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Setting Up and Accessing a Small Network - Hardware: NICs and Other Network Knickknacks

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3/4/2011 10:36:09 PM
The client and operating system software are only part of the network picture. Whether you go with a client/server or a peer-to-peer setup, you must have some kind of connection between machines. In other words, before the network of file sharing and email can become a reality, an underlying physical network must be in place. The next few sections introduce you to the various components that comprise the nuts and bolts of this physical network.

The Network Interface Card

The network interface card (NIC) is an adapter that, usually, slips into an expansion bus slot inside a client or server computer. (External NICs that plug into USB ports or PC Card slots are also on the market.) The NIC’s main purpose in life is to serve as the connection point between the PC and the network. The NIC’s backplate (that is, the portion of the NIC you can see after the card has been installed) contains one or more ports into which you plug a network cable.

After the physical connection has been established, the NIC works with a device driver to process incoming and outgoing network data. As such, the NIC is the focal point for the computer’s network connection, so it plays a big part in the overall performance of that connection. Each NIC is designed for a specific type of network architecture. The most common types are ethernet, token ring, and ARCnet, although ethernet is by far the most popular choice for small networks.


If you have a broadband Internet connection, you’ll need two NICs in your computer: one for the Internet connection and a second one for the network connection.

Ethernet works by using a carrier sense multiple access/collision detection method. This means that ethernet cards can sense a carrier signal on the network and so refrain from transmitting data. If no carrier signal is detected, the card sends data. However, if two or more cards attempt to send data simultaneously, a collision occurs. This is detected by the other cards on the network, and no data is sent until the collision has been resolved. (Specifically, the nodes involved in the collision resend their packets after waiting a random amount of time.)

There are three main types of ethernet NIC:

EthernetThis type of NIC provides 10Mbps throughput.
Fast EthernetThis is a relatively new iteration of the ethernet architecture and, thanks to its support for 100Mbps throughput, is rapidly becoming the standard (if it isn’t already). Note, too, that many NICs are 10/100 cards that support both Ethernet and Fast Ethernet.
Gigabit EthernetThis type of card features 1Gbps throughput. This is impressive speed, to be sure, but it’s probably overkill on a small network, unless you plan to transmit video or other high-bandwidth content.


To achieve efficient and reliable data transfers, any information sent over a network is broken down into smaller pieces called packets. (You can think of a packet as the network equivalent of a single unit of information.) Each packet contains not only data, but also a header. The header contains information about which machine sent the data and which machine is supposed to receive the data. It also includes a few extra tidbits that let the network put all the original data together in the correct order and check for errors that might have cropped up during the transmission. A typical packet size is 512 bytes.

The Cable Connection

To set up a communications pathway between network computers, you have to install cables that connect the various network nodes together. The starting point (figuratively speaking) for any cable is the network card. As I mentioned in the preceding section, an NIC’s backplate has one or more external ports into which you insert a network cable. The key point here is that the cable you use must match the configuration of one of the NIC ports. To understand why, consider the difference between telephone cables and the coaxial wiring used by cable TV. If you examine the wall jacks for each type of cable, you’ll see that the ports into which you plug the cables are completely different. There’s no way, for example, to plug a coaxial cable into a telephone jack.

It’s the same way with NIC ports: Each has a particular shape and pin arrangement that’s designed for a specific type of cable. When buying network adapters, you need to match the ports with the type of cabling you intend to use.

This used to be a big deal a few years ago when different types of cables were used. Nowadays, however, almost all small networks use twisted-pair cable. It is composed of a pair of copper wires that together form a circuit that can transmit data. The wires are twisted together to reduce interference. This is similar to the cable used in telephone wiring, but network cables are usually shielded by braided metal insulation to further reduce interference problems. (You can use unshielded twisted-pair cabling, but the poorer line quality will restrict the distance between nodes and the total number of nodes.)

Twisted-pair cables use RJ-45 jacks to plug into corresponding RJ-45 connectors in an NIC or other type of network node, as shown in Figure 1. In ethernet circles, twisted-pair cables are also often referred to as 10Base-T cables and RJ-45 ports are often called 10Base-T ports.

Figure 1. Twisted-pair cables use RJ-45 jacks to plug into the complementary RJ-45 connectors in network adapter cards.


Twisted-pair cable is categorized according to the maximum transmission rates supported by various types of cable. For network data, for example, Category 3 cable supports the standard 10Mbps transmission rates available in most network installations. These days, however, few people purchase anything but Category 5 cable, which is rated at 100Mbps and can support higher-end network technologies such as Fast Ethernet.

