In the early days of personal computers, the thought of having more than a single PC in a household was probably as uncommon as the idea of multiple televisions in households of the 1950's: it simply didn't happen. But now, just as multiple TVs per home has become the rule as opposed to the exception, so too has the multiple PC home become commonplace. (To get tips on what to look for in a new computer, by the way, check the "Computer Shopping Tips" article available on this web site.) People have found that, far from being an extravagance, owning multiple computers (whether they're PCs or Macs or even both) is extraordinarily practical, particularly for those households with multiple computer users, such as just about anyone with kids….

With the growing importance of the Internet, the dilemma now is figuring out how to get all those computers connected to the online world. Some people with multiple PCs have chosen to sign up for multiple online accounts, but in addition to being expensive, this can be impractical because of all the additional hassles it entails: setting up multiple phone lines, configuring multiple modems and so on. This is particularly true for those homes who already have or are interested in fast, "always on" (sometimes called broadband) connections to the Internet, such as via cable modems, DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), satellite and fixed wireles technologies.

As a result, there's a tremendous interest in figuring out ways to share a single online connection among multiple computers. Simply put, the best way is to create a home network and then share the web connection through that network. Home networks offer many other useful benefits for multiple computer homes-including the ability to share printers and other peripherals, transfer files, play games and more-but sharing a single internet connection is widely recognized as being the "killer application."

Home networks will also be very important in the future for other types of applications, such as connecting information appliances and even consumer electronics devices, such as home stereo and home theater components, to the Internet. Without a home network in a place, you won’t really be able to take full advantage of some of the cool new crossover products and technologies that are just starting to become available.

Finding information on how to create a home network and shared Internet connection isn't easy, however, and many of the resources that are available aren't easy to understand. To address these issues, I've written this article. It offers complete, but straightforward explanations about both the concepts involved as well as the specific steps required to create your own home network with a shared Internet connection.

The Big Picture

The first thing to understand about this process is that there are two major steps involved. First, you have to create the network itself by connecting the appropriate hardware, installing the necessary software and setting up the computers to communicate with one another. Once that's done, then you also have to create the shared Internet connection, which can be done either with software or hardware. Simply creating a network does not automatically give you a shared Internet connection. Conversely, you cannot just install Internet connection sharing software and expect success-you have to have some type of network in place first.

Depending on the equipment and software you choose to install, you may find that you can achieve both ends (that is, create a network and share an Internet connection) with the same piece of hardware, but that's only because the device is specifically designed to handle both tasks. (Devices that offer this capability are sometimes referred to as residential gateways and they are discussed in much more detail later in this article.) In many cases, the process involves two or more separate pieces of hardware and/or software. Be aware also that the exact equipment you need and the procedures you’ll use to set them up vary depending on what you're using and what you already have. In addition, it’s important to know that there can be a lot of steps involved….

Getting Wired (or Unwired)

The first step in creating a network, which is the first part of the overall process, is figuring out how the machines will be connected together. Traditionally, this has been done via wired connections using specialized network cabling and a hardware device known as a hub, which serves as the common connection point between machines. Each computer uses (or needs to have installed) a network interface card (sometimes referred to as an Ethernet card), and the cables are connected from each PC's network/Ethernet card to the hub. Note that if your PC already has a network interface card that was installed along with your cable or DSL modem, you sometimes have to add a second network card to create your home network.

In many cases, home networks also use this type of arrangement, but it has one significant drawback. Traditional networks like this require that new cables be run to the rooms in which the computers are located. Not surprisingly, many homeowners (and renters) have no desire to run more wiring throughout their house, especially if it requires fishing wires through walls, climbing through attics or crawlspaces and so on. As a result, the computer industry has come up with several alternatives that are less intrusive or disruptive to the typical home and, in addition, are simpler to set up.

