Let's set the groundwork with some basics on networking hardware. The simplest way to connect your machines is to use an Ethernet hub. This simply broadcasts data across all its ports so that all machines receive all packets. You can also chain hubs together by plugging the link port from one into one of the data ports of another. Technically, hubs are known as Layer-1 switches, which is why you often see this label on hubs costing well under £10.
True switches are more complex. Layer-2 switches learn the underlying MAC address of each connected device and use this information to route data to specific ports rather than broadcasting across all of them. This method is more efficient and helps to keep documents secure by preventing people eavesdropping on unencrypted data meant for others.
Layer-3 switches are marked out by more sophisticated data switching functionality (including traffic prioritisation). They can talk to each other using special protocols that help decide the best route for each packet. Layer-4 switches include all of these features as well as network address translation and firewall capabilities. Domestic broadband routers are usually Layer-4 switches. At the top of the heap is the Layer-7 switch. These usually cost several thousand pounds and contain software to prioritise and route traffic based on application-specific criteria.
Sharing your Internet connection
If you're still using a single Windows XP computer linked directly to your broadband modem, and you want to give a second computer access to the Internet, you could upgrade to a dedicated broadband router. It may be cheaper, however, to use a network hub and simply activate Windows' Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) functionality.
When you originally installed your broadband drivers, the machine may have had ICS configured at the same time. On the Control Panel, double-click 'Network Connections'. The connection will say 'Shared' if ICS is configured. If so, there's nothing more to do. Plug in the second machine, boot it up and open a browser.
To configure ICS, double-click on the broadband connection to access its status. Click on the resulting 'Properties' button and click the Advanced tab. Click the tickbox marked 'Allow other network users to connect through this computer's Internet connection', press 'OK' and reboot your new machine. The new machine will be served an IP address from the gateway automatically when it boots up, because ICS has also turned the PC into a DHCP server.
Voice over IP
For Voice over IP (VoIP), all you really need is a set of speakers and a microphone – even the basic ones included with a laptop should do, so there's no need to purchase a handset or headset to get started. Most VoIP software is also free. Download Skype (www.skype.com) and you can be making calls in minutes.
PC-to-PC VoIP calls are usually free. As long as the person you want to call is registered with the same service, simply find their username in the directory and call them. VoIP providers usually charge you to place a VoIP call to a landline, however. The service will detect that you're calling a home phone and will connect you to its public switched telephone network (PSTN) exchange.
Before embracing VoIP, it pays to understand the drawbacks. If the power fails, for example, you'll be left without a phone until you plug your landline back in. The sound quality depends on your connection speed. If you're calling a dial-up computer from broadband, don't expect perfect CD-quality sound.
Instead of using the reliable but traffic-heavy TCP protocol to make calls, VoIP uses the less reliable but more lightweight UDP, which can't tell if packets are getting lost. This can lead to 'stuttering', where the signal drops out or becomes garbled. To help overcome stuttering, you'll need a broadband router that supports QoS (Quality of Service). Use this to set VoIP packets to a higher priority than other traffic. This should make your conversations as stutter-free as possible.
Managing mobile files
When you've been on the move with your laptop, rejoining your home network can be a hassle. The biggest problem for most people is the files that they work on while away from home. Some copy the edited versions of files back to their servers by hand, or store them on easily lost USB sticks. However, XP provides a much better solution: file synchronisation.
On your laptop, go to the Control Panel and select 'User Accounts'. Select the option 'Change the way users log on and off ' and deselect 'Use Fast User Switching'. This will enable file synchronisation. Apply changes and close the Control Panel. Now open My Documents and select 'Folder Options' on the Tools menu. Click on the 'Offline File' tab and select the 'Enable Offline Files' tickbox.
Still on your laptop, browse to a shared file or folder on your server that you want to make available when you're away from home. Right-click on it and select 'Make Available Offline'. When you do this for the first time, a wizard will ask you if you want to synchronise files automatically when you log on or off, whether you want Windows to remind you that you're working offline, and if you want Windows to create a desktop icon for the offline copies.
