Connecting your productivity: The beginner’s guide to networking

Hello, CopyLady Friends and Family! I’m back with yet another fun little informational post.

Networking: The process of connecting two or more systems together for the purpose of sharing information between each system, either by a cable, or through wireless signals.

Having a properly built and configured network is paramount to the operation of virtually every industry, from manufacturing, to education, and down to financial! Today, I will give you a rundown on the ins and outs of networking, so you can have a better understanding of how your devices “talk” to one another, and how you can make these “conversations” flow smoothly for the best productivity!

Let’s start with the hardware itself:

Cabling: While there have been many forms of network cabling over the years (such as coax, Ethernet, and Token Ring), The standard that we have today, and is the most prevalent, is Ethernet. Ethernet cables will resemble a larger version of a phone cord, with a thicker, round bodied cable. The connectors used here are known as RJ-45 (Short for Registered Jack), which have 8 total connections to them (Versus RJ-11 which has up to 4, and RJ-14 with 6). The cable types are CAT5, CAT5e, CAT6 and CAT7 (Short for Category). CAT6 and 7 are used in high speed networks upto 10GBps, while 5e can be used on traditional 1GBps networks. The most common available types are 5e and 6. These cables can be used for best performance on a standard gigabit (1GBps) network. For this, all 4 wire pairs in the cable are used, versus just 2 of the 4 pairs for 10/100MBps networking.

If you’re in an office building, chances are that there is already cabling installed. If you have Ethernet ports in your walls, and there is a central closet or room they all come into (And both ends are properly terminated into jacks), you’re in the home stretch!

WATCH OUT: Ethernet cables that come with some routers (mainly cheaper ones) will only have 2 of the 4 pairs connected! Look closely at the plug. If you only see 4 wires instead of 8, this cable will ONLY work at 10/100 speeds! It’s best to just dispose of the cheap cable and use a proper patch cord. These “cheap” cords can also cause random network issues.

Switches: While you can connect two computers together via their ethernet ports, this becomes impractical when you need more than two PCs (Or, you know, Internet). Enter the humble switch. Think of a switch as a smart splitter. It allows multiple devices to be connected together. In many cases, switches are used to attach multiple devices to a single Ethernet connection. The job of a switch is to direct your data to the proper destination on your network. It does this by storing what is known as the Media Access Control, or MAC address of a device on an internal data table (Basically what port the MAC address is located on), and ensures that only data that is destined for that MAC address is sent to it. There are three types of switches:

  • Unmanaged: These are just standard switches with little to no extra features to them. All they do is tie your network together. These are the most common switch you will encounter.
  • Managed: These are far more advanced switches with extra capabilities such as VLANs, Port Security, and monitoring. These usually have a web interface and/or a local console connection for management. These are predominant in enterprise and industrial network setups, as well as network setups requiring a specific type of setup.
  • PoE: Short for Power over Ethernet – These switches can provide power to connected devices. These are commonly used in setups with security cameras and office phones. If you are using desk phones, and ONLY have an Ethernet cable going in (no power cord), OR you have security cameras with a centralized DVR, Chances are you have a PoE switch. NOTE: In the case of cameras, these are usually on a network that is independent of your PC network. In the case of phones, it can either be independent, or alongside your PC network.

WATCH OUT: There’s also a different, older type of device called a Hub. Hubs, unlike switches, act more like a signal splitter, basically blasting everything connected to it’s ports with data, regardless of what device it’s supposed to go to. Hubs only operate at 10/100Mbps. (Think of it as connecting a Y splitter to your phone’s headphone jack. Both sockets get the same sound output) Indications that you have a HUB:

  • It’s marked on the front panel as a hub (Ethernet Hub, etc)
  • There’s an indicator on the panel marked “COL” or “Collision”. The nature of how hubs operate results in data collisions. Switches do not suffer from collision isuses since they do not spray data out every port.

Note that hubs are no longer made. If you have one, chances are it’ll be quite old.

Switches will also be marked with their speed capabilities. The most common are 10/100 (Often marked as Fast Ethernet), and 10/100/1000 (These can be marked as Gigabit, or 1G). Here’s the key differences:

10/100: Known as Fast Ethernet. 10/100 switches are capable of a maximum speed of 100MBps per port. The 10/100 part indicates that the ports can operate in 10BaseT mode (10MBps MAX), or 100BaseTX mode (100Mbps MAX).