The first alternative encompasses two choices that are collectively referred to as "no new wires" techniques. As the name suggests, these methods use wiring that already exists in all homes: specifically, phone lines and the electrical lines. Products that use phone lines conform to the Home Phoneline Networking Association (HPNA) standard and allow you to network together two or more computers by plugging them into available phone jacks. Similarly, power-line products use your home's existing electrical outlets to connect together multiple PCs. In the case of power-line based products, the standard is called HomePlug, but it's being adopted very slowly and products that support have just started to trickle out. Importantly, both phoneline and power-line products work in such a way that they will not affect the normal operation of your home's phones or electrical outlets. So, for example, you can still make and receive calls on the phone lines while using an HPNA-based phoneline network and you can still plug in and use any device requiring electricity while using powerline-based networks. In both cases, the products essentially take advantage of unused “space” on the respective types of wires.

As appealing as these two options may be, there are certain limitations. Both mechanisms, for example, are typically slower than traditional wired network connections. Power-line connections, in particular, tend to run much more slowly than other alternatives. Similarly, phoneline products that conform to the HPNA 1.0 standard are much slower than other options, although HPNA 2.0-compliant products offer much better performance. To put it into numerical perspective, traditional wired Ethernet networks commonly run at 10 Megabits per second, or 10 Mbps. (The Mbps number refers to how much data, measured in bits, can be transferred across the network in a given amount of time.) In addition, 100 Mbps Ethernet, 1 Gigabit (Gbps, or 1,000 Mbps) Ethernet and even faster options are available with traditional network wiring. Some power-line networks, on the other hand, work at less than 1 Mbps, while HPNA 1.0 devices run at 1 Mbps and HPNA 2.0 devices offer up to 10 Mbps.

Other limitations are even more confounding. HPNA products, for example, must all connect to jacks that use the same phone number. If you happen to have multiple phone lines and, for example, only have jacks for the second line in one of the rooms in which your PCs are located (such as if you set up a dedicated phone line for dial-up Internet access), you could end having to wire your house with another phone line (or at least manually rewiring a phone jack) in order to get HPNA products to work. As far as I'm concerned, this completely defeats the purpose of HPNA in the first place because it doesn't live up to the promise of "no new wires." Thankfully, there are some solutions around this problem in some situations, but it can still be frustrating. Plus, it is very poorly and, in fact, very rarely, documented.

Power-line products, on the other hand, don't often work well with the electrical filtering found in power strips, which are otherwise usually recommended for use with your computer equipment. As a result, you'll have to be sure you attach power-line networking products straight to the wall or via a non-filtered outlet. Also, until more HomePlug-compatible products become available, all of the powerline products are proprietary and won't work with products from other vendors.

The second major alternative to wired networks are wireless products. Early wireless products were slow and more expensive than any wired alternatives, but current wireless products offer speeds up to 11 Mbps, in addition to the flexibility and ease of setup provided by a wireless connection. Cost-wise, however, they still are more expensive than the other options. Unfortunately, there are several different wireless alternatives and they are not compatible with each other, so you need to be careful if you're considering a wireless network. The two primary standards are Home RF (short for Radio Frequency) and IEEE 802.11b, which is used in Apple's AirPoint product and Lucent’s Orinoco RG-1000 among others. 802.11b has been standardized by many major computer and networking vendors and is now often referred to as Wi-Fi (short for Wireless Fidelity).

As long as all the products you use for your network conform to one of the two wireless standards you should be OK-even if you mix and match products from different companies-but to be safe, you should always check first to make sure that different wireless products can interoperate with one another. (One other potential future point of confusion is that neither of these wireless protocols work directly with another type of wireless networking technology called Bluetooth that's expected to be available in PDAs, cell phones, notebooks and other types of devices in the near future.)

Speaking of interconnections-or interoperability, as folks in the computer business like to say-it is sometimes possible to connect different kinds of network types together. So, for example, with the help of a hardware device that's generically referred to as a bridge (because it "bridges" or connects together two types of networks), you could have a home network that uses HPNA and Wi-Fi, or HomePlug and HomeRF or many other possible combinations. Certainly it's easier (and probably less expensive) if you stick with one main type of network connection, but be aware that there are "adapters" available that let multiple different network types connect together.

