The Home Network

15th July 2001

Finally, my home network is working. And it's almost complete. The only thing left to do is to get some of the CAT5 inside the walls inside of lying around the floor. But all the functionality is up and running.

I've been struggling to do this for over a year. My biggest hurdle was getting past RedHat 6.2 on my hardware. Contrary to the beliefs of a few old networking women, just because RedHat works fine on one piece of hardware, it doesn't automatically mean that RedHat will work successfully on every piece of hardware. I'm sure that RedHat works fine in lots of places, but it didn't work for me on my hardware. I had major problems with PPP with RedHat too. PPP worked fine under RedHat 6.1, and stopped working with RedHat 6.2. I even tried installing RedHat 7.1, and that left me with formatted disks and an error to say it couldn't continue. On three different bits of hardware. Something screwy was happening and I got really frustrated.

A friend had told me about Smoothwall and had praised it highly. Smoothwall is a chopped down, hardened version of Linux that installs super-easily and becomes a dial-up router/firewall. I downloaded it, and burned the ISO images to cdrom and tried it out. Smoothwall installed beautifully on an old 486. I had no problems with the installation and I could configure it through my browser and it looked great. I could make it dial up and connect, I could check the logs, the DHCP server part worked great. Everything worked. Unfortunately I couldn't use it any further. The problem was with my networking and my other boxes. I couldn't make them pass traffic through to the box with Smoothwall on it. Something was seriously wrong with my hardware and my networking and my configuration and I couldn't work out how to fix the whole mess.

After all the failures, I decided to get the damned network working, one way or another. This meant some major revisions to a lot of things.

First of all, I standardised on 3Com 3c905b-tx network cards on all the machines. It was easier to have one standard card everywhere. I got the latest drivers for Windows, and stuck with the basic Linux drivers. That simplified things greatly. I bought one card at Computer Renaissance, 3 cards at a computer fair, and 3 more cards on eBay. Average cost - $15. That gave me enough cards to work with.

Then I dropped RedHat and went back to Slackware. I started with Slackware in 1994, and returned to it in 2000, and the experience was calming and refreshing and very pleasant. I love Slackware. No fancy GUI stuff, just a simple, open installation process. First things first, PPP worked straight off. Then networking worked fine. I could connect to all the computers and things started looking good.

Time for some hardware acquisitions. The old 8 port 10 Mbps hub wasn't really cutting it, so I bought an 8 port Linksys switch. That was amazing. My 10/100 network cards sprang to life and zoomed into 100 Mbps. Big 1 gig file transfers of tarred mp3s that used to take three quarters of an hour, dropped down to a few minutes. I was impressed.

Then finally, we got a network connection between upstairs and downstairs. Getting that bloody cable through took hours and hours, and I owe a big round of thanks to Joe for his perseverance. I had a few hiccups connecting upstairs and downstairs. I had bought a roll of CAT5 cable, a bunch of connectors and my own crimper, and I was making my own cables. Initially, some of them were faulty. I cut the ends off, re-crimped them and all was well. Once the upstairs/downstairs connection was made, I needed a better hub upstairs, so I bought another Linksys 8 port switch. That gave me all upstairs and downstairs networked.

I have a second-hand Toshiba laptop. I bought a Linksys PCMCIA card for it. You might discover a trend here, with the name Linksys. Good quality products, simple to install, Linux friendly, nice colours. I stuck to Linksys for most of the hardware. The PCMCIA card fitted in easily, and I eventually learned how to get PCMCIA working on the laptop. That laptop was fun. Once I discovered that all the special DOS utilities for it had been duplicated for Linux, I erased Windows from it, and installed Slackware Linux. It works pretty well. I can only do X-Windows with 8 bpp and get 800x640 size, but that's good enough. It works well. There's even hope that the Winmodem can be driven under Linux. I'll keep experimenting.

So that gave me all the computers in the house networked, except for Anne's Pentium. Anne's machine proved more problematical than any other network component. Several people tried to get her computer on the network but it just wouldn't go. I left it in a non-networked state temporarily.

Now it was time to really get into it and get cable Internet. I ordered cable. The price was cheap, so I bought the cable modem too. They only support Windows, so they wanted a Windows computer to connect to. It just so happened that there was a cable outlet right beside Anne's computer, and she was running Windows. I booked us in for installation, and bought a Linksys cable router. The cable guy came out, plugged the cable modem into Anne's computer and got it working. He left, and I disconnected Anne and plugged it into the cable router and, amazing, all the computers were Internet enabled. Except Anne.

I struggled for a week with Anne's computer. It wasn't Windows, as my computer in dual boot Windows worked fine. I think the hardware had become flakey as well as the Windows installation. I tried to reinstall Windows, and the hardware really proved flakey and I couldn't. As it was Anne's birthday, she got a brand new computer. Compaq Presario, 750 Mhz, 30 gig drive, 320 meg RAM. Windows started up fine, connected to the network and everything was open. Her machine even recognised the print server and I set that up as well.

All the servers got static IP addresses. They are the ones I want to telnet to and get files from and send files to, so DHCP wasn't right for them. The print server got a static IP address too. The rest use DHCP, with the cable router serving as a DHCP server.

Internally, the network runs at 100 Mbps, except to the print server. Cable modem speed is not as fast as I expected, but it's still amazingly faster than a 56K diallup connection. For us, the advantage is being online all the time, and being able to be connected simultaneously. The extra speed is a bonus.

Here's the current state of the network. I've replaced the hand-drawn version with a nice diagram prepared with Dia, a Linux diagramming tool. Dia is an exceptionally useful tool. It's pretty good now, but it will soon grow into a wonderful tool.

[Diagram of the network]