Last Updated on July 1, 2020 by Scott Krager
Today we are going to share all of the, or maybe not all but many of the, different things that you would encounter when networking up your home or small office. This would allow you to share files, play games over LAN, stream media and what equipment you would need in order to get it working.
What is computer networking?
The most simple definition of computer networking is a bunch of computers (that can be your smartphone, gaming console, laptops or desktop computers, printers, scanners, smart TVs, smart bulbs, smart home appliances, IP cameras), connected to one another with a network cable, also known as ethernet cable or wirelessly through wifi.
All of these connections are managed by your router and switch which assigns IP or internet protocol addresses and manages and controls outgoing and incoming data to the connected computer.
Just note that whenever I say computers I don’t just mean PC’s. Everything that collects data, processes it, and outputs some sort of information or result is called a computer.
People usually get confused between a lot of network equipment. Let’s start with the most basic and important thing required to get your home or office network required to get up and running.
There are more reasons of having a home network other than just sharing an internet connection among different devices. You can use your home network to manage and control different devices from your smartphone or a computer without leaving the comfort of your rocking-chair, warm bed or even when you’re not at home.
Modem (often referred as router, but it’s not a router)
This magical box processes the signal from your internet service provider that is being carried over a phone, cable network, fiber or satellite link. A modem interfaces with your own home network and enable all of those devices to get connected to the internet. If you are just connecting one wired device (usually a desktop PC) to the internet, a modem is all you need and will get you up and running without any configurations in most cases. (Here you can know more about current modems.)
But these days, it is far more likely that you have multiple devices that you want to get online including computers, phones, tablets, TVs, game consoles, media boxes and a whole lot more.
This is where a router comes into play. It helps to create your very own local network of each device you want to connect on the internet (or share resources on your own local network), assign them addresses and bridges your home local network to the world wide web or so called internet.
These days most of us think about routers as magical devices which allows users to connect to the internet and share files without tethering to Ethernet cables, but there are plenty of routers out there that are used to hook up plenty of wired devices to the network.
We often think of routers this way because modern routers are a combination device consisting of a router, a switch, a wireless access point and sometimes even a modem.
The first piece of network puzzle that pretty much everyone with internet connection have, is a router. In most cases, routers have a wireless access point and a network switch built in for ease of access. Hence called “wireless routers”.
Router’s job is to take all the individual computers and connected appliances and assign them their own individual addresses so they all know where to find each other and transfer data between. Router also decides what traffic is sent to WAN and what traffic should stay in LAN so you can call it as a internet traffic cop who directs traffic at an intersection.
Most consumer grade routers have more than one job to do. In fact, it should not be called a router at all, but a multi-function network device. But we live in a world where we call pencils made out of graphite, “lead pencils”. So we are going to call these multi-function network devices, “routers”.
Let’s look at typical home router and explain some things.
1- WAN Port: WAN Stands for Wide Area Network and this protocol has been around since many years. This port allows you to use RJ45 connector to connect to the internet and provide internet access to all the connected devices on your home network. This is the most basic thing that people want to do when creating a home network: sharing internet connection.
But when sharing an internet connection, your router also serves as a firewall which provides protection between the ISP (internet service provider) and home network.
Firewall allows all traffic in and out which originates from inside your home network and connected clients. But anything that comes from outside that is unsolicited and unrequested, router flags it as possibly hostile network traffic, dropping and blocking all of that traffic.
This is basically all firewalls in consumer routers do. There are more complex set of rules in enterprise or commercial environment firewalls that sets security of those networks very high.
2- LAN Ports: LAN Stands for Local Area Network and this protocol of connecting computers together was developed in 1970s. This port also uses a RJ45 connector similar to WAN port and connects computers and other network devices together to create a local (limited) network so these devices can share data and resources with one another.
These LAN ports also act as a network switch, allowing you to add up to four (or eight on some models) wired network devices to your local network.
But what would you do if your router runs out LAN ports?? You simply add a network switch. Think of a network switch as a surge protector for your wired network devices. You connect all your network devices to it and then connect it to your router and now all of those devices are on your local network and you can access those.