After you've decided on the technology you intend to use to create your home network, you'll need to plug everything in and get the computers connected. With traditional wired networks, the process typically entails plugging in an Ethernet-based network card (or taking advantage of the Ethernet jack built into many of today's PCs and Macs) and plugging each of the machines into a device called a network hub using Category 5, or Cat5 cabling. Many companies sell home networking kits that bundle together everything you need, including the network cards (sometimes also called network or Ethernet adapters), the hub and the cable. If you want to, however, you can also purchase the pieces individually.

With most phoneline, powerline and wireless products, the process is somewhat similar, although most of the alternatives don't require a hub and they use different type of cabling (or no cabling at all!) to make the connections. HPNA products, for example, often come in the form of a plug-in card that you install inside an open slot within your PC. Some newer PCs come with HPNA adapters pre-installed and you can also get external HPNA adapters that attach via your computer's USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports. Whatever form the adapter takes, all you have to do is connect it to an available phone jack and you've completed the physical installation.

Similarly, powerline products install or connect to your PC and then attach to an available electrical outlet. Wireless products in some instances are stand-alone devices that plug into an available expansion slot inside your computer while in others, they are external and must attach to either a USB port or an Ethernet card or connector on your computer. In the case of notebook computers, the wireless products are sometimes built directly into the computer and, in other cases, are added via a PC Card slot or via some other internal connector. (If you run into problems installing the necessary network hardware, you may also want to investigate the "PC Hardware Troubleshooting Tips" and "Mac Hardware Troubleshooting Tips" articles that are also available on this web site.)

In all cases, including traditional wired and the other alternatives, the next step is to install the required software. Most hardware devices require the installation of driver software, which is system-level software that communicates between the operating system and the device. In addition, in order for computers to communicate, they have to use an agreed upon "language," which in the case of computer networks is called a protocol. Several protocols are used on computer networks but the most common is called TCP/IP, which stands for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. As its name explains, TCP/IP is also the language used to communicate between computers on the Internet. Other protocols used for simple networks include NetBEUI for Windows-based networks and AppleTalk for Mac-based networks.

The final two pieces of software required to make a network "work" are network clients, which essentially look for and talk to other computers connected to the network, and network services, which is software that allows you to do things such as share files and printers across the network.

Thankfully, you don't usually need to worry about manually installing all these different software components because the software installation process that you go through when installing network hardware virtually always takes care of it for you. So, for example, when you attach an Ethernet or HPNA or Wi-Fi card into your PC or your notebook's PC Card slot, you'll typically be asked to install the accompanying software. When you do, the installation process usually installs not only the driver software for the new device, but also the appropriate networking software pieces.

In some instances, however, you do have to install these pieces manually (and even if you don't, it's good to know what exactly is involved in case you need to troubleshoot your network later on). Should you need to manually install the network clients, adapter drivers, protocols and services on a Windows 95/98/ME machine, you can do so via the Networking control panel. (You don't have to worry about this for Windows NT or 2000 because they presume a network connection and therefore don't offer a Network Control Panel.) Just open the control panel, click on the Add… button, select the Network Component Type (such as Protocol) you need from the list, click Add… again, and choose from the available options. Note that you may need to have your Windows CD nearby in order to complete the installation. Also, in almost all cases (except for adapters), you should select Microsoft from the list of vendors that appears on the left side of the dialog boxes that appear during this installation process and then choose from the options that appear on the right.

Be aware that you can mix and match computers with different versions of Windows on a network. So, for example, you could network together a desktop with Windows 95, a notebook with Windows 98 or XP and another desktop with Windows 2000, without any problems. They do not have to all be running the same versions of Windows.

