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LAN & WAN Basics

Wired or Wireless?

No discussion of home networking would be complete without a brief discussion of wired and wireless solutions. While wireless solutions offer perhaps the most convenient solution for many home computer users, they may not present the best solution.

"Wireless" is the current buzzword these days, and it seems every hardware product vendor is touting his or her particular ability to provide it. The word "wireless" evokes visions of being able to wander around various rooms in your home or even outside without the network line that tethers home users to a single place. However, depending on the version of wireless you select and/ or are able to afford, your results might not measure up to "manna" grade, or even a mediocre grade, over time. The physical construction, design and layout of your house can affect whether or not wireless is a good solution, and you may have to invest in multiple access points (in infrastructure mode) linked together via Ethernet to provide coverage for wireless access to the various locations within your house.

If wireless coverage isn't an issue, a more important factor might be connection speed. From our testing, many 802.11a 54-Mbit solutions certainly don't have the amount of signal penetration that is required for wireless access in many multi-story homes and office environments. For example, if you have computer systems in the kids' room on the second floor and your family room is located on the first floor some distance away, you may or may not be able to achieve a connection from both places, depending where the access point is located, and other factors such as walls, furniture and other obstructions. While some second-generation 802.11a products do address these issues, wireless may not be practical in many home situations where you have multiple floors and require multiple access points.

The new 802.11g products do appear to be the solution for the future of wireless, and their performance is better than that of the traditional 802.11b products. But the biggest snag is that the 802.11g products are currently expensive and the standard for 802.11g is not fully evolved as of this writing. However, if you want support for the widest range of current wireless standards, the 802.11g products offers expensive, yet promising solutions.

If you cast aside the potential issues with the variations of wireless and just compare the line speed, 54 Mbit (which is offered by the best wireless) cannot hold a candle to the 100-Mbit speed offered by Ethernet. If you compare this to the more widely available 11-Mbit 802.11b products, 11 Mbit many not even seem practical in terms of performance.

Perhaps most importantly, with any wireless solution you have an ever-present data security concern. Data security is a fact of life with wireless, and while much has been done to address this issue, any time you put your data over an access point "into the air," it is potentially subject to being intercepted by someone unauthorized to receive it. Clearly, wireless offers the advantage of easier installation and eliminates the need for cables, but it does have its downfalls.

Wired for Speed

What about wired networking? Prices have come way down for wired products, and 10/100-switched networks are now more affordable than ever. Although Gigabit Ethernet is making an impact, at least for the moment most of its use is limited to enterprise and server applications, due to the fact that Gigabit Ethernet switching is expensive. While Gigabit Ethernet NICs continue to plunge in price, the price of switches continues to be the voice of reason when considering Gigabit Ethernet for any environment.

Linksys EG0801SK

Linksys EG0801SK

Depending on the number of computers, the "price per port" cost of a switched 10/100 Ethernet installation can be very affordable and, in most cases, far cheaper than wireless. The overall bandwidth of a 100-Mbit switched installation is far greater than that of any of the current wireless products. Although you lose the flexibility that wireless offers, often times you already have a connection integrated in most notebooks, so it is not that difficult to get mobile.

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