Articles: Putting the
The concept of a home network has grown substantially in the last five years. In its infancy, most home networking was just the use of a router to share a single broadband connection with multiple computers. Now users are sharing printers, networking attached storage (NAS), and streaming large media files through their homes. The services that many people expect from their home network would have challenged a top IT manager ten years back. Now all you have to do is open up one box... well, as long as the box has an apple on it.
When selecting a home network, the first inclination is often simplicity. The attraction of a wireless network, with its few cables and single piece of hardware, can seem like the simplest of solutions. Simplicity is good in most cases, but it should only be the first factor in home networking: not the only factor. Some large broadband internet providers will offer a single modem that includes a wireless router. It's a simple solution but it lacks the next considerations for designing a home network: security and functionality.
The difficulty with wireless networks is securing them. Out of the box, wireless routers are unprotected. Anyone in range of your base station can use your internet connection or monitor what you're doing online. You'll want to use a password on your network, and not all the options available are good options. WEP passwords are not a great protection for your network, particularly if you are a Mac user. Passwords used in WEP-protected networks will need to be converted to their hexadecimal equivalent to work on your Mac, unless you have a Mac-supported wireless router. Add that complication to the widespread availability of WEP password cracking tools, and it quickly becomes apparent that WEP is not the best solution.
The security password you want to protect your network with is WPA Personal. Both versions 1 or 2 will work well. WPA is an option on almost all newer wireless routers, and it's supported by all modern Macs. The difficulty comes when you have to track down the places to make the necessary changes that will let you protect your network. This is where the complication sets in. There was never a naming convention established for the settings on wireless routers, and most router programming is done from within a web browser's connection to the hardware. Using a browser makes it difficult to access a help file to explain your options. Most times people give up and don't change the settings at all.
Very few security settings are needed in an all-ethernet home network. Most ethernet routers will be ready to use without any programming at all. Aside from the pain of running ethernet cable all over your house, a wired network is the simplest network to setup. The wires are inconvenient, especially for laptops, but the equipment is as close to zero-configuration as you can get. Wired networks are simple, they just lack features. You have to be in reach of a cable and be connected to it all the time. In most cases with wired routers, only expensive network printers can be used across the network, or a standard printer will have to be shared by a computer acting as a print server. File sharing will also require a designated computer to act as a file server.
So what is the best solution and how do you balance simple with feature-rich? That's where the AirPort Extreme Base Station 802.11n fits in perfectly, as a foundation to the home network. The reason it's only a foundation, and not the final solution, is that network needs vary per household. The Extreme Base Station will accommodate the extra add-on features that some users will need, but still provide the essentials of a robust home network by itself. For example, to add AirTunes to your home network, you will need to have an Airport Express connected to the Airport Extreme Base Station 802.11n. The two devices will connect seamlessly but it is an optional add-on by design.
The Extreme Base Station 802.11n has three primary features that make it the perfect center of a home network. First, it's an ethernet router with four ports. One is intended for broadband connections to a DSL/Cable modem and the other three are for client computers and ethernet devices. Ethernet is simple, reliable, and secure. Unlike the previous model Base Station and other similar products, this unit allows three computers to be connected via ethernet without an additional hub or switch. Ethernet seems "old-fashioned," but it is consistently faster than wireless communications and the connection is far more stable. Wireless signals can suffer interference from many sources. A cell phone, 2.4 GHz cordless phone, and even a microwave oven can cause interference. When you have important data you would not want interrupted, ethernet is the best.
In a home network, it is efficient to have one computer that hosts a master iTunes library, for redundancy and continuous availability. Most versions of iTunes support library sharing and that works for video as well as music. This iTunes server should probably be a desktop computer because of the larger hard drive sizes available in desktop Macs. It needs to be hard-wired via ethernet for the most stable performance. This is because wireless network interference is localized and rarely affects all areas of your house. The disruption may only occur in one corner of your home but be undetectable everywhere else. So if both the iTunes client computer and the iTunes server computer are wireless, than you have twice the chance of suffering some localized interference. Wireless interference will not always equate to a dropped connection, often is shows up as just a slower connection as it tries to work through the network problems. Ethernet will be consistently fast regardless of environmental changes.
The second compelling feature of the Extreme Base Station 802.11n is that it comes with a new Airport Admin Utility. This application makes the setup and maintenance of your home network much easier than before. Also, the complicated process of configuring a home network is made even simpler by the explanations from the Help menu in Airport Admin Utility. If you don't know what info you're being asked to provide, check the AirPort Utility Help. When you're curious about a setting, don't ignore it; use AirPort Utility Help to find out if you need it. Unlike many other "Helps," this one works.
The third feature is by far the most innovative. Within the Airport Extreme Base Station 802.11n is a truly dynamic USB port. Although other models allow USB printer support, this Base Station can support many printers with the use of a USB hub. These can be your regular USB printers, not just the expensive ethernet models that sell for $499 and up. Many people think they don't need more than one printer at home, but having two printers can help save money on printing supplies. Laser printers are much cheaper per page than inkjet models, but the best photo printers are ink based. Having a mix of a monochrome laser printer for basic prints and a good color photo printer for photos can significantly extend your printing dollar. With this setup you can save the color for the prints that really need it.
The USB functionality doesn't stop with printers. Attach a USB hard drive to the Airport Extreme Base Station 802.11n and you have a network file server. You are able to set up different accounts and privileges for each user on the network. The drive acts much like a Mac OS X "Users" folder with a single shared folder and Home folder for each user. The access controls are simple but would not work well for a full business solution, which require many levels of access. It is, however, the perfect way to share files with your family. Network file storage is particularly useful if you use wireless connections. Even if the computer does not leave the house, when a wireless Mac changes to Sleep Mode it will drop off the network, putting files shared on its drive out of reach of others on the network. A network drive is always online and independent of any one computer. Also, a networked hard drive is a good location to back up important files to, as long as you also back up essential files elsewhere. Copies of your backups should be kept outside your home, in case of a fire. Just like with printers, you can add a USB 2.0 hub to the Airport Extreme Base Station 802.11n and share multiple drives. It is also possible to share multiple drives and multiple printers.
Early on, people reported USB issues with the Airport Extreme Base Station 802.11n, but those have been fixed in the most recent firmware updates. Some of the problems were just minor network glitches, but the USB printer connection was unstable. Everything would be fixed by simply restarting the base station, but that's not a suitable long-term fix. The firmware has been patched for a few months now and the Airport Extreme Base Station 802.11n works flawlessly. My Base Station has not needed a restart since the update, and early problems are no longer being experienced. It's stable and solid, just as you would expect a network device to be.
I am often asked to recommend a wireless router, ethernet switch, print server, or NAS device. I used to have a separate recommendation for each category. However, now I recommend the Airport Extreme Base Station 802.11n in each case. For Mac users the choice is simple, because choosing not to buy the Airport Extreme Base Station 802.11n would be choosing to complicate your network setup and have fewer features. The cost of the Apple solution can seem steep for something that sits on a desk and does nothing visibly, but the hidden work it performs will impress you.
You'll get more than a router: you'll have a whole home network.