Two technologies have helped home networking take off: wireless networking and USB network cards. The ability to network without pulling cable through your home or opening the computer to install a network card makes networking accessible to even the most novice user. But although home networking is getting easier, you still have to set it up right.
When home networking was simply a matter of letting two computers share an Internet connection, the process wasn't difficult. After you dealt with the complexities of configuring the network, various software solutions simplified the task of setting up and controlling the Internet connection.
But now the ease of adding computers to a home network is causing problems. As the family network expands past the two-computer model, and Mom, Dad, and each of the kids have at least one computer attached to the network, and a central machine stores files and perhaps acts as an edge device (the system that connects the network to the Internet), basic rules of network architecture start to apply.
The most common complaints I hear about home networks are slow file copying or music files not playing properly on networked computers. (I also hear comments about poor streaming video performance, but that problem is harder to blame on networking because congestion somewhere other than the local network could be responsible. Presuming you have a reliable Internet connection, slow Web browsing is almost always a function of congestion between you and the Web sites that you're trying to reach.)
Local network problems (both wired and wireless) result from the basic architecture of Ethernet. Ethernet uses shared-media networking, which means that every connection on the network competes for as much of that 10Mbps (USB Ethernet) or 11Mbps (wireless Ethernet) as it can get. As you can imagine, when the whole family is cruising the Web, downloading files, playing interactive multiplayer games, and listening to music, that pipe gets pretty congested.
"But wait," you say. "I bought a switch for my home network that lets me connect each computer to its own full-bandwidth segment, preventing network-congestion problems from affecting each computer. Why do I still have these problems?" Your problem might be because of a somewhat deceptive marketing practice. Although switch traditionally refers to a device that splits network traffic based on the destination address of the traffic, some vendors use the term to refer to a hub that can autosense an attached 10Mbps or 100Mbps network card. I often have to ask users to check the packaging on their so-called "switches," and they discover that the switch involves no networking, just speed sensing. True switches are available for the home and small office/home office (SOHO) user for about $200. If you paid much less for your switch, you need to double-check what you have.
I wish I could give you an easy method to solve your home-networking problems, but unfortunately, the solutions involve running cables or opening up at least one computer. On the plus side, advances in wireless and USB technologies will address these problems within the next 12 months. Already, the significantly faster data rate available with USB 2.0 means that vendors will be able to start selling 100Mbps USB-attached networking devices, and technologies such as 802.11a (the current 11Mbps standard is 802.11b) will help alleviate these home and SOHO networking problems, at least until you start streaming full-bandwidth TV all over your home.
If you'd like detailed instructions for building combination wired/wireless home networks, send me an email. If I receive enough reader interest, I'll cover this topic in an upcoming column.