When you return to your home network and power up the laptop, Windows will automatically copy the files that you've worked on back to the server, ensuring that you always use up-to-date versions.
If you're playing interactive games against strangers over the Internet, you'll need all the bandwidth your broadband connection can provide. You may have an 8Mb connection, but this is the download speed. The upload speed will be far lower. While you can't do anything about delays once your traffic is out on the Internet, you can certainly prevent local applications impeding it.
Before you begin an online gaming session, stop running all applications that could conceivably hog your broadband connection (or your CPU and RAM). This includes torrent clients (especially files that you're seeding to others), your email program and instant messaging and VoIP services. If your router supports it, enable QoS and prioritise data sent from your game. The router manual will tell you which port number to prioritise. See the 'Quality of Service' box for more details of exactly what QoS can do for you.
LAN-based gaming with friends is great fun, and informal LAN parties can grow spontaneously to become regular events. LAN games generate plenty of traffi c, so it pays to ensure that the machines have a dedicated hub (or chain of hubs) to themselves. Many people incorrectly believe that you need a powerful LAN switch for gaming, but this isn't so. You will, however, need as many ports as there are players – so if you expect people to bring their own machines, either buy an extra cheap hub or two, or get them to bring some extra networking hardware along.
On the subject of people bringing their own machines, one regular LAN gamer pointed out that you should ensure there are one or two spare four-way mains extension leads handy, just in case. Remember too that some laptops may have come from wireless-only LANs. If you don't have wireless capability, ensure that you have extra LAN cables so that they can plug in to the network, or that they bring their own.
Sharing Windows printers
If you have one printer and several computers, transferring data and having someone else print it out at their convenience can be a pain. Sharing the printer means that anyone on your network can use it as if it were local to their own machine.
On the machine to which the printer is attached, log on as an Administrator, access the Control Panel and select 'Printers and Faxes'. On the subsequent window, rightclick on your printer and select 'Sharing...'. In the Sharing tab of the Printer Properties window that appears, click the 'Share this printer' radio button and give it a name.
To connect to the printer from another machine, open its Control Panel and select 'Printers and Faxes'. On the subsequent window, select 'Add Printer' from the file menu. The Add Printer wizard appears. Click 'Next', select the networked printer option, click 'Next' again, select 'Browse for a printer' and press 'Next' again. Browse your network and select the printer. Press 'Next' again and press 'Yes' on the subsequent pop-up that warns of drivers carrying viruses. Windows will now install the driver for your printer.
Media sharing tips
You don't need a super-fast processor or dedicated NAS hardware to share media between computers, making it a suitable job for older systems.
If several people access different files simultaneously, a lack of memory can become a bottleneck, so it's a good idea to install extra RAM. If you know that your server will be busy serving multiple files, it's also a good idea to buy a second disk to store your data. You'll get better performance because the second disk's read/write heads aren't serving two masters at once.
When the hardware is as you want it, perform a clean installation of the operating system. If you use Windows on a single-disk system, clear extra disk space by going to the Control Panel, selecting 'Add or Remove Programs' and selecting 'Add Remove Windows Components'. Remove everything you don't need, like Outlook Express.
Linux is moving into the mainstream through machines like the Asus Eee. It makes an excellent alternative operating system for media servers. Here's how to access Windows shares from Linux, and Linux file systems from Windows.
Let's first examine mounting Windows shares in Linux using the new Ubuntu version 8.04, which has the Samba SMB software installed by default. Simply go to the desktop's System menu, click on 'Places' and select 'Network' from the pull-down menu. If no other machines show up in the subsequent window, click the 'Reload' button. Ubuntu will probe the local network for other computers. If any have shared folders, you can click on the machines to see them.
Sharing folders from Ubuntu is as simple as doing so in Windows. Open a command line and enter the command 'sudo nautilus'. After entering your root password, the File Manager appears. If you only set up a user account at installation, this is the password to use.