Crossing the Chasm

If you happen to have both Macs and PC (or a Mac and a PC), you can also connect them together in a network, although there are a few other considerations to bear in mind. Most importantly, you need to install additional software either on the Mac or the PC (but not both) in order to allow it to fully communicate with the other. That is, unless you're using MacOS X.1 or later, which includes built-in support for PC file and printer and sharing. All previous versions of the MacOS, including the original release of OS X, do not.

If you aren't yet running MacOS X.1 or later want to connect a single Mac to a PC network, I would recommend Thursby Systems' DAVE software, which lets Macs talk to PC networks. If, on the other hand, you're attaching a lone PC to a Mac network, check out Miramar Systems PC MacLan, which you install onto a PC in order to let it speak the language of Mac networks. If you have one Mac and one PC, you can go either way, but you'll have to choose one option or the other if you want to share files and printers. (Note that you don’t need any software if all you want to do is share an Internet between a Mac and a PC. In that case, you can just use a piece of hardware called either a gateway or router and connect each of the computers to that device via standard Ethernet cables. I’ll provide more info on this a bit later in the article.)

In addition to getting the Macs and PCs speaking together over the network, you may need file translation software in order to open Mac files on a PC or PC files on a Mac. Thankfully, versions of Microsoft Office 98 and later on the Mac and Office 97 and later on the PC can directly read each other’s files without the need for any translation. If you have other translation requirements in either direction, you should visit the Dataviz web site, where you can get either MacLinkPlus to install on the Mac or Conversions Plus to install on the PC. Both programs enable you to translate between Mac and PC files (such as AppleWorks on a Mac to Word or WordPerfect on a PC).

Testing the Connections

Once all the software is successfully installed, you'll need to reboot your machine to try your network out. Before you do that, however, make sure that inside the Network control panel of any Windows-equipped PCs you have connected together, that you give the same Workgroup name to each computer. You’ll find Workgroup name under the Identification tab of the Network control panel. For Windows 2000, you can check for and/or change the Workgroup name through the System Control Panel and then the Network Identification tab and finally the Properties button. You can call each computer by any name you want (each machine must be different), as long as it’s limited to about 15 characters.

One potential hassle you may run into very quickly is that, in most cases, when you have a network you'll have to create and a use a password to log onto Windows. Passwords aren't required for single computers, but they are for a network, so either get used to it, or download and install Microsoft's handy TweakUI control panel (the newly updated version I’ve linked to here works with every type of Windows from 95 on, despite the fact that this link comes from a Windows NT section of the Microsoft web site), which lets you "save" a password and automatically log on whenever you turn on your Windows-based PC. In the case of Windows 2000 or Windows XP, you can also tell the system that it can always presume the same user is going to be logging into the system so that the operating system does it for you automatically.

To check your network connections, double-click on the Network Neighborhood or My Network Places icon on your desktop and you should the see other PCs on your network. (You might need to click on the Entire Network icon first.) If you do, congratulations, you're now a networking guru! If not, double check all your hardware connections, ensure that all the necessary software is installed, double-check your workgroup names and then reboot your system and try again. (If you want help with software-related problems, you can also check out the "PC Software Troubleshooting Tips""Mac Software Troubleshooting Tips" articles that are also available on this web site.) Windows 98 SE, Windows ME and Windows XP include help files on Home Networking, by the way, so if you have one of those operating systems installed on any one of your networked PCs, you can just select Help off the Start menu and search for home networking support. The help files in Windows XP are particularly useful. and

Once everything is working, you may want to turn file and print-sharing on if you want to be able to transfer files from one computer to another on the network or you want to share printers. To do so in Windows 95/98/ME, double-click on the Network control panel and the click on the File and Print Sharing… button and select the appropriate check boxes. As I will discuss later in this article, however, there are some important security-related issues that may arise when you turn on file sharing, particularly if you have a high-speed DSL or cable modem connection to the Internet, so be careful. If you do turn on file sharing, you can get access to files on the other computer(s) by double-clicking on one of them in Network Neighborhood or My Network Places. What you'll actually be doing is viewing their hard drives. Once you have another computer open, you can copy files or move files over from the machine on which you're working.

