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IT Without IT, Part 5: Simple Networking

by Ero Gray - This is one post in a continuing series aimed at nonprofit organizations with limited access to IT staff. The advice and opinions here will tend to be most useful to small and startup nonprofits, which often need to make IT decisions and accomplish IT tasks despite not having qualified folks to help. It should be assumed that all suggestions here are my attempt to recommend the simplest/easiest/most effective options for most offices. Your office may be quite different (or it may not even be an office). Also, as I'll frequently note, IT staff are necessary for any organization to function for long. Links to previous posts in this series follow this post.

Now that you've got computers, you may be wondering, how do I connect them to each other, and to the Internet?

This is an area that really does call for expert assistance, so the following is intended to be an overview, not a do-it-yourself guide.

There are essentially two types of networking you, as a non-IT person with IT needs, care about: connecting your computers to the Internet, and, connecting your computers to each other. 

For most small offices, basic business broadband will do just fine for connecting to the Internet. Usually this involves repurposing either a cable or a telephone connection and isn't really any different than a home DSL or cable connection. This will cost a bit of money and be a recurring monthly cost. That's the way of it. In most areas you don't have much in the way of options and can't really shop around, so that's that. Pick your provider and follow their instructions.

When you're done with this process, you basically have a pipeline to the outside world, but still need to divide it up inside your office. Here's where it gets tricky.

There are two types of internal networking for our purposes: wired (via ethernet cable, which looks a bit like chunkier phone cord), and wireless. In order to use either, you need a way to divide up your signal so that everyone can share it. Usually this will be via a router, which lives up to its name by routing network signals. Usually your provider will supply a modem (which connects you to their wires), and sometimes this modem will also be a router of some kind (if not, you'll need to buy one). Local providers can have shoddy tech support, so make sure and get them to explain your setup up front, or be prepared to spend a lot of time on hold.

In wired networking, you need enough ethernet cables to connect your computers to your router. If the office is gigantic or poorly laid out, this can amount to hundreds of feet of cable and get prohibitively expensive. I've seen cases where 10 people were in multiple rooms, each separated by hundreds of feet of space. Otherwise, in tiny offices, it may be as simple as buying a few 20' long cables from your local electronics store.  Ethernet cables tend to be in the neighborhood of $1 per foot, though prices vary wildly. As with most things computer-related, online vendors will usually be much cheaper than brick & mortar stores. 

You'll also need a router of some kind: my recommendation for most small offices would be to start with a wireless router (as discussed below); but, if you know you don't need wireless, then this will be a $40-80 investment. Which model will depend on how many connections you need, and what other features you're looking for. Be sure to pick one labelled 'web safe' or 'cable/dsl'. At a minimum, this device should provide a basic firewall to protect your network from dangerous internet traffic.

In wireless networking, you need a wireless router to broadcast a wireless signal, and wireless antennas on each computer that connects to it (almost all modern laptops will already have these built-in, but generally desktop pcs will not-- you can add this capability, but not without a tech to do computer surgery). Office size is still an issue, but layout is less of one. It's extremely difficult to predict how well wireless routers will broadcast in any given space, because things like electrical fields and wall density are factors. Sometimes a wireless signal can reach half a block; other times it won't reach across the hall. As a rule of thumb, $140 wireless routers work better than $40, and it's worth investing in quality to save aggravation later. Belkin, Netgear, TrendNet and D-Link are all reputable brands, but when it comes to this sort of device it's possible to find really unreliable junk from any company if you go cheap enough. That said, you probably don't need to spend more than $50-80 or so on this device unless you're doing something really unusual with it. PCMag published a good (if jargony) buying guide last year that can help evaluate routers. 

For very small offices with both desktops and laptops, the easiest and most flexible way to divide up the signal is usually going to be a wireless router with some wired connections. Typically wireless routers offer 4 cable outputs and an indefinite amount of wireless connections. Then all you need is some cables to connect your (up to 4) desktop PCs, and laptops can use wireless. If you decide you need a couple more wired connections, you can pick up small hubs for $25 or so that will split one signal into several. 

A lot of less-small offices will have in-office wiring built-in when you arrive. This is great, and can save you a lot of money and headaches. Usually this means a central patchbay with a bunch of network plugs, hopefully numbered and/or diagrammed by room. In this situation you'll need to map out which connection goes where carefully. (A labelmaker is a great tool that no office should be without). If wiring isn't built in, complicated in-office wiring scenarios often call for a discussion your landlord: can they manage the install, or recommend a contractor? (In some cases, this is a union job and the details get fussy - in other cases, carefully running some bundles of cable over drop-ceiling tiles will solve your needs). Whether your'e using a specialist or doing it yourself, make sure to plan things out carefully: draw maps and number connections and label everything. Slipshod work in the initial setup will cause problems later.

Wireless routers will need an initial software setup, which can be a little intimidating for non-tech folks. This is an essential step, though: you must set a password for your wireless network, and set a password for your admin account to control that wireless network. Typically this involves logging into an administrative webpage (product documentation will give you a numerical address) and clicking a handful of times, to set up an admin password, firewall and wireless security.  This is easy(ish) and absolutely mandatory. Most wireless routers have decent setup instructions; but if you have trouble getting this working, don't put it off until later, find someone to help you. If you skip this step, your wireless network will be called "Linksys" or "Belkin" or whatever and any teenage hacker in the neighborhood will know that they can access it. So do it right, right away.

Once everyone's physically wired or wirelessly attached to the internet connection, then they can all reach the internet, but can't reach each other. The next step (in Windows, which you'll recall is all we're focusing on) is to set up either a Workgroup network or a server-based Domain. I won't discuss domain networking, because it requires a server, and a server requires IT staff, and all sorts of extra infrastructure. If you're a big enough organization to require a domain, you're a big enough organization to need IT staff.

Smaller offices can get by just fine with a workgroup, in which all office computers can talk to each other independently. This basically means each PC is set to be a part of the workgroup, and sharing settings on each control what resources can be shared with other computers. There's a great set of instructions for how to set this up, on CNet, and I won't try to improve on it:

Now that everyone's got computers, the internet, and can share files, the next logical step is to talk about websites and email.

We'll cover that next week: IT Without IT, Part 6: Email and Websites

Previous posts in the series can be read here:

IT Without IT, Part 1:  Introduction

IT Without IT, Part 2: Choosing and Acquiring Computers

IT Without IT, Part 3: Operating Systems and Office Software


IT Without IT, Part 4:  Antivirus Software


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