Right-click on the folder you want to share and select 'Sharing Options'. The sharing window pops up. Press the tickbox marked 'Share this folder' and if Samba isn't installed, you'll be prompted to install it. As long as you have an open Internet connection, Ubuntu will download and install the latest version for you after you enter your password.
Once Samba is installed, you can change the options on the sharing window. The default option is to share the folder with read-only properties. You can grant guest access to the share by having any remote users supply a username of 'guest' without a password. Finally, press the 'Create Share' button and Ubuntu should do the rest. If you go to the 'Network' option on the Desktop's 'Places' menu, you should see your Linux machine. Click on it and you should see the shared folder.
On Windows XP, go to My Network Places and click 'Add Network Place' to start the wizard. Click 'Next' and 'Next' again, then enter the path to the shared Linux folder in the form: \\<machine>\ <share>, where <machine> is the name of the Linux machine and <share> is the name of the folder.
Hit [Enter] and enter a local name for the share. When you finish the wizard, Windows will attempt to open the share. If you're asked for a username and password, enter the name of the account that you use in Linux. The contents of the shared folder should appear.
Vista network discovery
You can make Windows Vista map your network for you. Go to the Control Panel and select 'Network and Internet'. The view changes to the Network and Sharing Centre. If network discovery is turned off, the graphical view of the network at the top of the window will show practically nothing.
To turn on network discovery, scroll down to the section named 'Sharing and Discovery' and expand it. You'll see options to turn network discovery on and off again. Switch it on, then at the top of the window click 'View Full Map'. Vista will attempt to uncover the machines it can see from its LAN card – including your broadband gateway. Click on a machine and you should be able to see the printers and folders it shares.
If you only use Vista machines on your network, the operating system can also draw a topographical map of how everything (including your Xbox 360) fits together using the Link-layer Topology Discovery (LLTD) protocol. You can download LLTD software from Microsoft that enables XP machines to be included here: www.tinyurl.com/ynrkqf.
Whenever you click on a link or enter a URL into your browser's address bar, your computer calls your ISP's DNS servers so that it can make the conversion from domain name to IP address. However, these DNS servers can become heavily loaded at peak times, which often causes unexpected timeouts. Luckily, you can bypass this problem completely through the use of one of the free, high-performance DNS services that are available. One such service is OpenDNS (www.opendns.com). The IP addresses of its servers are 22.214.171.124 and 126.96.36.199.
In Windows XP, open the Control Panel, select 'Network Connections', and then select the active broadband connection. Hit the 'Properties' button and then the Networking tab. Select the 'Internet Protocol (TCP/IP)' entry and hit the 'Properties' button again. Select 'Use the following DNS server addresses' and enter the IP addresses of the two third-party servers.
In Vista, go to the Control Panel and select 'Network and Internet', then click on 'Network and Sharing Centre' and select 'Manage Network Connections' on the left-hand side of the window. Select the active network connection, select 'Properties', and double-click on the option 'Internet Protocol Version 4 (TCP/IPv4)'. Finally, enter the IP addresses of the DNS servers.
In Ubuntu, select 'Network' from the Administration menu on the Confi guration desktop menu. Press 'Unlock' on the resulting window, enter the root password and select the DNS tab. Delete the original entry and add the new DNS servers instead.
You can also reduce the time that it takes to visit your regular, bookmarked haunts on the web simply by calling a website using its IP address in place of its domain name (typing http://188.8.131.52 instead of www.pcplus.co.uk, for example). This is faster because it completely removes the need for a DNS server to make the conversion of domain name to IP address.
To find the IP address of a target server, simply open a command line (in Linux, open your favourite shell) and type the ping command followed by the domain name (for example, ping www.pcplus.co.uk). The IP address will be returned. Make sure that you enter the IP address correctly, though, or you might surf to somewhere you'd rather not be.