One important caveat that I discuss in more detail later is that if you have a software-based firewall installed on at least one PC on your network, you may not be able to "see" that computer or any printers attached to it. While this can be both frustrating and annoying, it's actually a good thing because it means the firewall is doing its job of "hiding" that PC from the outside world. You can quickly get around this limitation by temporarily disabling the firewall when you need to print or share a file, but just remember to turn it back on (or "re-enable" it) after you're done. The specific method for enabling and disabling a firewall varies from program to program, but all of them should offer an easy, straightforward way to do so.

Cool Network Stuff

Before we get into how to share an Internet connection, I want to spend a few moments discussing the great things you can now do with your new network. Foremost among these new opportunities is the ability to share peripherals across the network. Let's say, for example, that you just bought a nice new color inkjet and connected it to one of your PCs, but you also have an older laser printer or multifunction device that you like to print to or fax from as well. What you can do with a network is attach one device to each computer on the network and then print to either one from either computer.

All you have to do to make this happen (in addition to turning on Printer Sharing, that is) is install the appropriate printer driver software onto each machine. (Simply having a printer attached to a networked computer will not make it automatically show up on all the other networked computers, unfortunately.) To network-enable your printers, go to the Printers Folder and see which printers are already installed. Ideally, you should just have the one directly connected printer available to each machine. (If you have the other printer's software already installed, go ahead and delete it. We're going to re-install it as a network printer in just a moment.)

Double-click on the Add Printer Wizard and on the second screen of the wizard, select Network Printer. The only tricky part of this process comes on the next screen, when you have to type in or browse for the location of the network printer. All you have to do is select browse, find the computer on the network to which the printer you want to use is attached, double click it, and then you should be able to see and select the printer you want to use. The final step involves installing the actual printer driver software on the networked computer. Make sure you're ready by having the CD or floppy disk that came with the printer with you so that you can insert it at the appropriate point in the installation process.

Once all the installations are complete, you'll be able to print to any printer from any computer on the network, which is really nice. Just remember to choose the printer you want from the Print dialog box that appears when you go to print from an application. Again, also remember that if you are using a software firewall--which I highly recommend you do--you may not be able to "see" any shared printers unless you temporarily disable the firewall.

Other fun things you can conceivably do with a network is share a CD- or DVD-ROM drive so that, for example, you could access a CD or DVD from a computer that doesn't have one. This can be very handy if, for example, you have a notebook that doesn't have a CD- or DVD-ROM drive and you want to install some CD-based software onto the notebook from your desktop computer's CD- or DVD-ROM drive. You can also share scanners and other peripherals as well as do fun stuff like play networked games.

Sharing the Web

OK, now that the network is complete we're finally ready to talk about sharing your Internet connection (I told you there was a lot to this….) Before diving into the specifics, I need to explain conceptually what's involved so that you can understand how the different mechanisms work and why some are better suited for some applications than others.

The critical issue is that in order for a computer to communicate with any other computer on the Internet it needs to have an IP (Internet Protocol) address. These addresses, which are assigned to computers either manually or automatically depending on the type of connection you have to the Internet, are what enable you to, for example, type in the address of a particular web site and have that web site send back the contents of its page to your specific computer. Without an IP address, a request sent to a web site would go unanswered because the site wouldn't know where to send the information. IP addresses take the form of four separate numbers (ranging from 0-255) separated by periods. An example would be, which happens to be the IP address of the web server hosting this web site.

On most types of Internet connections involving a single computer, IP addresses aren't an issue you would have had to worry about because they're typically assigned to your computer automatically when you go to make a connection. What happens is a device at your ISP (Internet Service Provider) uses a standard called DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) to automatically assign an IP address to your PC. The process occurs by setting certain parameters in software. Importantly, the IP address that is given to your computer through this dynamic addressing process, as it's sometimes referred, lasts only the length that you are online. If you disconnect and then reconnect, your machine will have a different IP address assigned to it.

