GPSOLO June 2008
Networking a small office has never been so easy. But first, forget everything you have heard or thought you knew. Start by asking yourself why you want a network. Most likely, you have two principle reasons: (1) access to the Internet and all the resources (such as e-mail) it provides and (2) the ability to share resources, such as printers, scanners, and document storage in your office. Although the latter uses once required client-server technology and a consultant to set up, advances in equipment and networking technology have made such complexities unnecessary in a small office.
First, the Internet. If all you have is dial-up, change that. Now. You must have high-speed Internet access, via cable, DSL, or even (if you are in a remote area like me) satellite. Without high-speed Internet (sometimes called “Broadband”), you have the currency of a dinosaur. Whatever high-speed option you choose, you will get some central box (a cable modem or DSL modem most likely) that will provide at least one networking connection, more likely four or five such connections. You connect a computer using a network cable (CAT 5 or CAT 6). If you are fortunate, the central box will also provide a wireless access port (WAP) to allow wireless connectivity. If not, you’ll want to buy a wireless access port and connect it with a CAT 5 or CAT 6 cable to the modem. Note that wherever you place the modem, that will likely be the easiest place to have your shared resources (printer, scanner, shared hard drive) if you don’t want to run cables. Also, if you don’t have enough network connections on your modem for these devices (or for your modem in combination with your wireless access port if you’ve had to add one), you’ll need to add a network hub. Read the manual to see how to connect it—most likely it will have a socket on the back for a CAT 5 cable that is identified as a daisy-chain, through which you can connect to the modem or wireless access hub.
Setting up the wireless access point will differ among manufacturers, but you should have no difficulty following the instructions. A few points: You will want to set up “wired equivalent privacy” (WEP), which secures your network so that only authorized persons can use it. Make certain to write down the wireless access code you use (it will be long and complex) and save it in a safe place where you can find it later. Also, give your network a nice, easily identifiable name. It’s part of your security setup, so a simple, recognizable name is best.
Why should you go wireless? Because it is the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to get your network up and running. No cables to run. If your computer is a desktop model and doesn’t have wireless capability built in, you’ll need to get a wireless adapter. The easiest way is to use a USB wireless adapter—you don’t even have to open your computer up to use it. Follow the instructions for installation, and at some point your network name should appear as available for hookup. When you try to connect, it will tell you it is password protected and ask for your wireless access code (which may be called by some other name, but you should be able to figure this out); enter your code, and you should be off and running.
Shared devices—such as your printer and/or scanner—should be networkable, by which I mean they should have a socket to accept a CAT 5 cable. If they do not currently have that feature, perhaps you should consider buying replacement devices. Really. (If you are running Windows, you could attach them to one computer and share them over the network, but that generally requires more work and does not always work with scanners.) If your devices do have a socket for a CAT 5 cable, just connect them to an available outlet on your modem or wireless access point or hub and follow the directions for loading drivers onto your individual computers that will use these devices. It should take only moments to set up.
To facilitate file sharing and backup, you also should create a shared resource for document storage. Unfortunately, this is a bit more difficult than sharing printers. You will need to set up a workgroup (if you are using Windows) so your computers can talk to one another locally (i.e., not over the Internet). The process is slightly simpler using the Mac operating system.
For the shared storage, I suggest a USB-connected external hard drive. If something goes wrong with the computer to which it is normally connected, it is easy to shift it over to another machine on the network. Once you have correctly set up your shared hard drive, you can access it from all of your networked computers in the workgroup. This is the location where all users should save files for backup, for file sharing, or that belong to your document management system or practice management software application. Be sure that you regularly back up the files stored at this location.
Daniel S. Coolidge is a recovering large-firm lawyer, now a patent attorney with Coolidge & Graves, PLLC, in Keene, New Hampshire. He may be reached at email@example.com.