- By Jeff Field -
Broadband is on the way to becoming the standard for Internet access.
It is also more and more common for people to have home networks, with
several computers in the same house. Increasingly, people are
looking for ways to connect these computers, and to connect the
computers to the Internet.
Belkin four-port gateway/router
Linux is a very powerful OS, with a number of capabilities -- one of
which is the ability to be used as a firewall/proxy on an older system, such as
a 486, through projects such as the Linux Router Project. However, for some people, the LRP might not be a valid option, because they don't have the hardware available, or for some other reason. For people who want a quick solution for routing many PCs through one internet connection (in this case DSL or cable), there are many out-of-the-box commercial options available. One such option is the Belkin F5D5230-4 four-port cable/DSL router.
The router has four ports for data connections, and one port for a WAN connection, such as a cable modem or DSL connection. For testing, I used a 3Com cable modem connected to the Comcast@Home service. Physical setup was easy, connecting my PCs to the LAN ports and the cable modem to the WAN port. As an added bonus, the router functions as a 10/100 switch, allowing for faster and error-free communications between the PCs, as well as between the PCs and the WAN device.
Configuration of the device is surprisingly simple. It starts with client-side configuration. You simply set your machine to use DHCP to get its network address. Once you do this, the PC should have an IP address in the 192.168.2.xxx range assigned to it. You then connect to http://192.168.2.1 in a Web browser of your choice, and configure the router as needed for your particular setup, such as whether its IP address is static or dynamic, and how it should connect. This is also where you determine what settings it should use for a firewall, and specify settings such as a DMZ host, which is excluded from the protection of the firewall, if you so desire. One nice feature is the ability to clone the MAC address of the first PC connected to the router, if needed, so that if you have an ISP that assigns addresses by MAC address, the router will have no trouble connecting. In my case, this was not necessary, but is a nice option to have.
Once the router is configured, it operates almost transparently. Only a few applications, such as certain streaming video applications, have a problem operating through the router, and most of those problems can be solved by letting that application detect how it should access the Internet. Otherwise, the operation of the router is transparent.
Documentation included with the router takes the user through the complete process of installing and configuring it. The documentation is well written, although portions of it are very specific to Windows, and, even worse, Belkin's custom configuration software. However, a user with basic Linux networking knowledge should have no trouble figuring out what to do.
Belkin network switches
Some people may find that the four ports provided on the Belkin router are not enough for their home network. I was in just such a position, having six computers and only four ports. In such cases, it is necessary to have a hub or switch to add more available network ports. Belkin has a solution that matches quite nicely with its router, its line of five- and eight-port 10/100 network switches (Models F5D5130-8 and -5). These switches, like the gateway, connect five or eight computers together on a 10- or 100-megabit network. To save space, they have the ability to "dock" together with other Belkin networking products, such as another hub, or the router. The installation and operation of the switches is very simple. Once you have connected the hub to a data port on the router, you are ready to go, doubling your network. No software installation is required, the addition is transparent.
When setting up a home network linked to the Internet via a broadband connection, something like the Belkin router is a good option, especially considering the exorbitant amount of money some providers charge for extra IP addresses. For instance, Comcast@Home charges me $7 for each additional address. I had five computers on Comcast's network, so I was paying $28 per month to have those machines. The cost of the router is roughly $130, so in roughly five months, the router will have paid for itself, and after that it will be saving money. The router may be purchased at a variety of online stores for around $130, including at Belkin's Web site. Also available are the five- and eight-port switches, available for about $77 and $97, respectively.