In-short: network switches expand your wired network.
3- WLAN: Sure, you can use wired networking all the way because it is fast and more reliable. But you can not plug Ethernet port into your smartphone or maybe your shiny and super slim laptop. Of course, you can do it by using different dongles and adapters but this is not a practical way.
So WLAN comes to rescue the wire clutter by cutting the cord to your router. WLAN stands for Wireless LAN and usually consists of an AP (access point) broadcasting a WiFi signal based on the IEEE 802.11 standards.
The very first version of modern day WiFi was released in 1997 and was capable of transmitting 2 megabits/s. Later in 1999, it was updated with 802.11b standard, which was capable of transmitting about 11 megabits/s. Modern day wireless standard i.e 802.11ac can transmit up to gigabits of data per second.
4- USB: Most of the modern wireless routers on the market offer couple of USB ports to add legacy devices to your network and share their resources like USB printers, scanners, and external hard drives. This allows multiple users to use and share these devices at the same time.
5- Power input: We all know what this is for. You connect one end of the proprietary power brick to router and other end to wall. And your router reboots.
6- Power button: If your router isn’t working after you’ve plugged into wall outlet, try turning this on before throwing it away.
All of the other fancy magic of assigning IP’s, managing rules, and firewall action happens inside of the router.
Wired Networking 101
Wiring your home or office network can be challenging task but if it is done with a smart and sophisticated plan, and great results can be achieved. Because everyone’s house or office network is going to be different, I can not provide exact blueprints to wired network installation but here are some tips you can install (or improve) your home wired network easily.
- Plan everything out. Your first step should be planning everything out on a paper about what your wired home network is going to look like. You can do this by drawing a rough map of your home on a paper and then planning out the wiring for your high speed wired network.
- Choosing right cable. After you have finished figuring out the length and path of cable you are going to use, buy some Ethernet cable. I would recommend CAT6 cable so you will get Gigabit speed through your entire home. Usually buying more cable than you need is a good idea and will save you hassle afterwards.
- Don’t go all-in with power tools. Before you start drilling your walls to pass through Ethernet cable, just look into phone lines running through your house. Most contractors just put Ethernet wire into phone lines but this might be only CAT5 or CAT5e so you will need to replace it with new CAT6 cable.
- Ask for help. You can always use an extra pair of hands when replacing wires. Just tie the new wire to old Ethernet wire in your phone line and start pulling it. If you can not get it through, you can always use cable wire guides.
- It should look nice. You should use RJ45 Keystones and matching Wallplates. Crimp Ethernet cable to RJ45 keystones and mount wallplates on.
- More crimping. Crimp RJ45 connector to the other end of the Ethernet wire which all will connect to your router or a switch. If you have no experience with crimping ethernet cables and RJ45 connectors, you can always buy guided connectors and they will make it easy. Just remember to color coordinate these and you can check your connection with a RJ45 Tester which you can buy from your local RadioShack store.
- Connect everything. Plug everything into your switch or directly into your router and if everything works, congratulations.
- If something’s wrong, Check the ethernet cable connections again with a RJ45 tester and if needed, replace or redo a connection. There is nothing to be worried about if it is your first time working with ethernet cables.
- Always label your cables. This way you can easily check which cable goes to which device/room so in future, if anything goes wrong you can easily diagnose and repair it.
- Use switches. You can always use a switch where there a lot of wired network devices one place, like TV console. This way you can easily hide and tidy up networking mess.
- Powerline Ethernet. If there is a place in your house where running a long ethernet cable isn’t an option, you can use something called powerline ethernet adapters. They use AC power lines to transmit data and offer fast and reliable speeds than wireless. Powerline Ethernet comes in different flavors,
- Power. Use good quality surge protectors for your network switches, router and modem to make sure none of your network devices fail due to power surge.
The fastest most stable way to connect two devices on the network is to use a wired connection but sometimes it is not always convenient to run a Ethernet cable between the two.
