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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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    Last Updated on November 5, 2019

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

    But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

    Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

    1. Always Have a Book

    It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

    Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

    2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

    We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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    Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

    3. Get More Intellectual Friends

    Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

    Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

    4. Guided Thinking

    Albert Einstein once said,

    “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

    Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

    5. Put it Into Practice

    Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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    If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

    In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

    6. Teach Others

    You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

    Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

    7. Clean Your Input

    Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

    I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

    Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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    8. Learn in Groups

    Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

    Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

    9. Unlearn Assumptions

    You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

    Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

    Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

    10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

    Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

    Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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    11. Start a Project

    Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

    If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

    12. Follow Your Intuition

    Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

    Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

    13. The Morning Fifteen

    Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

    If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

    14. Reap the Rewards

    Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

    15. Make Learning a Priority

    Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

    More About Continuous Learning

    Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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