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ATPM 16.10
October 2010


How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Networking Overview, Part Two

I’ve previously mentioned a few things I wish someone had told me about networking, but I didn’t go into a lot of specific detail. There’s a good reason for that. Most of what I have learned about networking has been self-taught, with the assistance of a few Web sites here and there. As a consequence, there are many areas of networking that I have very little experience with and many questions that, frankly, give me an enormous headache.

What I would like to do this month is take a look at a few of the issues you need to consider when setting up a network. Many of the same considerations will apply if you are expanding an existing one.

Things To Think About Before You Buy Anything

Before you set up and configure a network, pay particular attention to the protocol that your Internet service provider is expecting you to use. In the United States, the most commonly used protocols are probably DHCP and PPPOE, with PPTP being used in European countries. Make sure you know which method your provider uses, as well as any other configuration information, such as any user name and password that you need to connect to its service. You will need to enter that information into the router that will form the basis of your home network.

As we’ve discussed before, a typical home network setup consists of a modem, which is connected to a router, and one or more connected devices. Essentially, the router takes information from your modem and distributes it to the device that requested it. The devices can be connected to the router via Ethernet, wirelessly, or some combination of the two. As you begin building your home network, consider some of these basic questions.

Does the Router You Want Work With the Gear That You Already Have?

Because modern Macs use standard networking protocols it should be easy for any router on the market to “play nice” with your existing gear. Sadly, this is not always the case. If you peruse your favorite Mac-related user group forum, you are likely to find horror stories about the lack of knowledgeable Mac support from some vendors. Although many routers offer some type of “setup wizard,” don’t be surprised if this feature works only if you have access to Windows and Internet Explorer. One alternative that usually works on a Mac is accessing the router’s configurations settings directly using a Web browser. This will get the job done but can appear a bit daunting if you don’t like adjusting networking settings.

Another thing to consider before purchasing any gear is how the connections will be made from the router to your computers and other gear. How many devices will connect to the router via Ethernet? Make sure the router has enough wired Ethernet ports to support that number, or you may need to purchase additional gear just to have enough wired ports. If your devices support connecting wirelessly, make sure that your router also supports that option.

Speaking of wireless connections, now is the time to check the manuals and find out what types of networks your existing devices support. You may find a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms being used to describe the device’s capabilities. This is especially true when discussing wireless security: names such as WEP, WPA, and WP2 are common.

Help is available, so don’t feel too bad if you don’t know what all of these acronyms mean. At this point, your main concern should be what your devices are expecting. Take my Series 2 TiVo as one example. With the wireless adapter that I am currently using, the TiVo expects to find either no security password or one encrypted using the WEP protocol. Since my Time Capsule does not support WEP encryption, I must either connect the TiVo by wire, connect it to a second router, or leave my network without a password.

Once you have found a router that looks interesting, check the manufacturer’s Web site. Download the manual and have a look at it. Even if you don’t understand everything in that manual, the bulk of it should be somewhat comprehensible. A certain amount of jargon is almost inevitable, but most users shouldn’t walk away so lost that they don’t know what questions to ask of friends, relatives, or tech support.

What About Security?

It seems that everyone is concerned about network security today and with good reason. What’s stored on your network should be your business—not your cyber neighbor’s. When it comes to security, here are a few things to consider. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it should give you enough information to begin asking the right questions.

One of the first things you encounter when manually setting up most routers is a page asking for a password before any settings can be changed. Check the manual to find out the default password. Once you know the password and can access the router’s configuration screens, seriously consider changing that password. Router manufacturers often use the same default password for an entire line of routers. These passwords are well known on the Internet, so leaving the password to the factory default makes things easier should someone want to change router settings without your permission.

Setting a password for your router is not the same as setting the password that users must enter to access your network. That is a different matter entirely. Other than choosing your network security protocol carefully, choosing a password to access the network may be one of the more important security decisions you can make. Although it is tempting to use something memorable, such as a spouse’s nickname, this is usually not a good idea. These types of passwords can usually be cracked very quickly.

Strong passwords generally use a combination of numbers and letters with some combination of uppercase and lowercase characters. If you are using AirPort Utility to configure one of Apple’s networking products, go to the “Wireless” tab. Click the icon next to the box where you enter the password that you want to use. The software will either tell you how strong your password is or suggest alternatives. The longer the password, the better—though the trade-off is that this makes the password harder to remember unless you store it in something like the keychain.

Most current routers on the market have some level of firewall capabilities. A firewall’s basic purpose is to control access to your network and its contents. The help files describing firewall settings in the last few routers I’ve used have been decent, so don’t feel too intimidated. The goal of the firewall is to hide your computer from the outside world as much as possible. Ports on your computer should only appear as “open” if you are using a program that needs that port open. Once the firewall is configured, you can use any one of several online sites to test its effectiveness. Although these sites are often geared more toward testing Windows machines than Macs, they can still give you a good overview of how well your firewall is doing its job. I have used this site several times, but there are a number of other sites that perform a similar function. If your firewall is doing its job your computer will appear as hidden or in stealth mode during the tests.

Why Bother With This Stuff in the First Place?

This article barely scratches the surface of some of the configuration settings that are possible. Even some relatively inexpensive routers allow users to tweak the basic settings to improve the performance of certain games and other Internet-dependent applications.

I spent a little time configuring my router so that some devices always retain the same IP address from the router. My motivation was simple: with the TiVo set to get its address dynamically from the router, every time we have a power failure the TiVo would reboot. Its IP address was dependent upon how many other network devices had requested IP addresses when it finished rebooting. The base IP was the same, but the last number would change, causing me to have to determine that number and reconfigure the software I was using with it.

My solution was rather simple, though not one I thought of on my own. The router is set to assign addresses dynamically using a last number of, let’s say, 20 for the sake of argument. Any devices such as the TiVo, which benefit from fixed (static) addresses, are manually assigned IP addresses where the last number is less than 20.

That’s it for now. Unless there is a great clamor for additional information, this will probably be the last networking article I write for a while. I did mention how much I hate explaining network settings, didn’t I?

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