Work options are functionally identical; the only difference is the default icon that Windows assigns to represent the network. In Windows 7, however, there is a key difference: only Home networks can use the Home-Group feature.

If you have a mobile computer that connects to multiple networks, keep in mind that Windows keeps three groups of network security settings: one for private (home or work) networks, one for public-location networks, and one for use when your computer is joined to a domain-based network. A visit to Windows Firewall shows that it maintains three profiles: Home Or Work (Private) Networks, Public Networks, and Domain Networks; each is associated with a network location type.

This is important because, for example, when you are connected to a public network and Windows Firewall is turned on, some programs and services ask you to let them communicate through the firewall. Consider carefully whether you want to unblock such programs; if you do, that program is unblocked for all networks identified as "public location" networks.

The location of the current network is shown in Network And Sharing Center, below the name of the network.

To change the network location, in Network And Sharing Center, click the link that identifies the network location. In the dialog box that appears (same as in Figure 2), click the appropriate location.

Workgroups vs. Domains

Computers on a network can be part of a workgroup or a domain.

In a workgroup, the security database (including, most significantly, the list of user accounts and the privileges granted to each one) for each computer resides on that computer. When you log on to a computer in a workgroup, Windows checks its local security database to see if you've provided a user name and password that matches one in the database. Similarly, when network users attempt to connect to your computer, Windows again consults the local security database. All computers in a workgroup must be on the same subnet. A workgroup is sometimes called a peer-to-peer network.

By contrast, a domain consists of computers that share a security database stored on one or more domain controllers running Windows Server. When you log on using a domain account, Windows authenticates your credentials against the security database on a domain controller.

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