Installing a Home Network: Part 1by Jonathan Gennick
I recently moved from Lansing, Michigan--my state's capital--to the small town of Munising in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. To my astonishment, I learned that broadband Internet access was available from the local cable company. Broadband was something I had long wanted, but couldn't get, in Lansing. Finding it available in Munising, a small town of only 3000 or so people, was a pleasant surprise indeed.
Even before I moved, I set about ordering the service and making plans to connect my home office network to the Internet. In this series of three articles, I'd like to share my experience with you. Even though I work with computers on a daily basis, there is a lot that I didn't know when I started on this little adventure. I want to tell you about the problems, issues, and frustrations that I faced, and how I overcame them. I hope you find this helpful, and if not helpful, at least interesting.
Questions and Issues
In my professional life I work as an Oracle book editor for O'Reilly. I also have very recent experience as an Oracle DBA. I'm no stranger to computers, and I'm comfortable with technology. Getting this cable modem though, was a real test of my abilities. Suddenly I had to develop expertise in several new areas. As I thought ahead about how to make use of my impending broadband connection, the following issues came up:
The first issue, that of security, was of particular importance. I make my living writing and editing books and magazine articles. I have plenty to do, and lots of deadlines to meet. I can't risk downtime or lost work from someone hacking into my network. I also tunnel into O'Reilly's network. An intrusion into one of my computers can easily translate into an intrusion into O'Reilly's systems. I certainly don't want that on my conscience.
In the work-a-day world, when I worked as a DBA for example, I didn't have to deal with security issues myself. Instead, I worked closely with system administrators, LAN administrators, and other specialists. I relied on them for their expertise, and they relied on me for my Oracle expertise. Here at home, I was pretty much on my own. I had to become my own LAN administrator, and fast.
Placing the order for the cable modem service was quite easy. Charter Communications is my cable company. I called their Marquette office, scheduled an appointment for the first business day after we moved into our new house, the installers arrived on schedule, and by early afternoon I was connected. This is in stark contrast to all the horror stories I hear about telephone companies and DSL installations.
One glitch in the ordering process concerned the issue of a static IP address. When I asked about this, the person on the other end of the phone had no idea what I was talking about. After I explained it, she suggested that I call the sales rep who handles business accounts. I called him. He never returned my call. Too bad. He probably would have made a sale. Being very busy with the move, I decided to let this issue drop for the moment, and I went ahead and placed my order for the regular, consumer service.
One other thing I should mention about my order: The cable company wanted to schedule two appointments--one for an installer to physically install the cable modem, and another for a software installer who would install customized Internet software on my computers. That sent up a huge red flag, and I politely declined the software install. I'll stick with plain vanilla Internet software, thank you.
Cable Modem Installation
On the day of the install, three people showed up at my house. One person was a cable company employee. His job was to connect my cable TV service. The other two installers were cable company contractors, one of whom was a trainee. Their job was to install my cable modem. This was a very strange separation of duties, especially considering that the entire operation was really a one-man job. Had I allowed the software guy to come out, there would have been four people in my house.
Running the Wire
I can't say enough good things about the cable installers. They had to pull all the old cable out of my house, and replace it with new cable. This was apparently because the new wire is of a higher quality.
Since they were running new cable in from the telephone pole, I asked them to reroute the cable through my yard in order to avoid several nice pine trees. They cheerfully complied with this, even though it meant stringing a couple hundred extra feet of cable across two other poles in order to approach my house from the other side of my backyard.
The cable from the pole enters a gray box mounted to the side of my house. Inside this box is a three-way splitter. Two of the lines coming off that splitter are for TV sets--one downstairs and one upstairs. The third line is for the cable modem only. Both TV lines have filters that block signals in the 5-13 mhz range. The cable modem line has no filter because the 5-13 mhz bandwidth is used for the return communication path. The following photo shows the inside of the box:
Figure 1: Cable TV Box Left black cable: From pole Two round things: Filters Rectangular thing: Splitter Right black cables: Cables to house Green wire: Ground
The presence of those filters means that only one of the three lines entering my house can be used for the cable modem. I learned this the hard way when I went to move the cable modem from my basement to my dining room. I moved the cable modem, and it didn't work. Because the gray box is sealed, moving the cable modem involves a service call to the cable company to have someone come out and switch the filters around. Had I realized this from the get go, I would have given more thought to where the line entered the house to begin with.
