Network Know-How: An Essential Guide for the Accidental Admin

John Ross' "Network Know-How: An Essential Guide for the Accidental Admin", published in February of this year by No Starch Press, can turn your average neighbor into his own network administrator. Seriously. It provides just enough TCP/IP, just enough basic networking equipment (hubs, routers and switches), just enough about wires and wireless connections, just enough security and just enough about software to give your neighbor, aunt or boss the vocabulary and know-how to manage their own small network.

Free of the more scarier terminology that geeks like to pepper their resumes with, this book provides basic, essential explanations of how networks work from the cables on up. The author provides enough detail for the reader to fully grasp how things are supposed to work and to identify basic components and attributes of a LAN. This kind of information could be helpful, not just for the lady down the block who wants to organize her family gardening business or get each of her kids doing homework on his/her own PC, but for small businesses who don't want to be completely reliant on an outside consultant to fix what they suspect is a simple problem, but can't even begin to narrow down. It's nicely illustrated, easy to understand and doesn't talk down to the reader; it just doesn't make assumptions about what he already knows. Instead, it provides a lot of basic information while not shying away from some surprisingly advanced technology.

The basic approach of the book is to address the common concerns that anyone who innocently buys a computer and soon thereafter finds himself wanting to hook several computers together and get them to share files and then peripherals, secure them or send video and audio to other home equipment. You get it. The first computer blossoms into a modern LAN with all the promises and challenges many of us face at work, but no computer support staff to come in and straighten things out, never mind help put it together. It attempts to help home users make the best use of their hardware investments and shed that sense of frustration that so many computer users get whenever directions say something like "set your default router" or "reset the adaptor" and they've no idea what these words mean.

It starts by explaining what a network is and what the reader could do with one (share files, share an Internet connection, send messages, automate tasks, hook up home security cameras etc.). It then gets into the hardware and software sides of network connections -- from TCP/IP basics to clients and servers -- demystifying concepts like packets, handshaking and even DTE/DCE equipment (remember that stuff?) in the process.

Hubs, routers, bridges and switches are no longer black boxes. Host names and IP addresses are covered in just the right amount of detail along with some or our favorite troubleshooting tools like ping, traceroute and ifconfig/ipconfig. The book also provides a nice outline of things to try when a problem arises. Cables, connectors, terminators and even telephone connections are all explained with an eye toward the home user's network control center. Network adaptors, expansion cards, USB and more -- it's all there.

Both wired and wireless networks are explained in enough detail that the reader should feel comfortable setting up his home network in whatever way best works for him. Instructions for connecting the home network to the internet are provided for all the basic connection types (modem, router, etc.).

File sharing occupies a full chapter with details for XP, Vista, Mac OS X and Linux/Unix systems. The Network Security chapter covers such topics as security passwords, firewalls, VPNs, encryption and even denial of service attacks. The book even reaches into streaming video and/or audio to a TV or sound system, remote desktop connections on Windows systems and VNC.

This extremely practical and helpful text ends with a solid chapter on troubleshooting, starting with basic approaches (e.g. retracing your steps) through dealing with well known problems (viruses and such) to sophisticated analysis, with some encouragement that the reader make use of resources on the web. Now that they'll know the right questions to ask, they probably can!

Anyone wanting to set up and manage their home network or better understand the technology they use at work could get a lot out of reading this practical, very clearly written and well illustrated how to book. Lend it to a friend and you're likely to hear echoes of "Ah, I get it!" and "So THAT's how that works" for many weeks.

And maybe your neighbors will stop asking *you* to fix their computers.

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