Some broadband Internet connections provide (or at least, used to provide) fixed IP addresses in which you are/were given a specific IP address that you assigned to your machine by typing it in the TCP/IP protocol section of the Networking Control Panel. The benefit of a fixed IP is that you always know what it's going to be. This turns out to be helpful when it comes to sharing an Internet connection, as you'll soon see. Many broadband ISPs have begun switching to dynamic IP addressing, however, as with traditional modem dial-up accounts, and require you to use a "dialing" program in order to connect to the Internet. In many cases, ISPs who have this type of arrangement are using what's called PPPOE (Point-to-Point Protocol Over Ethernet) in order to implement it. While this isn't necessarily a huge problem for single computer connections, it can make sharing an Internet connection across a home network a bit more confusing when you first set up your network. (In particular, you have to make sure that any hardware or software you use to share your Internet connection supports PPPOE. Thankfully, nowadays, most do.)

When it comes to networks, IP addressing issues can become more complicated. Nevertheless, they are something you'll have to deal with (or at least know something about), so it's worth spending some time discussing the basic issues. Again, each computer on a network has to have an IP address assigned to it in order to access the Internet. Logically, the easiest way to do this is to give each computer its own unique IP address. The problem is that most ISPs only provide you with a single IP address (fixed or dynamic) and charge extra for additional addresses. With PacBell's DSL service, for example, the monthly charge is $39 for a single IP address but $79 for an upgraded service that includes 5 unique addresses.

In order to avoid these additional costs, several different ways have been developed to "share" a single IP address across multiple machines on a home network. One of the most common is to assign an IP address to a single computer on the network that acts as a proxy for the other computers and through which they make their Internet connections. With this proxy server method, software running on the machine that's actually connected to the Internet (called proxy server software, appropriately enough) takes all the Internet-bound messages coming from the different PCs on the network and then routes it to the appropriate location on the web. When it receives data back, this proxy server software keeps track of which PC sent which request and routes the appropriate page back to each computer. Practically speaking, what this means is multiple people on the network can be connecting to different web sites at the same time and the proxy server software will make sure each person receives the right stuff.

Several companies make proxy server software, include Sybergen's Sygate, Deerfield's WinGateWinProxy, all of which work with Windows-based PCs. For the Macintosh, there's Sustainable Networks' IPNetRouter and VicomSoft's SurfDoubler. If you want to connect a Mac and PC to a shared Internet account, your best (and perhaps only) options are VicomSoft's SurfDoubler or Internet Gateway, two cross-platform packages that let you use either the Mac or PC as the machine that connects to the Internet. (Note that if you have a hardware router­-see below for more­-you can share a Mac and a PC connection without any special software. These products are for sharing without a router.) and Ositis Software's

In most cases, there is a small charge for the software but you may also be able to find shareware or even freeware proxy servers out on the Internet. Most proxy servers do more than just handle the juggling of IP addresses, by the way. Many, for example, include basic firewall security features. One potential drawback with a proxy server that you need to be aware of is that some Internet plug-ins or helper applications that work along with your browser need to be specially configured in order to work properly with a proxy server. (Some proxy server packages take care of most of this for you.) So, if after you install a proxy server you notice that you can't hear or see some types of streaming media, for example, look into making some adjustments to the plug-in's settings.

Unfortunately, as nice a solution as proxy servers may be, some of them don't work with PPPOE-based dynamic IP addressing schemes. In other words, depending on the type of account you have with your ISP, they might not work.

