How to set up a small network without buying a server

  If there is more than one person in your business, there are massive advantages to networking your computers together. But getting a proper business server installed and maintained can mean a bill of a few thousand pounds.

  If there are lots of you in your business, that’s a worthwhile investment. If there are just a few, then why not set up your own DIY network? You don’t need a server or expensive software. You can use your existing internet router and an old PC to share files with.

  It will take a few hours to set up, and as with anything fiddly and technical, so remember to take appropriate technical advice from an IT expert when you get stuck!

  Get a router and share your broadband out:

  This is easy. To get broadband on your computer, you need a router anyway, to sit between your PC and the phone line. It’s a basic piece of kit. To share your broadband, you just need to plug other PCs into the router. Having PCs in different places around the office is easy and doesn’t have to mean getting lots of sockets installed. Either use a switch or hub, which are boxes making it easy to extend broadband to other PCs. Or get really long network cables. Or invest in a wireless router and a wireless connection for each PC (standard on most laptops now). Once all of your PCs are connected to your router in some way, your basic network is set up!

  Turn an old PC into a shared drive:

  Now you have a network, you need a central place to store files. Any PC running Windows XP or Vista can be turned into a shared drive, which operates pretty much like a server. Anyone on your network can access the hard disc, or a specific folder within in it. They can open files, edit them and save them. Only one person will be able to open a file at any one time, but that’s not a bad thing in a small office.

  If you don’t have a spare PC, a second hand one bought off the internet will do just fine. There’s no need to spend a fortune on your shared PC; it’s only there to share files. As long as it has a reasonable amount of memory that’s OK; the size of the hard disc is more important. More on that later. You can also use either a desktop or a laptop.

  First of all strip the shared PC of all non-essential software. Keep the useful stuff like Internet Explorer and Word/Excel, but get rid of any games or utilities you just can’t see being used. Do this by going to your Control Panel and selecting Add or Remove Programs.

  Now open Windows Explorer and navigate to the folder you want to share. Right-click and select Share. Things get a bit technical from here on it, so check out the advice offered by Microsoft for sharing on XP and Vista.

  Once you have completed the actions listed by MS, go to one of the PCs that will access the shared drive, open Windows Explorer, and enter server in the address bar. If all is well, you’ll then see the Shared Documents folder. That means it is accessible from any machine on the network. Hooray!

  The next step is to do something called mapping, where you get your PC to treat the shared folder as a hard drive in its own right. Just right click the Shared Documents folder and select Map Network Drive.

  Secure your network:

  As the central store for all of your data you need to ensure that shared PC has the best security you can get. Buy an integrated anti-virus and firewall security package from one of the best known names in the industry such as Norton or McAfee. And make weekly checks to ensure it is updating itself correctly.

  Add extra hard disc space:

  Your shared drive needs plenty of disc space to store all your files. You should never let a hard disc fill up totally, as this can affect the performance of the PC. When it gets to 80 per cent full, consider buying an extra external hard disc. This is a very cheap way of adding an extra 500GB or so. Buy a disc which plugs into your shared PC by USB, as installing this is as easy as plugging it in and forgetting about it.

  Automatic backup:

  Hard discs do fail, and if your shared PC’s hard disc fails, your data is gone. There are all sorts of stats about how the majority of businesses that lose all their data fail to survive more than a few months. The answer is simple: automatic data backups over the internet. You install a piece of software that automatically copies data every day, and secures it safely on remote servers. This removes the need for a human to remember to press a button or burn a disc and take it home. Even if your building burns down, your data is easily restored onto a new PC.

  Set up a printer server:

  The final step of your network is to share your printer among all the PCs. This can be done through the shared PC, but an easier thing to do is buy a printer server for about £30 or so. This will allow you to plug a number of printers into one box, and access it from any PC on the network. Some printer servers also boost the memory available to the printers, meaning they can handle having jobs sent by different users. You can also get wireless printer servers, meaning the printers can be located away from the router your PCs are plugged into.

  Don’t forget Macs!

  As one of our readers quite rightly points out, this article is mainly aimed at PC users, whereas the humble Mac can offer a great alternative – they can also be networked up with PCs as well as other Macs. All Macs come with ‘Airport‘ installed, which enables easy and impressive networking.

  ‘Up to 50 people can all share the same Internet connection, exchange files with the file-sharing capability built into Mac OS X or Windows, access local and remote file servers, annihilate the competition in multiplayer games — anything a typical network user can do, plus a number of things that are decidedly not typical, such as wireless storage and printing’.

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