So, you ate ramen noodles for six months so you could afford to pay for that high-speed DSL connection. Intoxicated by life in the fast lane, you bought a second computer, and now you're looking to network your investments together and connect your second computer to the DSL line? Great! Thanks to the diverse selection of operating systems, protocols, network types and software vendors out there in the world, you have many options.
You could always buy an additional IP address from your ISP -- the cost is sometimes only a few dollars per month (plus a set-up fee, in some areas). Many ISPs, however, charge through the teeth for multiple IPs in one location. Another drawback: You'll be forced to put the control of your network in your home in their hands.
Not to fear -- there is more than one way to skin that monkey. Sharing your cable modem or DSL connection on your own is a snap. If you're running Linux on one of your computers, you can use a network address translation, or NAT, application like IP Masquerade or IP NAT. If you're stuck in Windows or Mac land, you can investigate proxy server programs like WinGate. All of these choices accomplish the same basic goal: They allow you to share your Internet connection among several home computers while channeling all of your incoming and outgoing traffic through one IP address. These applications all do a fine job of liberating your additional computers from their non-Internet existence, and some are easier to use than others.
There are drawbacks to the sharing approach, however. Proxy servers and other software solutions require that one of your computers (most likely the computer with the Internet connection already configured) remain powered up and connected to the Net at all times. For most of us, this isn't that big of a deal. Because all of your network traffic flows through your proxy server or NAT server, however, running meaty applications like Web server software along side your Internet-sharing package can bog down your computer's resources, thus slowing your connection considerably.
Second, if your network comprises more than just two computers, a proxy server or NAT server can quickly become an administrative nightmare. Remember that you're relying on your software to filter your network's activity. Overload your proxy server with heavy traffic and your client computers can easily lose their connection to the server. This means rebooting. If you use the Net more than the average Joe, this means lots of rebooting.
Finally, the vast majority of these proxy server/NAT server applications just aren't secure enough for comfort. To avoid falling victim to a cracker, you need to run some flavor of firewall on your network, and firewalls are not always compatible with NAT or proxy servers. If you've taken night classes in network security and deep wizardry, then your firewall installation will be painless. The rest of us are left scratching our heads.
For the ultimate in security, control, ease of use and features, your best bet for sharing that broadband connection is DHCP, or the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol. Why is DHCP better? First, its addressing scheme is fully dynamic: With a DHCP server running on your network, you can add PCs or move computers around on your network and not have to worry about re-configuring your IP settings. Also, DHCP applications usually come with extensive, built-in flexibility. Services such as NAT, security, port forwarding, and traffic logging are almost always included. Last but not least, most DHCP servers -- whether solely software or a combination router/DHCP server hardware unit -- are easy to install, configure, and maintain.
Before we dive into the amazing world of DHCP, let's run through a little refresher about IP addresses and where they fit in (pretty much everywhere).
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