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Peer-to-Peer Networks

Peer-to-Peer Networks - PCSTATS
Abstract: Despite the virtual, micro-sized nature of most computerized phenomena these days, certain physical realities still limit the fundamentals of computing.
Filed under: Beginners Guides Published:  Author: 
External Mfg. Website: none Sep 08 2002   S. Dennis  
Home > Reviews > Beginners Guides > none

Peering into the secrets of computer networking

Despite the virtual, micro-sized nature of most computerized phenomena these days, certain physical realities still limit the fundamentals of computing. One place where physical limitations come to the fore is in peer-to-peer networks, such as are most frequently found in small to medium-sized offices and in some homes. On the other hand, the limitations of peer-to-peer networks -- communities of up to 20 linked computers -- are far outweighed by the freedoms they provide.

What's the difference between peer-to-peer networks and other kinds? The main alternative to peer-based networks are server-based ones. Server-based networks consist of groups of PCs connected via a central computer (the server) that ordinarily performs such tasks as the backing-up of files, the installation of software, and other maintenance-oriented functions. The server usually has more than one hard drive, and if one of these fails, the system continues to function. However, if all the server's hard drives go on the blink, then each member of the network feels the effects. If you're working on a computer whose server crashes, you won't be able to access any files that are shared among that network, or use any printers or other peripherals that are connected to the network -- basically, you'll be out of luck.

By contrast, peer-based networks are immune to crashes that affect the whole office and can ruin an entire day. While PCs in peer-to-peer networks are able to share files and printers and other equipment, they do not rely on each other -- or any other central device -- to continue operating. If one crashes, the others continue humming along. So what are the limitations of peer-based systems, and what are their component parts?

The small size of these networks means that they must be contained within a relatively small radius of physical space. No member of the network can be located more than 500 metres away from the network's central joint, called the hub. Because peer-to-peer networks are not connected through a server, individual members must do a bit more work to keep their files safe and backed-up. And because communication among member PCs is not monitored by a server, machines can become bogged down with activity (for instance, when you're working on a certain file and someone else tries to access another file on your computer). This can cause both computers to slow down as they deal with a double load of functions simultaneously.

Establishing peer-to-peer networks is a fairly simple exercise. The first installation to be made involves a NIC (network interface card), which is a circuit that you slip into a particular slot (the peripheral component interconnect, to be exact) on your computer's motherboard. The NIC translates data exchanged between computers on the network. Upon installing the NIC, your computer acquires an IP (internet protocol) address that identifies your PC to the network. The actual job of connecting your machine to its counterparts on the network is effected by an ethernet cord. The ethernet cord attaches to your NIC and then travels to the hub, a central unit that routes signals among the network.

Peer-based systems can be set up in one of two ways. They can either be connected via a hub, or each computer on the network can be connected to another computer, in a kind of ring formation. The first type of structure is referred to as a star formation. It affords greater reliability, since the breakdown of one computer does not affect the operation of other network members. If the hub itself breaks down, however, the whole system is obviously affected. The alternative, a ring formation, is cheaper but riskier, in that the crash of one computer usually entails the disruption of the whole system.

With the advent of phone line connections, however, the star-and-ring days may be drawing to a close. Phone lines offer sufficient bandwidth for simultaneous telephone connections and computer network connections. They're also easier to install, the process being comparable to plugging in your telephone. Either way, anyone with more than one computer in their life should consider hooking them up and letting them talk to each other. It wipes out the need for floppy disks as a transferal method, and it keeps the PCs from getting lonely.


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