How to Get More Out of Your Home Network

For most people, a wireless router is just a way to share your broadband Internet connection across the several computers and wifi-enabled devices  in your house. Your router is not just a point of connection to your cable or DSL modem, though – it connects every other computer and device in your house in one big network. With not much work at all, you can easily take advantage of this to make home-wide backups simple, to centralize your music collection, to share household files and services, and even to operate computers on other rooms. We’re used to going over the Internet to share resources on other computers, but all the Internet is is a gigantic, industrial-strength version of the network in your own home.

A quick overview of your home network

Your router is a simple device, really – all it does it bounce data from one computer to another. When I upload a picture from my laptop to my Picasa account, for example, my laptop requests a connection from my router, which accepts the connection and requests the file, which my laptop sends. Then the router readdresses the data in my photo to the modem, which readdresses it to a router on my broadband provider’s network, which sends it out onto the Internet bound for the routers at Picasa. (OK, I’m simplifying a little, but that’s the basic gist. All I’ve really left out are the order of priests who chant the holy invocations that run the Internet.)

Out on the Internet, every computer has an address, a crazy number that looks like this: 74.125.127.147 (that’s Google’s homepage, if you’re wondering). On your home network, every computer has an address, too – a crazy number that looks like this: 192.168.10.4 – the last two digits being anything from 0 to 255. On the Internet, the URLs we’re familiar with (google,.com, lifehack.org, etc.) are aliases for those crazy numbers – their secret identities. The crazy numbers are the “IP address”, the location of the computer we’re looking for. On our home network, we’re stuck with the crazy numbers (for now – in a moment I’ll show you how to replace them with more memorable addresses.) 

To find out the IP addresses of the computers on your home network:

  • On Windows, open a command line (Start > Run and type “cmd”) and type “ipconfig” – several lines will come up, including your IP address.
  • On Mac OSX, look under your system preferences.
  • On Linux, use your magic telepathic powers to mind meld with the machine. When that doesn’t work, try “/sbin/ifconfig” at the command line.

Now, unless you got fancy when configuring your PCs, your router technically assigns a new IP address to each computer when it logs onto the network. In practice, I find that routers tend to assign the same IP address to the same PCs pretty consistently, but to be certain you can go into your computer’s network settings and copy the IP address, subnet mask, and default gateway in, giving each computer a permanent IP address.

Here are some things you can do to get more out of your fancy home network:

1. Centralize content to one main computer

I have a desktop PC that’s on all the time that I use as the central “hub” in my home network. Because it has the biggest hard drive in the house, I use it to store all my documents, media files, photos, and everything else. Most files Are opened from and saved to that single My Documents folder; if I need a file on another computer – for example, if I’m going to be working on something while traveling with my netbook, it gets saved to a Windows Live Mesh folder and automatically synced back to the hub whenever I’m online.

You don’t need any special software to open files from or save files to another computer on your network – not usually, anyway. Even on mixed networks, most contemporary operating systems include software to allow them to communicate with other OSes. I find that even streaming audio and video across my home network is hitch-free – so I can watch a video on my netbook in the bedroom even though the file’s on my desktop in the living room.

2. Backup like a superstar

Since everything important is on one computer, I only have to backup from that computer. All new files are copied to an external hard drive from that computer every night using SyncBack. For redundancy, I also backup that computer to Mozy. The My Document folder on my two laptops is mirrored on the hub computer using Windows Live Mesh (which means they’re also backed up online at the Windows Live Mesh homepage).

3. Run a server

Since I do some web design from time to time, I have a webserver running on my home network – on the hub, naturally. Installation is simple: download XAMPP, run the installer, and you’re done. XAMPP installs Apache, the industry-standard web server; MySQL, the industry-standard relational database; and PHP, a scripting language. I also have a Rails server running on the same computer, from when I was using Tracks, a Ruby on Rails-based GTD app.

So, for instance, let’s say I’m working on a new website. I create a new directory in the “htdocs” folder in the XAMPP directory and install WordPress into it. Then, from any computer in the house, I can type “192.168.10.4/newfolder” to work with WordPress, just like I’d installed it on the Web. That looks ugly, but to be honest, I don’t type all that: I type “olympus/newfolder” into my browser, because I’ve modified the hosts file – on which we’ll talk in just a moment.