To rescue in this situation, here comes Powerline Ethernet Adapters, which uses electric power lines already in your home, to transfer data while acting as a copper link taking the place of an Ethernet cable.
Powerline Ethernet Adapters are very easy to set up and operate on your regular 110v or 220v power outlet (depending on the region you live in).
Just connect Powerline Ethernet Adapter to your power outlet and plug it into your router or modem, and then connect the other adapter to any other power outlet (in your home) and connect the final device such as a connected TV or a computer.
You can add additional powerline adapters on your network if you need more ports but keep in mind that powerline Ethernet acts as a hub rather than a switch so the more you add to your network the less the resources available to you.
The advantages of powerline Ethernet connection are the same as the wired connection. You get a more stable connection with less random disconnections or lost packets. These are also very affordable ranging from 40$ to 80$ depending from where you buy them and often sold in pairs.
As much as there are benefits of powerline Ethernet but there are also downsides of it. The signal strength depends on the quality of the wiring, so in a very old building you might not get the highest speeds you’re expecting. Also, finding your electrical circuits and checking if two power outlets are connected in any way might be challenging for some people.
Switches vs Hub
A network switch is just a network bridge with a lot of outputs to connect to your wired clients and you still require a router to assign addresses to the connected devices.
Network hubs are sort of like switches but instead of analyzing incoming traffic and deciding which device it should go to, hubs are splitters. They do not analyze any incoming traffic and sends it to all the devices connected to it.
This results in a lot of network congestion and seriously limiting speeds. Because of this shortcoming, hubs were out of the business and were replaced by more intelligent network devices like network switches as network and internet speeds got fast.
So if you ever find a Network Hub on sale somewhere, do not buy it. Instead invest in a good Gigabit Ethernet Switch. They are cheap and does not cost a lot.
Or if you like old technology and still prefer to archive your data on magnetic tapes, then sure, you can live with Network Hub.
Wireless Networking 101
In today’s day and age, everyone’s trying to cut the cord in hopes of making this world a better place to live.
Sure, wireless is easy and you can get more out of your home network by going wireless but there is a lot more to it than just buying a highly rated wireless router from Amazon and putting it behind your closet for the rest of your (or router’s) life.
For an average Joe, buying a wireless router from Amazon and throwing it in closet will do the job OK.
But, since you’re reading this, you’re not an average Joe. So we will walk you through the complete and detailed process of buying a wireless router / wireless access point and helping you get the most out of it.
Buying a Wireless Router
For most people out there, buying a Wireless Router is the way to go to expand their home network wirelessly.
Buying a wireless router is a really daunting task that nobody want’s to do or have time for but yet it must be done to stay current and supporting all of the devices in your household.
In this post, we’re not going to be giving specific router suggestions for you to buy XXXX. It’s because there are a lot of them out there and every use case is going to be different. Somebody who lives in a large house might need a different wireless router rather than somebody living in a medium house.
Or maybe living in an apartment or college dorm room. Just keep these guidelines in check when searching for a wireless router to match your current needs and future proof your WiFi.
1. Range: How large is the area that you want to cover with the WiFi signal in your household. A wireless router with an integrated antenna will be suitable for a small apartment or a college dorm room. But if you want to cover a large household, you will need a wireless router with external antennas that you can position around to get best and stable WiFi signal.
It also doesn’t hurt if you try to place your wireless router in the center of your home as best as you can so you can get more even coverage in your entire house. For a small apartment or college dorm room, it is a different story.
2. Look into your inventory: Look around and see what devices you have currently. If you only have 802.11n compatible devices than you should only invest in a more powerful 802.11n compatible router for best results.But if you have 802.11ac devices (or plan on getting new devices in future), than you should look into 802.11ac compatible routers for best possible results.
Please note that wireless 802.11 standards are backwards compatible, so all your 802.11n devices will work with your shiny new 802.11ac router and vice versa. So if you have the budget to spend money on a good wireless router, it is always good to invest in a good 802.11ac router. In this way you will be featuring proofing your wireless router for coming years.