If you have Windows 98 Second Edition (SE), Windows Millennium Edition (ME) or Windows XP, another option you have is the Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) software built into those operating systems. ICS is not typically installed by default, however, so may have to add it by going to the Add/Remove Software control panel, selecting the Windows Setup Tab, double-clicking on Internet Tools and then installing it (be sure to have your Windows CD ready). In addition to installing ICS on the main computer connected to the Internet, you'll also need to install the ICS "client" on each of the other computers on the network. Thankfully, Windows 98 SE, ME and XP include a wizard that creates a floppy disk with all the files you need. Simply create that floppy disk and then walk around to the other machines on the network and install the necessary files.

ICS essentially works by "fooling" the Internet connection into thinking that all the requests for information from different computers on the network are coming from a single machine. Conceptually, this is similar to how proxy servers work, but because of differences in the technical implementation of how the addresses are shared, ICS often does work even with PPPOE-type broadband connections. Technically, the process that ICS uses is called Network Address Translation or NAT.

The technical details of how to set up each of these different proxy servers vary, but the concepts are similar. If you want to find out more, I have links to several excellent web sites on the Troubleshooting Resources page of this web site. One particularly good resource is Practically Networked. One important point to remember in all of this is that you’ll need to find or have access to the parameters and settings that your ISP gives you when you sign up for Internet service. Specifically, you’ll need to know the IP addresses of the gateway and DNS server addresses in addition to any possible fixed IP address information (which again, the vast majority of people do not have).

The Hardware Alternative

If you don't want to deal with the difficulties of setting up these software-based systems and/or you don't want to always have to leave the Internet connected PC turned on--which you have to do with the software-based systems I've just described in order for the other computers on your home network to connect through it to the Internet--you're a great candidate for a hardware-based solution. In other words, you might want to spend a few more bucks and purchase a dedicated piece of equipment that you can set up once and then have your entire home connect through to the Internet. These dedicated routers or "residential gateways," as they're starting to be referred to, are one of the hottest areas in home technology.

Once again, there are several different choices available. Right now, products such as the Linksys EtherFast Cable/DSL Router and others like it essentially act as intermediaries between your home network and your Internet connection. In the case of the Linksys routers, for example, you attach it directly to your cable or DSL modem (or analog one, if that's all you've got) and then to the rest of your network. The company sells one unit with a built-in hub (if you don't already have one) and another one without the hub (if you do). If you have a hub, you connect all your PCs to the hub and then you also connect the router to the hub. They, and other companies, also sell similar units that integrate support for the 802.11b wireless network standard so that you can combine both wired and wireless connections in a single network.

One of the primary benefits of this approach is that you don't need to always leave one computer on-instead you simply leave this device on and whenever any computer on your network requires an Internet connection, it handles the connection (in conjunction with your DSL or cable modem). In addition, having a hardware connection like this saves you from having to install two networks cards into the main computer that connects to the Internet.

Another important aspect of these residential gateway devices is that they can automate (or even eliminate) the often tedious process or assigning IP addresses to each of your computers. As mentioned earlier, in order for computer and other devices to talk to other computers on the Internet, they have to be assigned an IP address of some kind. What happens with residential gateways is that most of these devices incorporate a mini-DHCP server inside the box, which means that they can take care of automatically generating and assigning IP addresses to each device on your home network that connects to them. The gateway itself has an IP address—either the automatically assigned IP address from your ISP via its DHCP server or, if you have one, the fixed IP address from your ISP. Then the gateway, in turn, assigns IP addresses to your connected computers. When you first set up a gateway, you need to enter all your ISP connection settings for it (IP, gateway, DNS addresses, etc.), just as you did when you first connected your computer to the Internet.

