Web Informant #234, 23 January 2001:
Home networking still ain't easy


I've been out on call at various neighbor's homes, to help them design and install their home networks. It is still rough going. I'm afraid things haven't gotten much better in the two years since I wrote about this in WI #145 (Home Networking Ain't Easy).

The biggest motivation to get a home network is still to share broadband Internet access. You get a cable modem or a DSL line to computer #1, and all of sudden your kids or spouse who are using computer #2 (or #3) can see how much easier it is to connect to the Internet. How they don't have to tie up the home phone line, or wait for files to download or pages to appear inside their browser. How they can get email delivered to their desktop continuously.

But there is a problem. Computers #2 and #3 are located on the other side of the house from where the cable drop or DSL connection is. And that is still the biggest sticking point: how do I run wires around a house without opening up the walls and making a general mess of things?

It sure would be nice if we could build our homes like our office buildings: run several pairs of wires from every room back to a central point in the basement or the attic. This way, every time we need a new network drop, we could easily hook up a computer using these "home runs" (as they are called). Alas, no one builds homes this way, and there are more strike outs than hits. So we are stuck trying to finesse a solution to the wiring problem. My recommendation is to still use ordinary 10BaseT Ethernet where you can. But that isn't much of a choice, unless someone is willing to put all their computers in a single room or is in the process of ripping out a few strategically placed walls and floors.

The home networking vendors haven't been much help. Several of them have a series of home phoneline networking products: these products make use of your existing phone wiring to network your computers. However, all cable and DSL modems use standard Ethernet connectors -- this means you need two network adapters in your first computer: one for the standard Ethernet and one for the phoneline networking card. That is painful, especially if you have decided to use an older (say more than two years') PC as the repository for these two network adapters. And if your computers aren't located near phone jacks, that could be a problem.

Ideally, you want a device that bridges both phoneline and ordinary Ethernet, so that you don't have to configure multiple networks on your PC. Linksys and 2Wire.com have promised them shortly.

My friend John Patrick at IBM suggested one solution to me. He would like to have a wireless gateway that connects to either Ethernet or a standard phone line. This way you could start out without having to do any wiring by sharing all your computers over a single dial-up connection, and then migrate to a faster broadband connection when one becomes available. No one currently makes such a product. Linksys makes a wireless gateway that works with Ethernet networks, and I had some trouble configuring it for Windows ME until I downloaded new drivers. Ugh. (Don't even get me started on Windows ME. Why we need another Windows operating system to support is beyond me. But it is nice that Microsoft has decided to package the most recent versions of IE, Media Player, and its operating systems together on one CD.)

But wiring isn't the only issue. Being a careful reader, you probably want to have some sort of security protection on your nascent home network. Today there are dozens of products that will deliver this, but evaluating these products isn't easy, and they differ in subtle ways. Most of the products combine a 4 or 8 port hub with a built-in DHCP server and allow NAT and some port filtering as well, and are configurable via a web browser. They also work for both 10 and 100 megabit Ethernet connections as well. (Currently, I use the SonicWall at the office, and the Linksys Etherfast router at home. You can read about my exploits with several of these products in WI #217.)

Here is a nice listing of the various products.

The problem with these firewall/router/gateway/hub things is that to keep them affordable, the vendors have to cut corners on either the engineering, the documentation, the support, or some combination of all three. And that means that your friendly neighborhood network engineer (yours truly) has to spend more of his time debugging the units as they are placed in the field. Curiously, each unit that I have tried has worked perfectly in my office. When I bring them to the neighbors' homes, it is another story entirely.

Why is this the case? Because my office network is already configured and running properly, so it is a simple matter to drop one of these hardware firewall/router/hubs into the picture. At least, it is this week, before I have to rebuild something for my next test bed. At my neighbors' homes, they are starting a network from scratch. The distinction is subtle, but important. For networking virgins, the mere act of networking is a difficult task. You have so many things to consider that you can't necessarily distinguish between the PC, the operating system, the network adapter, the adapter's drivers, the cabling, and the protocols connecting everything up. One neighbor spent the better part of eight hours on the phone with Intel's tech support, and others have similar stories to tell.

And that is where things stand, c. 2001. There is a wide variation in network adapters, cabling, and other matters that can make or break, and usually break, a home network plan. If you are running Windows 95, you almost certainly will run into problems. If you have an older PC that doesn't support PCI or USB adapters, ditto. If you have a mixture of Macs and PCs, or PCs running various versions of Windows operating systems, you are in for some extending counseling sessions.

Take something as simple as an auto-sensing hub that is built-in to these products. Well, trying the Umax Ugate in one home, I finally got a connection between the hub and a PC at 10 megabits, even though I tried to get the network adapter in this PC to run at a higher speed. Why? Who knows? The trouble is, without my help this hub was just a useless piece of brushed plastic, because the default settings didn't work.

Another complication is PPPOE, a protocol that was invented so that phone companies can make it even more difficult to support DSL connections. This requires further configuration and user confusion, even for people who know what this acronym actually means.

Sometimes it is just what we in the IT department used to call euphemistically operator error. At another household, I was trying to configure a Pivio router/hub using a web browser and couldn't connect to the unit. Of course, if I had taken time to review the documentation and realize that the router/hub needed to be configured at port 81, rather than at the default web port 80, that might have helped. Again, there is too much stuff to consider for the average civilian, let alone a seasoned network professional (cough-cough) like myself.

And sometimes it is sheer luck. One neighbor was having trouble with their phoneline network crashing frequently. He switched the network to another phone line running between their computers and things seem more reliable now. Why? Who knows?

Despite the proliferation of products and improvements over the past several years, home networking still isn't easy. In one sense, it is a lot harder because there is so much gear available, that ordinary folks think they can just trundle off to their local computer store and pick up a network bundle for a few hundred dollars and set things up on their own. This is the minority experience, from what I have seen.

Certainly, the opportunities are there: more and more families have multiple PCs in their homes, and the number is only going to get larger. Half the US households now have an Internet connection of some kind. But for many homeowners the prospect of connecting all these computers together is far too difficult. There are many people I know who, after getting their broadband line for one computer, continue to use dial-up for their remaining computers because they can't deal with all the issues surrounding a home network. That is a real shame. In an industry that offers gigabit and terabit speeds for the office, we are still stuck in the slow lane on the home front. This is the real digital divide, and will remain so until the home networking products get better. Or if you know a friendly networking expert that is willing to make house calls.

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David Strom
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