Become a Network Guru in 10 Easy Steps
Part 1—You, 10BaseT, and the Mac Make Three
If you’ve found your way onto the Internet, odds are good that you know a little about your computer, like that the big glowing thing is the monitor, the little thing that moves around on the desk is the mouse, and so forth. Even if your understanding of computers stops there, take solace in the knowledge that even your more “plugged in” neighbors probably don’t know much about computer networking and its capabilities, both at work and at play; now is the time to learn a few buzzwords of your own.
To many, the term “networking” calls to mind business people exploiting their personal connections and intuition to move up the corporate ladder. Fortunately, the computer version of networking isn’t related to the human version; hooking that shiny new iMac up to a network won’t make it start looking around the neighborhood for a new owner with a bigger computer room.
To avoid confusion, the first thing to do is tackle some network terminology. First, “network” is both a verb and a noun: “to network” means to connect two or more computers together so they can share information, and “a network” refers to the group of connected computers as a whole.
So what good is computer networking? Simply put, computers connected to a network gain the ability to share information with each other. What kind of information the computers share and how the information is used is up to the person who sets the network up. At the office, they call this person the network administrator. (In the office, “Network Administrator” sounds impressive, but at home, Network Administrators still have to make their own coffee.)
Generally speaking, networks are used for two tasks, especially in the home. Primarily, networks allow one computer to access another computer’s files and programs as if they were on the first computer to begin with. This is especially useful if one of the computers does not have much storage space or does not get used very often. The second common use is to share a single peripheral (such as a printer or a modem) among several computers, to avoid the purchase of extras. Networks see other uses (especially in the business world), but those two are the most common. The general function of a computer network is to save you time and money by letting you access your files from wherever you want and by reducing the number of things you have to buy.
At this point, you may be wondering, “What’s the catch? I can actually spend less money and increase convenience at the same time?” Alas, there is a slight catch. Although you may not have to purchase an extra printer, you usually do have to purchase one or two things out of which to build your network. Fortunately, network components usually cost significantly less than new peripherals, so you save money in the long run.
There are two sides to a computer network, the hardware (the stuff that attaches directly to the computers, such as the wiring) and the software (the stuff that you store on the computers, enabling them to share information). When you set up a computer network, you start by hooking up hardware, then finish by installing and configuring software to make use of the hardware you just hooked up. A working network requires hardware and software, kind of like writing a letter by hand: you may have the pencil in your hand, but if you don’t know how to write, it doesn’t do you any good. Knowing how to write without having the pencil doesn’t work, either; you need both. Fortunately, once you set your network up, you can basically forget about it, as you don’t need to change anything unless you want to add another computer or peripheral.
Now that you know what purpose the hardware and software serve, it’s time to deal with them in more specific terms. Network hardware, being the physical link between networked computers, consists of network “adapters” and the wiring that connects them. A network adapter is a piece of computer hardware that acts as a transition point between the network wiring and the computer, passing the network information back and forth. Almost every Mac built in the last several years includes a network adapter built-in, and you can purchase an adapter for Macs that don’t come with them.
Of all the network formats out there (there are several) the most common by far (and the one that comes built-in to all recent Macs) is Ethernet. Because almost all networks in use these days use Ethernet, this article focuses on it exclusively. Ethernet is currently available in two different speeds, each of which sounds like it was made by a European car company. The “basic” kind of Ethernet is 10BaseT (ten base tee) and the faster kind (known as Fast Ethernet) is 100BaseT (one hundred base tee). Each of these names is an acronym, with the first portion (10 and 100, respectively) indicating the speed rating. As you might guess, Fast Ethernet is rated to send network information ten times faster than basic Ethernet.
Geek alert: An even faster kind of Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet (1000BaseT), looms on the horizon, with the first such products coming off the production line this year. Because Macs don’t yet include it as a built-in networking option, and also because of its higher price tag, I don’t deal with Gigabit Ethernet here.
Although basic Ethernet and Fast Ethernet use different network adapters, they use the same kind of wiring, twisted pair. At this point, the technical terms are mounting up and may be causing confusion. Don’t panic! There are only a few basic things you need to remember:
- Networks can make your computing experience more efficient and save you money at the same time.
- Ethernet is the most common kind of computer network.
- Your Mac either comes with Ethernet support built-in, or you can get a network adapter for it.
- Fast Ethernet (100BaseT) is faster than basic Ethernet (10BaseT).
- Both kinds of BaseT Ethernet use twisted pair wiring. BaseT Ethernet = twisted pair, twisted pair = BaseT Ethernet.
Now you know a little about networking, Ethernet, and how the Mac can be made to take advantage of them. Next time, we’ll tackle the individual networking capabilities of each Mac model to figure out what kind of network adapters and wiring you’ll need for your own network.
Also in This Series
- Mac to Windows: Troubleshooting the “No Logon Servers Available” File Sharing Error · October 2004
- Using WEP Security on an AirPort Network · July 2004
- Whatever happened to…Threemacs.com? · September 2003
- Clandestine Wireless Networking and MacStumbler · July 2003
- Learning to Share With Others: Sharing Preferences Overview · April 2003
- Serving Files Using FTP in Mac OS X · December 2002
- Switching Between Networks in Mac OS X · November 2002
- The Audio/Video Quadras (660av, 840av) · September 2002
- Thoughts on Apple’s Xserve · July 2002
- Complete Archive