Configuring the Modem
With all the cable in place, it was time to attach the cable modem to my computer and experience some broadband connectivity. I still didn't know how I was going to secure anything at this point, so I decided to make the family computer a sacrificial lamb. I disconnected the family computer from my home network and had the installers connect it to the cable modem.
You'll recall that one of my initial questions concerned the connection from the cable modem to the computer. It turns out that this is a standard 100Base-TX connection using an RJ-45 connector. My cable company even uses DHCP to assign IP addresses, so the TCP/IP configuration I use is no different from what most people use in an office setting. The modem itself, by the way, is a 3Com HomeConnect model.
Figure 2: 3Com HomeConnect Top cable: Power Middle cable: Ethernet out Bottom cable: Cable in
The installers were a bit confused about how all this worked though. They told me that DHCP wasn't used, even while they were checking the box for "Obtain an IP address automatically" on my TCP/IP properties screen. The installers were also fairly insistent about putting a second network interface card (NIC) into my computer. I let them do this, but later came to regret it. The computer in question runs Windows 98. It should have been able to handle two NIC cards, but in practice it became unstable and locked up several times a day. I finally removed the extra NIC card, uninstalled its drivers, and have had no further problems with instability or crashes.
One other glitch--a very minor one--came about because I declined to have a software installer come out to my house. The cable company didn't tell the other installers the passwords for the email accounts that I had requested. This was easily cleared up by placing a quick phone call to Charter's Network Operations Center in Marquette.
I was very impressed at the amount of time, manpower, and material that Charter invested into my $42.19 per month Internet connection. They had two people at my house for half a day. The third person didn't stay as long. I'm sure it'll be many months before they began to see payback on their investment.
The cable modem connection worked great. There was a latency that I noticed from time to time, but once a page began to load, it loaded fast. I wanted to get my other computers hooked up soon, but I still had a lot of work to do.
By now, I had found some time to research the issue of connecting several computers to one broadband connection. There are several ways to accomplish this:
This was a fairly easy decision for me. I went with the third solution and purchased a UGate-3200 Internet gateway and firewall from MaxGate. Why was this an easy decision? It was easy because I wanted a robust, easy-to-configure solution that was independent of any of my computers. I don't want my family's entire Internet connection to die because my daughter locks up Windows 98 while playing a game or because I decide to reboot my Linux server.
Now that I had made my decision, there was the question of how to physically connect my computers to the router. My office happens to be on the other side of the house from where the cable connection enters it. It's also in a finished part of the basement, which makes it a bit difficult to run new wire. I considered using a wireless solution for awhile. There are some reasonably priced home wireless networking kits available. Lucent for example, makes something called the Orinoco Residential Gateway that sells for about $330. But it didn't seem to be based on any standard, or at least Lucent didn't make that obvious. I looked at 802.11b wireless equipment, but that's much more expensive. I also could not find 802.11b cards for desktop computers.
In the end, I decided to run wire. I knew what was involved in doing that. I knew it would work, and it preserved my existing investment in NIC cards. I really didn't want to throw out all my existing NIC cards and replace them with more expensive wireless equivalents. I'm also very confident that CAT5 ethernet will be a viable option five years down the road and that I'll still be able to buy compatible equipment. I'm less confident about the new wireless technologies.
In my next installment tommorow, I'll show you how I wired my house. The task of running the physical wiring was the most frustrating and least fun part of this entire adventure. Home improvement tasks are never as easy as the various cable channel home improvement shows make them look.