3. Dual Band Routers: If you haven’t been living under the rock lately, you’d probably already know about dual-band routers.
Usually wireless routers operate on a single 2.4 GHz wireless frequency because:
a) It’s very popular and cheap band to use.
b) It offers better penetration properties through walls and objects resulting in better range.
So what are the problems with a 2.4 ghz wireless band? It sounds good to me, you may ask?
Since 2.4 GHz wireless band is so popular it is almost used in all wireless electronics like cordless phones, drones, wireless keyboard & mice, wireless joypads, almost everything that runs on Bluetooth and even microwave ovens use 2.4 GHz frequency to blast microwaves onto your food causing food molecules to zap and heat up.
These all 2.4 ghz appliances often affect wireless signal broadcasting on a 2.4 ghz band, causing it to function unstable.
Here is why IEEE 802.11 wireless standard introduced a new band working on a very different frequency i.e 5 ghz.
Since there aren’t as many devices working on a 5 ghz band so your competition is mainly other 5 ghz wireless routers. I am not saying that there are 0 other devices running on a 5 ghz band but I am saying that I am having trouble finding devices are going to interfere with a 5 ghz wifi. So dual band routers working on a 5 ghz wireless frequency band offers more stable wireless connection and faster transfer speeds than 2.4 ghz wireless router.
But there is a downside of using 5 ghz. Since the wavelength of 5 ghz wireless band is shorter than 2.4 ghz wireless band, it offers less range. But if you get a concurrent dual band wireless router, you will get both, stability and speed of 5 ghz, and range of 2.4 ghz.
4. WiFi A/B/G/N/AC??: Confused?
Terms like these are used by wireless routers manufacturers to state their router’s greatest features and why you should give them your hard earned money for something that you won’t even need.
Sure, staying on the latest edge of the technology is a good thing, but it is not always a wise thing. New technologies are coming out every other week. In wireless world, we are currently on 802.11ac but there is a newer generation right around the corner and the marketing departments of wireless router manufacturers are figuring out new ways to sell them.
While you don’t have to get the latest and greatest the technology has to offer, something that is, maybe a generation behind of the cutting edge, is going to be the most perfected technology available on the market and you will be getting the most out of it than something that would be on the latest and greatest side.
My first wireless router was the LinkSYS WRT54G which I bought in Late 2006. It was a pretty expensive at that time for a wireless router but offered great stability and kept up the speeds of my regular households. Today I still have that router working as brand new and it is running as a print and scan server for my printer.
5. More Advanced Router Doesn’t mean better: Thinking that if you just buy an expensive router without any research, you will get the best of them all? No sir, you’re wrong.
If you want the best performance, you want to look at all of the specs of the device rather than the device’s price itself. Well, if you want to brag about your expensive router’s price to your friends, just buy the most expensive one. A lot of manufacturers out there often like to mark up their router in such a way where they think that people will buy them, just because they are more expensive.
Just keep in mind, these are routers designed to stay in home and offer peace of mind, not some jewelry or watch that is designed to go out with you and is going to symbolize your status. Buy the one which is functional and is going to offer you best speed and reliability to match your needs.
6. A wireless router for you mom: Just like phones were turned into smartphones, routers are also converting to smart-routers. They are easy to setup and manage using a simple App from your smartphone.
These devices also show information that you might not get on a average router like Internet Speed graphs and intelligent data calculator that shows which device is hogging up all the network so you can prioritize your device for best possible speeds.
Google is offering two smart routers, Google On Hub and Google WiFi system. These smart wireless routers look sleek and offers great performance.
These “smart-routers” are perfect for somebody who is not tech-savvy and wants a reliable internet connection all times.
7. Two is better than one: If you have done all the research and bought the best wireless router for your needs but still there is a haunted place in your house with no wireless signal? Then you need to invest in a wireless repeater.
These are devices that sometimes look exactly like your wireless router but all they do is extend your existing wireless network to a place where you couldn’t get wireless signal before. There are some routers that can be used as wireless repeaters to repeat the wireless signal and extend your network.
