Windows 7 : Creating a Windows Network - Planning Your Network

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6/28/2013 7:24:37 PM

1. Creating or Joining a Network

Not too many years ago, networking was expensive, complicated, and found only in big business environments. But networking is for everyone now, in the home or at work. And it’s amazingly inexpensive. Even if you have just two computers, for about the cost of a trip to the movies you can set up a network that will let everyone trade music, video, and documents, use the same printer and Internet connection, and back up files, almost effortlessly. And, creating a speedy, useful network isn’t nearly as hard or expensive as you might think. Once you’ve done the planning and shopping, you should be able to get a network up and running in an hour or two.

The Professional and Ultimate versions of Windows 7 have some spiffy features that come into play when they’re hooked up to a corporate network with Windows Server, expensive servers, and highly trained technicians. But setting up that sort of network is beyond our scope here.

If you’re setting up a new network, though, read on.

2. Planning Your Network

You must plan your network around your own particular needs. What do you expect from a network? The following tasks are some you might want your network to perform:

  • Share printers, files, and optical (DVD and CD) drives

  • Share an Internet connection

  • Receive faxes directly in one computer and print or route them to individuals automatically

  • Provide access to a wide area network (WAN) or other remote site

  • Provide access to your LAN via a modem or the Internet from remote locations

  • Host a website

  • Operate a database server

  • Play multiuser games

You should make a list of your networking goals. You need to provide adequate capacity to meet these and future needs, but you also don’t need to overbuild.

Instant Networking

If your goal is to share printers, files, and maybe an Internet connection among just a few computers that are fairly close together, and you won’t need wireless connections, here’s a recipe for instant networking. Get the following items at your local computer store, or at an online shop such as Chain computer or office supply stores are also a good bet if a sale or rebate offer is available.

  • One 10/100BASE-T network adapter for each computer that doesn’t already have a network interface. These cost $5–$15 for internal PCI cards, and $10–$40 for PCMCIA or USB adapters. (The category is Computer & Office, Networking, Wired Networking: Adapters (NICs). Get a featured or sale price internal PCI card for a desktop, or PC Card or USB adapter for a notebook.) But, check before you buy: Most computers these days have a built-in network adapter.

  • A 10/100BASE-T switch with four or more ports for $10–$40, or a DSL/cable-sharing router with a built-in four-port switch for $20–$90. (The category is Computer & Office, Networking, Wired Networking: Routers or Switches.) I recommend using a router even if you aren’t setting up a shared Internet connection.

  • One CAT-5 patch cable for each computer. You’ll place the switch or router next to one of the computers, so you’ll need one 4-foot cable. The other cables need to be long enough to reach from the other computers to the switch. (The category is Computer & Office, Networking, Wired Networking: Cables.)

On the other hand, if you want to use wireless networking, need access to large databases, want fast Internet connectivity, or require centralized backup of all workstations, you need to plan and invest more carefully.

Are You Being Served?

If you’re planning a network of more than a few computers, you need to make a big decision: whether or not to use Windows Server. The Server versions provide a raft of networking services that Windows 7 doesn’t have, but you must learn how to configure and support them.

Table 1 lists the primary trade-offs between Windows 7 and Windows Server.

Table 1. Primary Differences Between Windows 7 and Windows Server
Network with Windows 7 OnlyNetwork with Windows Server
Allows connections for up to 5 computers for the Home versions of Windows 7, 10 computers for other versions.Unlimited connections (subject to client licensing fees).
Cost is low.Requires an extra computer, a copy of Windows Server, and additional fees for Client Access Licenses. The added costs will easily exceed $1,000.
Configuration is simple (relatively, anyway).Complex to configure and administer.
Each machine must be administered independently.Administration is centralized.
Rudimentary remote access, connection sharing, and WAN support are provided.The features are more sophisticated.
Managing file security can be difficult when you have more than one user per computer.Centralized user management eases the task of managing security.

For me, the 5- or 10-connection limit with Windows 7 is the main dividing line. If you have a network of more than 10 computers, I recommend using at least one copy of Windows Server.


If you are running either of the Windows 7 Home editions, your computer will be limited to a maximum of 5 user connections. All other versions support a maximum of 10.

You can certainly use Server with smaller networks, too. Reasons for doing so include these:

  • You want to connect your LAN through a WAN or through the Internet to another LAN at another location; that is, you want to join your network to a Server domain somewhere else. This is often the case in a business’s branch office.

  • You want to support multiple simultaneous remote dial-in or virtual private network (VPN) users. (Of course, you can buy inexpensive VPN routers or software to handle this.)

  • You want to exercise strict security controls, restrict your users’ ability to change system settings, or use automatic application installation.


    When I talk about Windows Server here, I mean the business Server versions. There is a product called Windows Home Server, but it’s meant just to back up files across the network, and it too has a limit of 10 connections.

  • You want to take advantage of advanced networking services such as Group Policy, DHCP, DNS, WINS, and so on.

If you decide you need or want Windows Server, you should get a book dedicated to that OS and a big box of Alka-Seltzer before you go any further.

When to Hire a Professional

You’ve probably heard this old adage: “If you want something done right, do it yourself!” It is true, to a point. Sometimes, though, the benefit of hiring someone else outweighs the pleasure of doing it yourself.

For a home network, you should definitely try to set it up yourself. Call it a learning experience, get friends to help, and, if you run into problems, treat yourself to a truly humbling experience and watch a high-school-aged neighbor get it all working in 15 minutes. As long as you don’t have to run wires through the wall or construct your own cables, you should be able to manage this job even with no prior networking experience. When something is called “Plug and Play” now, it really is.

However, the balance tips the other way for a business. If you depend on your computers to get your work done, getting them set up should be your first concern, but keeping them working should be your second, third, and fourth. If you have solid experience in network installation, installing a Windows 7 network will be a snap. But your business is hanging in the balance, and you should consider the cost of computer failure when you’re deciding whether it’s worth spending money on setup and installation. Hiring a good consultant and/or contractor will give you the following:

  • An established relationship. If something goes wrong, you’ll already know whom to call, and that person will already know the details of your system.

  • A professional installation job.

  • The benefit of full-time experience in network and system design without needing to pay a full-time salary.

  • Time to spend doing something more productive than installing a network.

If you do want to hire someone, it’s important to choose your consultant or contractor very carefully. Here are some tips:

  • Ask friends and business associates for referrals before you go to Craigslist or the Yellow Pages.

  • Ask a consultant or contractor for references, and check them out.

  • Find out what the contractor’s guaranteed response time is, if problems or failures occur in the future.

  • Be sure that documentation is one of the contractor’s “deliverables.” You should get written documentation describing your system’s installation, setup, and configuration, as well as written procedures for routine maintenance, such as making backups, adding users, and so on.

Even if you do hire someone else to build your network, you should stay involved in the process and understand the choices and decisions that are made.

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