Networking Basics

The Basics of Networking

To form or build a network, a group of computers, printers, and other devices must be connected together with cables, and in some cases, other networking devices. Information travels over the cables and allows those users on the network to exchange documents and data with each other, as well as to print to the each others printers and generally share almost any hardware or software that is connected to the network. This does not mean however, that on a small network you can install a program on one PC and run it from another PC on the network unless that specific program has the built-in capability to do so. Each computer, printer, or other peripheral device that is connected to the network is called a node. Networks can have tens, thousands, or even millions of nodes.

Like most things involving computers, networks must be assembled according to certain rules. Cabling, as an example, must be a certain length as each cabling strand can only support a certain amount of network traffic. The rules that determine how a network is assembled is called its topology. The most popular topology in use today is called Ethernet, and consists of computers and peripherals cabled together in a specific way. Ethernet is relatively inexpensive, easy to set up and use, and if done correctly, can be very, very fast!

Ethernet networks are categorized by the speed in which data is moved across the network connections or cabling between the PC’s. The speed by which this data is moved across the network is referred to as “megabits per second” (or Mbps), where one “bit” is equal to one-eighth (1/8th) of a character, letter, or number. There are currently two Ethernet categories, Standard Ethernet, which operates at a fast 10Mbps, quick enough for most networking tasks, and Fast Ethernet, which, by contrast, enables data to move along at 100Mbps. Obviously, Fast Ethernet is the preferred choice for such applications as desktop video, streaming multimedia, network games and other fast paced applications.

The technology behind Fast Ethernet, first introduced in the beginning of 1995, is not readily compatible with standard Ethernet. Enabling these two forms of “Ethernet” cooperate and cohabitate with each other in the same network requires special equipment such as a switch hub as noted below, as well as some knowledge of Intranet/Internet networking. If you are building your first network, you will need to decide whether to go with standard or Fast Ethernet before you begin shopping around for network hardware and software. Unless you plan on using networked video, multimedia, gaming or heavy graphics software across the network, you may be able to get away with using standard Ethernet. You may also, however, want to compare the costs for both and then decide. While Fast Ethernet does cost more, the benefits, especially for the future, may outweigh the difference.

You will find more information regarding cabling, hubs and other issues here: A Review of Cabling and Hubs. (This will open in a new window!)

Since networking will introduce you to a whole new dictionary of unfamiliar words, terms and acronyms, you may want to visit this link provided by 3COM, as it has a pretty nifty “lookup” glossary of words, terms and acronyms relating to networking issues. Use the 3COM Glossary. This will open in a small window for your convenience!

Cabling, The Basics

The two most popular types of network cabling are twisted-pair (also known as 10BaseT) and thin coax (also known as 10Base2). 10BaseT cabling looks similar to ordinary telephone wire, except that it has 8 wires inside instead of 4, while thin coax looks like the copper coaxial cabling similar to, but not the same as, that often used to connect a VCR to a TV set or that provided by your cable company if you have cable service. It is important to stress here that the cabling looks the same, but it is different!

Which type of network cable is best for you?

Thin coax and 10BaseT can both be used independently throughout the network or in combination, depending on the type of network that you are assembling. Small networks, for example, may want to use 10BaseT cabling by itself, because it’s inexpensive, flexible, and ideal for going short distances. Larger networks (usually with 10 or more computers) may use a thin coax backbone with small clusters of 10BaseT cabling that branch off from it at regular intervals. You can learn more about cabling by reading A Review of Cabling and Hubs.

Network Adapters, what’s right for you?

Networked computers are connected to the network cabling by way of a network interface card, more commonly referred to as a NIC, (pronounced “nick”) or (Network Adapter). You will find our selection of Network Adapters in the Components Section of this site. NIC’s, or Network Cards, are installed inside of a computer and plugged directly into an available expansion slot on the computers motherboard (main board). Early computers, such as those of the 286, 386, and even many of the 486 vintage computers have 16-bit motherboard slots, therefore a 16-bit NIC is necessary. Some later 486’s and all current vintage Pentiums have 32-bit, or PCI slots. These computers require 32-bit NIC’s in order to achieve the fastest networking speeds possible for speed-critical applications like desktop video, multimedia, Intranet/Internet desktop publishing, gaming and high speed database access. If a computer is going to be used with a Fast Ethernet network, it will need a network adapter that supports 100Mbps data speeds.

If a computer has no extra motherboard expansion slots or happens to be a laptop, special network adapters are used, such as a PCMCIA adapter card similar to that shown in the example below. This type of adapter connects a laptop computer to a network if the laptop has a credit card-sized PCMCIA expansion slot, while a pocket adapter connects a regular computer to a network through its printer port.


There is one more piece to be added to this network puzzle, and that is a HUB. A hub is a device that is used to connect groups of computers together at one centralized location using 10BaseT cable. If you plan on assembling a small group of computers together into a network, you should be able to get by with a small hub such as the two examples shown below, some lengths of 10BaseT cable and a network adapter (NIC) for each computer. Larger networks often use a thin coax (10Base2) to form a “backbone” that connects a row of 10BaseT hubs together. Then each hub, in turn, would connect a groups of computers together using 10BaseT cable. This would allow you to build networks of tens, hundreds, or even thousands of computers (nodes).

As is the case with network cards, hubs are available in both standard (10Mbps) and Fast Ethernet (100Mbps) versions. On the left is an example of a small 3COM hub, and on the right, a small hub from Linksys.


If you are planning to assemble a small office or home office network, we have small networking kits available at our Components Section that just may just serve your purpose. If not, we will custom assemble a kit for you for a slightly higher cost, with custom cables and NIC’s to fit your need exactly. Need more information? Follow a link!

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