The next time you talk to your postman, ask him about his network. If he’s installed one in his home, chances are good that he now considers himself an expert. The truth of the matter is that there’s a good deal more to correctly implementing a network that installing some network cards and running some cable. Indeed it might work, but that doesn’t mean that it’s done right. An understanding of fundamental concepts is just as important as crimping your cables correctly.
Two main types of networks exist. The first is a traditional client/server network, and the second is referred to as a peer-to-peer network or workgroup. A client/server network is one in which computers have clearly defined roles. For example, a PC running Windows XP would generally be considered a client, and would request resources or services from a server. In the purest sense, a client doesn’t provide any server-type functions. This is usually the case on business networks.
Conversely, a server does what its name suggests – it “serves” resources to network clients. On most business networks, the server function is carried out by a network operating system (NOS) like Windows 2000 Server, or Novell NetWare. In this type of environment, nobody really sits in front of a server to do work. Instead, the server provides network access to data, applications, printers, and the like in the background. On bigger networks, the server may also be responsible for providing user authentication – using a central database to ensure that users provided the correct username and password to access the network and use network resources. For example, you may be familiar with the term “domain”. A domain is simply a network that includes at least one Windows 2000 Server configured to handle user authentication. Although some users choose to configure their home network as a domain, the vast majority do not.
In the world of home networks, the line between a client and a server is slightly more blurred. Even though they are usually considered clients, PCs running operating systems like Windows 98 or XP are also capable of sharing files, printers, and Internet connections with other machines – traditional server functions. While they may not be capable of handling the huge server workloads that one might find in a corporate environment, they tend to be able to handle all of the basic required functions on a home network, and are typically much less expensive. The base version of Windows 2000 Server costs many times what you would pay for Windows XP, for example.
A peer-to-peer or workgroup network is much closer to what a home network usually is. In this model, the network generally does not include a dedicated server system like Windows 2000 Server. Instead, it is made up different client machines that share resources with each other as necessary – in effect, every PC is both a client and a server at any point in time. When you configure a PC to be part of a Windows workgroup, what you are really doing is telling the system that no centralized security system exists, and that you want this PC to be part of the same logical group as the rest of your PCs for sharing functions.