More Hardware Goodies

The network card/cable package is all that each PC requires to broadcast and to receive network packets, but it is by no means the only hardware you might need. Depending on the physical layout of your network, the types of services you need, and the type of card and cable you choose, you might have to spring for a few more trinkets. Just so you know what to expect, here’s a list of some common network accessories:

Hub (also known as a concentrator)A hub is a central connection point for network cables. That is, for each computer, you run a twisted-pair cable from the computer’s NIC to an RJ-45 port on the hub. Hubs range in size from small boxes with six or eight RJ-45 ports to large cabinets with dozens of ports for various cable types. If you’re using Fast Ethernet NICs, be sure to get a hub that also supports 100 Mbps. There are also 10/100 hubs available if you’re using a mix of ethernet and Fast Ethernet.
RouterA router is a device that makes decisions about where to send the network packets it receives. Unlike a bridge (see the next item in this list), which merely passes along any data that comes its way, a router examines the address information in each packet and deter mines the most efficient route the packet must take to reach its eventual destination. For example, this is useful when the computers share a high-speed Internet connection because the router ensures that the Internet data goes to the computer that requested it. You should plug your high-speed modem directly into the router.
BridgeA bridge is a device that connects two LANs, provided that the two LANs are using the same NOS. The bridge can be either a standalone device or implemented in a server by the addition of a second network card. One of the most common uses for a server bridge is to split an existing LAN into two segments. Doing so distributes the network load between the server’s two NICs and thus improves overall network performance.
RepeaterSome cables suffer from attenuation—the degradation of the electrical signal carried over the cable is proportional to the distance the signal must travel. A repeater is a device that boosts the cable’s signal so that the length of the network can be extended. Some hubs also act as repeaters (in which case they’re called active hubs).
GatewayA gateway is a computer or other device that acts as a middleman between two otherwise-incompatible systems. The gateway translates the incoming and outgoing packets so that each system can work the data. For example, you can use a gateway to connect a PC network and a Macintosh network. The gateway takes the data from one network type and translates it into a form that the other network understands. On a home network, a residential gateway is a computer or router that connects to the Internet.

Understanding Wireless Network Hardware Requirements

The cabling requirements of a standard ethernet setup, and the restrictions those requirements impose on a client, have led an increasing number of network users to consider the cable-free configuration of a wireless network. Wireless devices transmit data and communicate with other devices using radio signals that are beamed from one device to another. Although these radio signals are similar to those used in commercial radio broadcasts, they operate on a different frequency. A radio transceiver is a device that can act as both a transmitter and a receiver of radio signals. All wireless devices that require two-way communications use a transceiver.

The most common wireless technology is wireless fidelity, which is also called Wi-Fi (rhymes with hi-fi) or 802.11. There are four main types—802.11, 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g—each of which has its own range and speed limits:

RangeAll wireless devices have a maximum range beyond which they can no longer communicate with other devices. In practice, Wi-Fi networking ranges span from 75 feet for 802.11a to about 150 feet for 802.11b and 802.11g.
SpeedWireless transmission speed—which is usually measured in megabits per second, or Mbps—is an important factor to consider when you set up a wireless network or a wireless Internet connection. Less expensive wireless networks most often use 802.11b, which has a theoretical top speed of 11Mbps. The increasingly popular 802.11g standard has a theoretical speed limit of 54Mbps.


Another popular wireless technology is Bluetooth, a wireless networking standard that uses radio frequencies to set up a communications link between devices. This is called an ad hoc network. The Bluetooth name comes from Harald Bluetooth, a tenth-century Danish king who united the provinces of Denmark under a single crown, the same way that, theoretically, Bluetooth will unite the world of portable wireless devices under a single standard. Why name a modern technology after an obscure Danish king? Here’s a clue: Two of the most important companies backing the Bluetooth standard—Ericsson and Nokia—are Scandinavian.

Wireless networks require two device types:

Wireless NICA wireless NIC is a special type of NIC that includes (or has built into its circuitry) a small antenna that receives and transmits data using radio frequencies. If your network consists of only computers with wireless NICs, you don’t need any other equipment. (However, you will have to set up your NICs to use ad hoc mode for direct NIC-to-NIC communication; consult the operating manual that came with each wireless NIC.) There are four types of wireless NIC:
  • PC Card—For notebook computers that do not have built-in wireless capabilities, you can insert a PC Card.

  • Circuit board—You can insert a wireless NIC circuit board into your desktop computer.

  • USB—For easier installation on a desktop computer, you can plug a USB wireless network adapter into a free USB port.

  • Bluetooth adapter—To set up an ad hoc network with any Bluetooth device, your computer requires a Bluetooth adapter, most of which plug into a USB port.

Wireless access pointAP) (A wireless AP is a device that receives and transmits signals from wireless computers to form a wireless network. (This relatively more permanent form or network is called an infrastructure wireless network to differentiate such a network from an ad hoc network.) Many APs also accept wired connections, which enables both wired and wireless computers to form a network. If your network has a broadband modem, you can connect the modem to a type of AP called a wireless gateway, which extends Internet access to all the computers on the network.


If you find that your wireless access point is not reaching certain areas of your home or office, you can use a wireless range extender to boost the signal. Depending on the device and wireless access point, the extender can more than double the normal wireless range. Bear in mind, however, that range extenders are notoriously difficult to incorporate into an existing network. For best results, use an extender from the same company that makes your wireless access point, and make sure that the extender is compatible with the access point.

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