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Choosing a Network that's Right for You
By Joseph Cheek

Computers open up a world of information and communication. A single computer can assist with managing finances, advertising a business, providing hours of entertainment, and interacting with people around the world with unprecedented ease. When these tasks are taken to a larger scale, however, a single computer cannot provide all the necessary resources. Computer networks provide ways for otherwise separate computers to talk to each other, so that all the computers can work together on the tasks given them.

An example of a benefit of networks is printing. An office with three computers has two choices if every employee with a computer needs to print documents. First, printers can be purchased for every computer. Buying many printers can be expensive, and chances are that the printers will sit unused most of the time. Second, printers can be purchased for only one or two computers, and the employees that aren't lucky enough to get a printer on their desk must borrow one of the other computers to print. This means they get to save their work on a floppy disk, walk to the other computer, hope no one is using it, load up their document on this computer, and finally print. What a waste of time and productivity!

Enter computer networks. One printer can be purchased, and placed in a central location. Each employee can use that single printer as though they each had their own printer! The savings gained with increased productivity and fewer printers to purchase will pay for a small network immediately. Networks provide other services also, such as file sharing, centralized faxing, intra-office email and time scheduling, direct Internet access, centralized PC management, file security, and more.

This article will discuss available network solutions from different vendors. Ease of use, price, and functionality will all be discussed here for three major network operating systems: IntranetWare from Novell, Windows 95 and Windows NT from Microsoft, and UNIX, available from various vendors. Keep in mind that no decision has to be absolute; networks can include all three operating systems, as well as parts from many other vendors.

Novell's IntranetWare

Novell has the lion's share of the PC networking market; Novell has sold more copies of its product than any other vendor has. IntranetWare, the latest offering, is server-based; this means that it runs on its own machine, which is used exclusively to provide network services. The good news is that this allows a high degree of security and stability; the bad news is that it requires an extra PC; placing five computers on an IntranetWare network requires six PC's.

Novell's systems have several benefits. Their security is the best in its class. Many third party programs integrate well with IntranetWare because of the market share it controls. A single high-end server PC can accommodate thousands of users. System-wide management tools are available, making it easy to manage both the network itself and the PC's on the network. Its messaging package has been consistently rated best of class for years. With all of these added features, it still handles the basics extremely well.

Novell's systems have a downside, and that is the cash required up front. While Novell has recently introduced a less expensive small business version, costs are still higher than that of some other systems. Compared to a car, I see Novell as a Cadillac.

Microsoft's Windows 95 and NT

Microsoft really has two different types of network offerings: peer-to-peer with Windows 95, and server-based with Windows NT. A peer-to-peer network is simply a network without a dedicated server; all computers on the network are responsible for requesting and providing their own services. This has both advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages of a Windows 95 network is ease of installation and low cost. If your PC's are already running Windows 95, there is no extra software to load! The only purchases necessary are the actual hardware that plugs in to the computer. Because there is no server, the functionality is limited. Files and printers can be shared, but with very little security. Email and some fax sharing is available, but to a smaller degree than with other solutions.

Windows NT (New Technology) is Microsoft's high-end network operating system. This is server-based, like Novell's IntranetWare. Since the server is running a version of Windows it can be used for applications, although I strongly recommend against it. Simple day-to-day administration is easy; Microsoft provides software 'wizards' for automating simple tasks like setting up new user accounts. Security is not as strong as IntranetWare's, and a single Windows NT server cannot handle as heavy of a workload as IntranetWare can. Simple installations of Windows NT, however, are much less expensive than IntranetWare. Compared to a car, Windows 95 is a Volkswagen bug; Windows NT is a nice Toyota.

UNIX, available from various vendors

UNIX really isn't in the same class as IntranetWare and Windows NT; I include it here because it can do what Windows NT and IntranetWare do, although in different ways. Versions of UNIX are available for free (!), while some versions cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

UNIX has been around for decades, and as such has a LOT of support from thousands of different vendors. Standard services, such as file and printer sharing and email messaging, are included in basically all installations; beyond that, you can pick and choose what you want. If you want it, UNIX has it; sometimes it's cheap, and sometimes it isn't.

My favorite part of UNIX is its connectivity options; with all the diversity of the Internet, UNIX systems power most of them (by some counts, more than 81%). At my office, I use a UNIX-clone, Linux, to provide my Internet connections, administrate my IntranetWare server, share files and printers with my Windows 95 and NT computers, and provide internal and external email for all users. The basic version of this software cost me less than one hundred dollars; the latest upgrade with added functionality is less than four hundred right now. What a deal! Compared to a car, UNIX can be anything from a Ford Escort to a Lamborghini Countach.

Computer networks offer functionality that make them well worth the price and time investment. Only the basics have been covered here; more information can be easily obtained from anyone in the networking industry. Many different options exist, and most of the different systems offer most of the required services. When properly implemented, networks provide functionality and resources that far surpass those of stand-alone computers.


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Joseph Cheek is a network professional that has been involved with computers for 15 years. He has been published in national and international magazines, and currently spends his time working for his computer network consulting business, Cheek Consulting. He can be reached at or on the web at


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Updated 07/06/04

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