Networking: You still need a geek

Metcalfe's law, propounded long ago by the inventor of the Ethernet protocol, states that the usefulness of a network is equal to the square of the number of users. Manes's corollary, propounded a minute ago by the inventor of this column, states that the usefulness of a network equals zero if you can't get the net to work at all.

Big networks work pretty darn well because, when they don't, jillions of professional computer geeks rush in to attack the problems. But the little networks that you or I set up are another story. And though new technologies let us get connected without yanking wires through the walls, those of us who regularly put home and office networks together and pull them apart know one rule from bitter experience: Assume nothing.

Just because two PCs can ping each other via Internet protocols doesn't mean they'll be able to see each other in Windows. Just because machine X can see machine Y doesn't mean machine Y can see machine X. Just because a computer's name appears in Network Neighborhood doesn't mean it's even turned on.

Say you invoke a networked printer, and it's turned off or out of paper. Do you receive an error message that tells you what's going on, or does your print job vanish into the ether? Will the "Wake-on-LAN" network card rouse a remote PC, or will you have to hike over and tickle its keyboard? The inconsistent answers to questions like these are guaranteed to drive you nuts.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Some of it rests with broadband ISPs whose employees lack the tools to understand even something as simple as whether a problem lies within your walls or outside them. Result: Clueless techs parrot standard scripts at equally clueless users who just want the network to work.

With Windows XP, Microsoft Corp. has made its first reasonable try at getting networking right but too often, the job is still too hard. Just try to read the help screens on Network Bridges without screaming.

And the screams get louder when you grapple with networking nomenclature. Can you tell when you need a straight-through cable and when you need a crossover? (Hint: If the light on the networking device's connector doesn't go on, you need the other kind.) Do you know what a four-day DHCP lease is and how long it lasts? (Hint: It's not four days.)If you aced that quiz, get ready for the joy of wirelessness. How come ESSID and SSID mean the same thing, but the SSID number differs from the same device's channel number? What's the difference between an "ad hoc" network and an "infrastructure" one? If you don't know, expect to get the network working only if you're the sort of person who wins the lottery twice a week.

So if you want to network your home_and increasingly, you do_throw a networking party and invite every computer geek you know. If you want to keep the network running, wait till the end of the evening and then kidnap the last geek still hanging around.

Contributing Editor Stephen Manes, a cohost of the public television series Digital Duo, has written about PCs for nearly two decades.

Maybe networks should come bundled with a phalanx of experts.

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