10/100/1000: Known as Gigabit Ethernet: Shares the same capabilities, but has a max speed of 1GBps (1 Gigabit) per port.

A more recent standard, although becoming more common in the newest devices: 2.5GBps ports. You’ll find these on the newest desktops, as add-on cards/dongles and on the newest routers. These are normally marked as 2.5G. 2.5G Switches do exist, but they are insanely expensive (Expect to spend $200 on a simple 8 port 2.5 switch!)

WATCH OUT: Look at the ports if in doubt. If you only see 4 pins (instead of 8) in the socket, it’ll only do 10/100 speeds. Google the model of the switch as well. Avoid buying super cheap switches.

Ethernet Adapters: All ethernet ports use the common RJ-45 jacks, but there are different versions of Ethernet adapters:

  • Built-in: These are available on all desktop PCs built in the last 15+ years, and, while once common on laptops, are starting to disappear in order to make laptops much thinner.
  • Internal card: These come in the form of a PCI or PCI-e card (Much like a video card). These can be used to add an extra ethernet port if needed, or to upgrade from the existing built-in port (eg, adding a 1G or 2.5G port to a PC that only has a 10/100 built-in port). These only work on tower-style desktop PCs.
  • USB dongle: These are adapters that simply connect to an open USB port on your device. These come in both USB-A (large rectangle plug), and USB-C variants. The USB-C versions are commonly bundled in with multifunction dongles (such as ones that also include extra USB-A ports, card readers, HDMI port, etc). These work on any system, Laptop or Desktop, and can be set up easily by anyone. NOTE: If you buy a Gigabit USB adapter, make sure you connect this to a USB 3.0/3.1 port for maximum performance. (These are marked on your system with “SS” Most USB-C ports on desktops/laptops are 3.0 or 3.1). USB adapters are the most common form of external network adapter.

Routers: Another extremely common network device. The router is your gateway to the internet, as well as it’s own small switch. The most common routers available bundle both Ethernet and wireless connectivity, while routers that are provided by your internet company also bundle the modem component into the router. Internet provider-owned routers are the most common ones in service today, as they are quick and simple to set up. Using a router can take a lot of the guesswork out of setting up a network! All you have to do here is connect your devices, and you’re all set! If you choose to use your own router and modem, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with a few things:

Modem types: There are currently 3 types of modem. Note that only ONE of these can be bought retail. The other two are usually provided by your internet provider:

  • Cable: This is what you need if you are using services from Xfinity, Spectrum, Mediacom, COX, etc. These can be bought online or in a store like Best Buy. The common types are DOCSIS 3.0 and 3.1. WATCH OUT: When choosing a modem, be sure you’re picking a modem that will work with the service level you are getting from your provider.
  • DSL: This is what you need if you are using services from CenturyLink, AT&T, Frontier, etc. This is usually provided by the internet service.
  • Fiber: This is what you need if you are using services from Quantum, AT&T UVerse, etc. This is provided and installed by your internet service.

Router types: All in one routers (Wired and Wi-Fi) are the standard go-to for everyone. Be sure to pick a router that will fit the needs of your business. Be prepared to spend as much as $200 on a high quality router, or even more on a business grade or enterprise grade router.

Business or Enterprise grade router? How is that different from any other? They differ in many ways, largely in terms of functionality. Business grade routers support extra features that consumer grade ones do not, such as a stronger firewall, VLAN functionality, Site-to-Site VPN, and dedicated VoIP (Phone) configurations. Enterprise grade routers come with these features, and other extras, such as external Wi-Fi access points, Power over Ethernet, Dual-WAN (internet) capabilities, LTE/5G failover and extreme levels of security. Many of these extra features require a license from the manufacturer of the router.

If you’re just starting out with getting a functional network for your business, and you don’t want to worry about what router or modem you need, Let your Internet service provide you with one. Take a count of how many devices you’ll be connecting, and how many are wired versus wireless. This will help you with choosing your equipment.

This has been the guide to basic network setup. Want to learn more? Stay tuned for the real juicy bits, aka Advanced networking!