Home PC 'Notwork'

I'd bet money that more than half Computerworld's readers have more than one PC at home. Consider me - I have a computer, my wife has one, I bring a laptop home from work nights and weekends and I telecommute one or two days each week.

So we have three computers, even without any kids.

We recently got Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service, and we both want to use it. Often, we want to exchange files, too.

There's only one good answer: building a home network. Coming to market is a rush of new equipment designed to simplify this process. If only it did.

I spent most of a weekend trying to set up a simple peer-to-peer, Windows-based wireless network at home that would connect three PCs and let them share a broadband Internet connection. I'm a reasonably experienced technician, with a good idea of what to do when something doesn't work, and I couldn't get it to run. It was a stark reminder of the arcana that underpin technology. An unsuspecting consumer or beginner, even one comfortable with computers, wouldn't have a prayer.

The Gory Details

I didn't want to pay an electrician to knock holes into my walls, and I didn't want network cables running up the stairs and down the hallway. I could build a network that runs over my existing phone line (which already carries the DSL service) or one that uses the electrical power lines as carriers. My first choice was a wireless home network.

At PCExpo, I saw a lot of new wireless network/Internet-sharing hardware. The first products to arrive for review were four devices from SOHOware Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif.: Broadband Internet Gateway (US$199.99), which hooks up to the DSL modem for Internet sharing and includes firewall capabilities; the NetBlaster transmitter ($289.99), which looks like a CD player with horns; and two wireless network interface cards - a PCI card for the desktop and a PC card for the laptop ($189.99 each). I also had a DI-701 Residential Gateway ($99.99), a unit similar to the SOHOware gateway, from Irvine, Calif.-based D-Link Corp.

I hooked up the SOHOware components first, assuming that a single-vendor solution would go together more easily. I installed the supplied software, rebooting after every step. Right away, I hit a configuration problem - my wife's computer, a Hewlett-Packard Co. e-Vectra, has no slots into which I can install the wireless network interface card. The solution was to cable that computer directly to the gateway, so that part of the network can't be wireless but everything else can.

The network was in place; it didn't work. No computer could see another, and there was no Internet access. I substituted the D-Link gateway and installed its software. That didn't help. After rereading the manuals, I realized that my Verizon Communications DSL connection wasn't a direct connection to the Internet but instead used Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet. Thus, I couldn't hook up the DSL modem to either of the gateway units but had to connect it directly to the e-Vectra. So I reconfigured the system as follows:

-- The DSL modem plugs into e-Vectra.

-- The second network interface card connects the Universal Serial Bus port to external Ethernet hub.

-- NetBlaster connects to the hub.

The modem, gateway and hub have their separate power bricks, of course, so I had to add a new power strip just to plug in the network hardware. (Tip: These power supplies are usually third-party, no-name makers and rarely reference even the brand of the equipment they go with. So every time I get a new power brick, I make an identifying label with a Brother International Corp. P-Touch or Dymo Corp. LetraTag label maker.)After getting the DSL service hooked up to the e-Vectra and working, I plugged in the SOHOware components and installed their software for Internet sharing. I installed SOHOware's CableFree PC card into the laptop, rebooted and got a message saying it wasn't working properly.

To eliminate one variable, I installed a standard interface card and connected it to the hub with a cable.

Then, at last, I had a functioning network, though still no Internet sharing.

It was Saturday night; I would finish up in the morning, I thought.

On Sunday morning, I had no DSL connection. I clicked on the Connect button, and nothing happened. Eventually, I got an error message about a hardware problem. I unplugged and replugged everything and removed and reinstalled all the software, to no avail.

Then I disconnected everything and hauled it downstairs to my office. I plugged it all in, hooked up the modem to the phone jack ... and without the network, DSL service was there. What happened?

Sunday afternoon, I took stock and realized I was trying to do three separate things at once: set up my computers and their various flavors of Windows as a home network, install the hardware for a wireless network and enable Internet connection sharing across the LAN. I need to start over, one function and connection at a time. And I need to talk with SOHOware's tech support. Stay tuned.

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