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A Brief Primer on LANs

by ONE/Northwest
April 15, 2003

Based on our experiences working with conservation activists during the past five years, one of the most important things small offices can do to increase their online effectiveness is to create a local area network (LAN) to link their desktop machines together and share files, printers, Internet access and other resources. The following article is intended to give you the *basic* information you'll need to help you start thinking about and planning for a network in your office. Installing the necessary wiring and software to create a network is easier than you imagine, and is within the reach of many organizations that have made electronic networking a priority (and have dedicated some human resources to this effort).

What is a LAN?

A LAN is simply a bunch of computers connected to each other by wiring that, with some requisite software, enables the people using each computer to share information and resources. Whenever you connect two or more computers together and share resources like hard disk space (for common files), a printer, Internet access, or a backup system, you've created a LAN.


Who should install a LAN?

If a.) two or more people have a routine need to easily share information and resources via their computers, b.) your computers have the hardware and software necessary to form a network, and c.) you have the necessary technical skills (or a willingness to develop them), you are a prime candidate to install a LAN. LANs definitely add a level of complexity to an office computer environment, so you'll need to make a conscious effort to make it successful.

What can you do with a LAN?

Simply put, a LAN allows you to share resources. Instead of attaching a printer to each machine in your office (or passing a floppy from desk to desk), across a LAN you can share a single printer. Files that everyone in the office needs to access frequently can be kept on one central resource, and a backup routine can be implemented to ensure that these central files can be retrieved in case of trouble. With special software, a single modem and dial-up Internet account (or DSL!) can be used by all machines on the LAN to gain access to email and the Web. LANs can reduce the amount of money you spend on extra equipment and associated costs, and can help improve the way people in your office collaborate.

Elements of a LAN

LANs have four basic components: wiring (to physically connect your machines), network interface cards (which allow your machine to connect to the wiring), hub (to connect the wires and thus the computers together) and network software (which allows your machines to share information). Here's an overview of each component:

1) Wiring
LANs generally use Ethernet wiring, the most popular variety of network wiring. Modern LANs of Windows machines use Ethernet, and while Macs can use a slower kind of network wiring called LocalTalk, this wiring is approximately 1/7 as fast as Ethernet and is being used less and less. Basic Ethernet wiring comes in two cryptically-named flavors; 10Base-2 and 10Base-T. 10Base-2 wiring uses a coaxial cable (much like cable TV), and runs in a "daisy chain" from one computer to the next. This kind of wiring can be used in *very* simple LANs. 10Base-T wiring looks more like phone wiring and has a similar plug at the end. 10Base-T wiring is used when each computer connects back to a central network hub (see below). What kind of wiring do you need? Specific recommendations are dependent on your needs and the type of computers you want to network, so contact us if you need have questions. Wiring can be installed by a professional for about $75-100 per machine (or "drop"), and if you have the money, we recommend this.

2) Network Interface Cards (NICs)
Your computer needs a network interface card to connect to the Ethernet wiring; after all, you need *something* to plug the wires into!. Network cards are often offered as options on new Macs and Windows machines, and generally cost about $20 if you need to purchase them separately. To install a network card, you'll need to open your computer, slide a card into a slot, screw it into place, and then ensure that your operating system recognizes the card on your computer (an easy thing with Macs and Windows 9x machines, but more difficult for Windows 3.1). This process is something that a confident do-it-yourselfer can handle, but if you're not comfortable with this, try asking a local computer store if they will do the installation for you, or recruit an experienced volunteer.

3) Network Hub
Once each computer has a network card installed and an Ethernet cable running from it, there needs to be a way to connect them all together. The network hub takes care of this. There are a number of different types, sizes and speeds to choose from, but the typical small office is served wonderfully with an 8-port 10/100mbps hub like the Netgear DS108 (<$100). That said, switching hubs (commonly referred to as a "switch") are becoming more and more affordable (Netgear FS108-$120) and offer significantly better performance than a standard hub. Ultimately, the choice will come down to price, but if you can swing it, go with a switch.

4) Network Software
Most machines in use today already have the software necessary to connect them with another computer; this capability is included into all versions of the Mac operating system, Windows 9x, and Windows for Workgroups 3.1 (Windows 3.1 machines *can* be networked, but you need additional software to do this). For a simple peer-to-peer or AppleTalk network, this built-in software is all you need to connect your machines and share printers and disk space (for files). If you'd like to connect your network to the Internet by using a single account, you can use the built-in "Internet Connection Sharing" feature of Windows 98 SE, or a stand-alone "modem router" such as the 3Com OfficeConnect 56k LAN Modem ($250 or available via donation from Also, see our article on Sharing an Internet Connection with an Analog Modem Router.

Getting Started (and getting help)

Again, these are merely the basics about local area networks, and hopefully this article gave you a sense of what LANs are, what you can do with them, and what you'll need to know to get started. If your Northwest non-profit conservation organization wants to get the ball rolling, ONE/Northwest can help you put together a set of recommendations. Find our Technical Assessment forms at

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