4. Use any computer in the house directly with VNC

Let’s say I’m on the couch and I want to check something on the desktop but I don’t want to get up. Easy – I fire up UltraVNC and voila – the screen from my desktop appears on my netbook (well, some of it – I have a 20” widescreen on my desktop and a 9” screen on the netbook, so I have to scroll around a little to see the whole screen…).

UltraVNC is free, open source, and simple to use. Download it and install it on every computer. It will install both a client, for viewing other computers on the network, and a server, for sharing the host computer’s screen with others. To view another computer’s desktop, run the VNC client, enter the IP address of the remote computer, enter the password, and that’s it – you can go full-screen and it’s like you’re sitting right in front of the remote computer.

Here’s one thing I use this for: Olympus, my hub computer, is right next to the TV (thankfully it’s a really quiet computer) and has TV-out. So I run Hulu Desktop (or other video) on the hub, in full screen mode, feed the image to my TV via an S-Video cable, and use my netbook as a remote control using VNC to access Olympus’ desktop. Perfect.

5. Edit your hosts file to give your networked PCs easier-to-remember names

If you do a lot of network stuff, you’re going to get tired of typing “192.168.100.114” and the like. It would be much better if you could just use words like you do on the Internet, right?

You can do that easily enough by adding entries to your computer’s hosts file. Normally when you enter a URL into a browser, the computer sends out to your ISP’s DNS servers to translate that word into an IP address, but first it checks the hosts file – if the hosts file gives an IP address, it skips the DNS lookup on the Internet. What this means is that you can assign the IP addresses of your computers names that are easy to remember, like “minerva”, “mercury”, and “oracle” (those are computers and devices on my home network – I”m sooooo clever!).

To change your hosts file:

  • Go to c:\winnt\system32\drivers\etc\ on Windows 2000 and XP Pro or c:\windows\system32\drivers\etc\ on Windows XP Home and Vista and open the file called “hosts” in Notepad (or another text editor; in Vista, you have to run Notepad as an administrator).
  • Open Terminal.app on Mac OSX and enter “$ sudo nano /private/etc/hosts “ without the quotes.
  • Go to /etc on Linux and open the file “hosts”. Most likely.

There should be a line that says “127.0.0.1 localhost” – don’t touch that. Below it, start entering lines like this for each computer on your network: [IP address]<tab>[Desired name]

So, for example: 192.168.10.2 olympus

Don’t forget the tab between the IP address and the new name.  Notice I skipped 192.168.10.3 – that’s the computer I’m writing on now, and if I want to access it from itself, I just type “localhost”. Now, when I type “olympus” int  the browser window, it connects to that computer. Since XAMPP is running there, I get the home page for Apache – which I could replace with something of my choice, but I haven’t.  If I want to run Tracks, which runs on port 3000, I would type “olympus:3000” into my browser.

6. Share a printer

It’s stupid to have a printer attached to every computer in the house. Instead, I have a single laser printer attached to the hub, and I can print to it from any PC on the network – as long as the hub computer is on, which it always is. (Technically, because I have a networked printer, I could plug it directly into the router, but the router’s up near the ceiling and I don’t want another cable hanging down, so I connect it to the hub PC instead). Although I don’t currently have a color inkjet for photos, when I did, it was connected to the hub PC too.

To share a printer, just go into the Printer settings on the computer it’s connected to, right-click, and select “Sharing…”. Turn on printer sharing. Now, go to “Add printer” on the other PC, and search the network for your printer. If all goes according to plan, your computer should install teh drivers from the host computer, and you’re set. If it doesn’t go well, you may need to use the install disc or download te drivers from the manufacturer’s website, and follow the instructions for installing a network printer. (It’s more complex on OSX and Linux, but google “share printer” and your operating system’s name and I’m sure you’ll find easy enough directions.)

The End

Do you have cool network tips to share with your fellow Lifehack readers? Share your network setup in the comments!

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