I personally never had good luck with wireless repeaters that connect to your router wirelessly so I prefer a hardwired connection between the repeater AP and the router itself. But if running a Ethernet cable is not possible, you can always use Powerline Ethernet Adapters to hook up your wireless repeater to your router.
If you have an old wireless router lying around, this can be done without purchasing new hardware.
Better Router Equals Fast Wifi?
The short answer to this is “No, it doesn’t”.
Why?Because you’re expecting too much from your wireless routers. This is mainly because of the marketing advertisements that most router manufacturers put on their boxes to attract more people towards their wireless routers.
You might have heard about Wireless AC2600 Router (any brand). This usually means 2600 Mbps of throughput making it more than two times better than gigabit Ethernet. Sounds too good to be true? But this is a false advertisement. This does not mean that router can actually transfer 2600 Mb of data every second or even close to 2000 Mb of data every second.
So what is the actual speed of this router? The theoretical (not practical) speed of this router on 802.11ac 5 ghz band is around 1750 Mbps and on 2.4 ghz is around 800 Mbps. Which adds up to the total of around 2600 Mbps.
But the client (your smartphone or laptop) can connect to only one band at any given time so it will be on 5 ghz or either on 2.4 ghz. Here comes the wireless chip inside client which might not be so advanced as the router itself so it may caps around 500 Mbps.
So in real world use case, your wicked-fast 2600 Mbps router is only giving you 500 Mbps speeds. This shows that if the devices you own aren’t as fast as the router itself, then there is no use in buying the more expensive, higher-end router, at all. And the speeds advertised are just numbers.
There are other things also to look for when buying a new router. Such as, MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) or MU-MIMO (Multi-user, multiple in, multiple out) which uses beam forming technology to locate where the wireless client is actually at and direct wireless signal towards them, this offers better stability and less random packets loss at long distances.
Improving Your Current WiFi Signal
What if I told you that you can get more out of your current wireless router without spending any (or very little) money?
1. Restarting the Router: Almost every 9 times out of 10, restarting your router is going to give you better and stable wifi. It is just a simple trick that everyone should know. If you’re experiencing slow internet, just do the same with your modem and you should be good to go.
A simple way to restart your network equipment is to turn it off, wait for 30 seconds to 1 minute, and turn it back on.
2. Changing Wireless Password: There might be a chance that your neighbor is sucking up all the internet speed and making you wait while that cat video is buffering.
Changing the default password of your wireless router and the SSID (wireless network name) is always a necessary thing as other people can easily guess or look up online the default passwords of different routers. It is also recommended to set your wireless security to WAP2 instead of WEB for making it difficult for hackers to crack your password.
Quick Tip: You can see what devices are connected to your local network by checking the DHCP Clients List in your router’s web interface.
3. Re-position your Wireless Router: If you’re experiencing disconnecting or unstable WiFi issue in a specific area in your home, adjusting your wireless router is going to help out the situation. The best way to position your wireless router is in the center of your home. When positioning wireless router, make sure that it is at least one feet away from concrete walls, microwave ovens or cordless phones. But if doing so isn’t doing the trick, you should look up for some good wireless range extenders.
4. Use 5GHz Whenever Possible: 5 ghz band doesn’t offer a long range like 2.4GHz does but it offers better speed and stability. So if you’re just sitting right by your wireless router or maybe just a room across, you should switch to 5GHz for better wireless performance.
5. Switch Wireless Channels: Most routers automatically broadcast their wireless signal on the least used channel to offer best possible performance but sometimes fails to do so. It is always a good thing to get a Wifi Analyzer software and check least used channels in your area and experiment with those to get the best possible performance out of your wireless router.
6. Software & Firmware updates: For routers, go to the website of the brand on the box, search your specific model and download the latest firmware. It is always best idea to backup and save your router configure file so you can restore your wireless and network settings on the router after the firmware upgrade has completed.
For wireless adapters, you can go to the website of chipset manufacturer to download the latest drivers and firmware.