To get your computers to work with the gateway, all you have to do is tell them to “Obtain an IP address automatically” in the TCP/IP section of Windows’ Network control panel. In other words, once you’ve set this option up (and it is the default, by the way, so you may not even need to take this step) the configuration happens automatically, which is great—and much, much easier. In case you’re wondering, the difference between the DHCP server that your gateway might “listen” to from your ISP (if you don’t have a fixed IP address) and the DHCP server inside the gateway is that the DHCP server at the ISP assigns publicly available IP addresses which can be used on the Internet, whereas the mini-DHCP server inside the residential gateway/router assigns private IP addresses to your connected computer and these addresses can only be used on a private network (and won’t work directly on the Internet—only through the public IP address assigned to the gateway). Public and private IP address issues can be confusing, but the gateway/router should take care of this stuff automatically.

In the future, these residential or personal gateway devices will probably integrate the functions of and take the place of your cable or DSL modem and hub, which will simplify the setup process. In other words, instead of having three boxes (e.g., a cable/DSL modem, a residential gateway/router, and a hub), you might only need one. So, for example, when you sign up for a high-speed Internet account you might get a residential gateway box into which you plug in all your home's PCs--again perhaps via phoneline networking connections, regular Ethernet connections, powerline connections, wireless connections or some combination of them all--and it will take care of everything else for you. It will serve as a network hub, it will serve as a high-speed modem and it will serve as bridging device for connecting all the different types of networking products together. Unfortunately, we're not quite there yet…. In the mean time, you can piece together the equivalent of this dream solution with several different components, as I've described. By the way, most residential gateways do not care what type of network they are attached to. So, they will work with a standard Ethernet network, an HPNA-based network, an 802.11b-based wireless network and various combinations thereof.

If you add other devices to your home network, such as an Internet appliance, wireless web pad, Internet-enabled MP3 music player, or any other type of Internet-enabled consumer electronics device you may also have to deal with IP address issues. In most cases, all you have to do is plug in the device to the network and, by default, it will search for a DHCP to automatically assign it an IP address. In that case, with a residential gateway box that has a built-in DHCP server (as most all do) everything will just work, which is how it should be. If it doesn’t, however, you can apply the same principles to these devices as you do with PCs and make the appropriate IP address adjustments in the device’s settings.

Security Concerns

In these days of rampant computer viruses and never-ending hacker attacks I would be remiss if I didn't discuss two additional issues that all home networks should deal with, but particularly those with high-speed always-on connections such as DSL and/or cable modems: anti-virus software and security software. The anti-virus issue is simple: you need to have anti-virus installed and running on every computer on your home network. Period. Just putting it on one isn’t good enough.

If you don't have some type of anti-virus app on every connected PC, then there's a good chance that at some point, one of your PCs will be infected and you could lose valuable files. And don't forget to update the program's virus definitions. Note that this doesn't mean you have to buy all the latest upgrades to the program, but you do need to install and maintain the virus updates, which are typically provided at little or no cost. Many anti-virus applications are designed to automatically check for, download and install these updates files and I highly recommend that you use this capability. At the very least, have these updates occur once a month, but even once a week wouldn't be extraordinary.

In addition to anti-virus software, you need to keep your system secure. Network security (and home network security) is an enormous subject unto itself (see Steve Gibson's great Shields Up site for more security-related information) and I won't attempt to address all these issues here, but I will say this: home networks with high-speed Internet connections are at a much greater risk for security problems than those with dial-up modem connections. As a result, it is possible that unscrupulous hackers could break into your home computers and do all sorts of nefarious things, such as copying and or deleting files, spreading viruses and more. The easiest way to address this problem is to install one of several new personal firewall programs that have appeared on the market recently. Products such as the free ZoneAlarm from ZoneLabs or commercial packages such as Black Ice Defender, Norton's Internet Security 2001, or Open Door's Software's DoorStop for the Mac all provide important protections that can keep your computer data safe. Windows XP also incorporates a basic firewall into the operating system itself. As with anti-virus software, you should have a personal firewall installed on each computer in your home network. A properly installed personal firewall will prevent security problems even if you share files and folders on your home network.

The End

Well, OK, not quite. But now that everything is connected, the software is installed, you can access the Internet from any computer in your home, and you've secured your home network, there's only one thing left to do. Enjoy it!