Once you've identified your needs, it's time to take that next step: actually setting up your network. In this tutorial we'll start with a basic network: two laptops, connected by Ethernet cable to a single router.
A router will likely be the centrepiece of your networking plan. It'll help share the internet across many devices, and allocate IPs to your network. A typical network might look something like this:
A modem hooks into either the phone line or your cable provider's connection, which is then plugged into the WAN port of your router, sharing the internet among many devices. (Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)
It's rare these days to find a modem separate from a router — most are sold as modem/router combined units. So the layout would look more like the diagram below, with the modem integrated into the router, the Ethernet cable eliminated between the modem and router, and the phone line leaving the router directly.
A more common set-up seen today. (Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)
So why illustrate a potentially obsolete set-up? Apart from the fact that there are many people still with modems who don't have a router, it's to help illustrate the concept of the Wide Area Network (WAN) port.
So many networks in the area
While there are a number of network types out there, there are three major ones the consumer needs to be aware of.
LAN: Local Area Network. A small network, often privately run. Unless you've specifically set up something to bridge two networks, this should be a distinct entity that only clients directly connected to it can see. The network in your home is a LAN.
WAN: Wide Area Network. Covers a larger area than a LAN. Often a conglomeration of LANs — this might be a global corporation's intranet connected by Virtual Private Network (VPN) over the internet, or one could even simply be the internet itself.
WWAN: Wireless Wide Area Network. Look ma, no cables! In Australia, this is almost used exclusively to describe the network through which you get mobile broadband — that is, 3G internet connections.
The WAN port (sometimes labelled as "internet") is a dedicated network port found on routers, which is used to help connect one network to another.
It's invaluable for those who only have a modem, and want to share the internet across multiple devices. By plugging an Ethernet cable from the modem into the WAN port on a router, you're essentially connecting two networks: yours to the internet. As a by-product, anything else plugged into that router also has access to the internet. This is how you can get many devices online using only the one internet connection.
A WAN port can also be used to daisy chain routers together if you find you've run out of network ports, or to segment your network; but that's for another tutorial.
Baby steps, baby steps
The first step is to get everything plugged up. For the router, you'll need to plug it into the wall and turn on the switch.
If none of the lights in your router turn on at this point, there's a chance the router has its own power switch, and you'll need to hit that as well. Not every router comes with such a switch, but it can be useful if it does.
Depending on the router you've bought, you could have anywhere between one and five ports. To hook your laptops in, connect an Ethernet cable between it and any of the ports on the router, so long as they're not marked "WAN" or "internet".
If you've made a successful connection, there's a good chance you'll start seeing some lights. Most devices, routers or switches will have lights either integrated with the port or somewhere on the front of the device to illustrate that a connection has been made, and at what speed that connection is. These are often called link status lights, or simply status lights. One of these lights will often blink, to indicate that data is being sent or received. You'll need to refer to your manual to determine what lights mean what, as it changes from device to device.
The front of a Netgear switch. The red cable is running at gigabit speeds, indicated by the two green lights. One of the grey cables is running at 100Mbit, as shown by the single green light, while the others have no active link (meaning either the device they are plugged into is turned off, the cable is damaged or something else has gone wrong), as shown by the absence of lights. (Credit: CBS Interactive)
An Ethernet cable (the grey one) plugged into a port at the back of a desktop PC. In this case, the status lights aren't very helpful beyond letting us know that the PC is able to talk to whatever it's plugged into. (Credit: CBS Interactive)
Once you have a link, congratulations, you've physically set up your network! The same process can be used for game consoles, media streamers or anything with an Ethernet port. Now comes the potentially hard bit — configuration.
"But I want wireless!" you say. Well, that requires us to set everything else up first.
Most routers have something called a web interface — that is, a configuration page that you can access using your web browser.
Just like every other device on your network, your router has an IP. Finding out this IP can be done in various ways, but the most common way would be to use a finder tool, often supplied by your vendor (Billion, D-Link, Linksys, Netgear, etc) with the device.
If you don't have a tool, there's potentially another way you can find it.
Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP)
Routers can work in one of two ways — using static IPs or dynamically allocated ones. The former requires that the IP, subnet and DNS details be manually entered on every client in order for them to connect properly with the router — we'll come back to this later. The latter, however, waits for clients to connect, then tells them what IP they're allowed to have and automatically sends the other details. In the vast majority of cases this is the preferred method, and is done by something called Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, or DHCP.
Most routers will come with a DHCP server enabled by default, and Windows is also set to connect to these DHCP servers by default. In a large majority of cases, simply plugging in the cables and waiting will do a lot of the network configuration for you.
If this is the case, you can find the address of your router pretty easily without having to use vendor tools. There are two ways to do this: the GUI way, and the command line way. The command line way is the faster of the two, but those not comfortable with the command line will prefer the GUI way.