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How to Get More Out of Your Home Network

How to Get More Out of Your Home Network

 

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:

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    • 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).

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    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.

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    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

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    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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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