7. Third-Party Firmwares: Sometimes running the stock firmware is not the best option when you can get more out of your current wireless router by just reflashing your firmware. Some great third-party firmwares include Tomato Firmware, DD-WRT and OpenWRT.
These firmwares aren’t very hard to install. Visit their respective websites to see if your router and it’s hardware version is compatible with the firmware. There are detailed guides on almost every compatible router on how to flash these firmwares.
By doing so, you can get new features on your router that work better and most of the times are only available in higher end enterprise hardware.
8. Switch up external antennas: If your wireless router has external detachable antennas, then you can get a more sensitive antenna to get better coverage through your entire house.
Antennas comes in two main types: omnidirectional and unidirectional. Omnidirectional antennas looks like a stick and broadcast a spherical shape of wireless signal where are unidirectional antennas are suited for sending the wireless signal to the user’s directed side.
If for some reason, you can not set up your wireless router, then you might need to do a 30-30-30 reset to reset the NVRAM. Here is how to perform a 30-30-30 reset on your router.
- Turn on your router and press and hold the reset button on the back for 30 seconds.
- Without letting go the reset button, unplug the router from the power source and wait for another 30 seconds.
- While still holding the reset button, re-plug the router to power and keep holding the reset button for 30 more seconds.
- After resetting your router, the default login information and default gateway are often printed on the back of the router itself.
pfSense – DIY Router
Did you know that you can turn your old computer as an enterprise-grade, highly efficient, highly secured, high performance, Unix based router for a couple of bucks? Usually, you can scour the parts needed for building your own high-performance router for free. All you need is an old Intel or AMD based system with a couple gigs of RAM and an old hard drive.
Building your own pfsense router is a cake. It’s easy as downloading some files, putting them into a USB disk and install by hitting the enter key a couple of times.
pfSense is an open source UNIX-based firewall distribution and can virtually run on any hardware that you might have lying around. For parts, all you need is a gigabit Intel NIC (at least 4 ports recommended) so you can hook up your local network and a wireless access point to it.
If you want to do some serious traffic routing then you might need to look into their minimum hardware requirements but if you are just routing a home internet connection then you can practically take any computer from the dumpster, throw in a couple of cheap network interface cards (NIC) and run pfSense on it
Regardless of what hardware you choose, installation instructions are the same:
- Go to pfsense.org and click on download.
- Select your hardware platform, 64-bit or 32-bit.
- Select to download the installer file so you can install it on the internal hard drive. In some environments, it is better suited to run pfSense directly off of a USB Stick.
- Make an installer on the USB stick and boot your computer off of the USB Stick. If your computer doesn’t support Boot from USB, you can also burn a disc and make it install from CD as well.
After your computer has booted from the installer media, it will go through some initialization process and will ask us if we want to repair an existing install or install a fresh copy of pfSense. We will hit I for install.
Then it will ask you to change some settings but for the most part, if you do not know what it is asking you to change, just hit accept and choose Quick or Easy Install. After some installation, it is going to ask you if you want to install a custom kernel or standard kernel, which we want standard kernel, so we will select standard kernel install and hit enter.
After the installation has finished, it will tell us that we can shut the system down, remove the installer media, and turn it back on.
At this point, pfSense will boot up and tell us that there is no configuration found and wants us to select which of the network adapters we want to use for what. We do not want to set up VLANs at this moment because we can configure this up later in web console but we do want to set up WAN as our main gateway to the internet connection.
Plug your modem into the network port which you want to use as WAN interface and press A for auto detection. Make sure that all other network cables from your pfSense box are unplugged at this point. Do the same when it asks you to configure LAN interface.
At this point, pfSense should start up and an IP Address is displayed on the screen. Just go to a web browser on the computer connected to your pfSense box with an ethernet cable and just type that web address. pfSense web interface will open and you can play for hours and customize your most secure firewall, however you like.
If you do not want to run pfSense on old hardware, you can purchase pre-built pfSense boxes directly from pfSense and get your routing game going up.