19.03.2009

Networks 101: Peer-To-Peer Networks

Written on: 
April 22, 2003
Written by: 
Tom Jelen and Russ King

Networks can allow computers, servers, and other devices to talk to each other. There are a number of different types of networks, and it's important to find the right one to fit your needs so that you don't waste time and money with one that is too complex for your needs, or one that doesn't fulfill your needs.

If you only need to share a printer or an Internet connection, a client-server network (see article Networking 101: Client-Server Networks ) might be overkill. Sometimes, a simpler peer-to-peer network may be all you need. The diagram below shows a simple peer-to-peer network:

in a peer-to-peer network there are no dedicated servers or hierarchy among the computers

As you can see from the diagram, in a peer-to-peer network there are no dedicated servers or hierarchy among the computers. All of the computers on the network handle security and administration for themselves. The users must make the decisions about who gets access to what. Beyond that there are more similarities between the types of network than differences. All of the computers must have network cards. You also use the same cables, the same hubs and switches, and the same protocols as you would with a client-server model. The only difference is that there isn't a server. Since there isn't a server, there are some things to think about before you go down the peer-to-peer path.

Before Taking the Peer-to-Plunge

Peer-to-peer networks work remarkably well in certain circumstances; however there are a few things to consider before setting one up:

Size

Peer-to-peer networks are designed for connecting a small number of computers. They tend to run into problems at around 10-15 computers.

Security

Security on a peer-to-peer network is not very powerful. So if you have security concerns go for something you can control (like a server). Because the users will be required to give access to folders, they can choose to not require passwords. This lack of hierarchy has a tremendous impact on the security of your network and you will need adequate training for your users to prevent problems.

Growth

If your organization is growing rapidly, it will usually outgrow a peer-to-peer network very quickly. While a peer-to-peer network may work fine for ten computers, it probably won't for twenty.

Training

In a peer-to-peer network, the users handle administration. This means that all the users need to be trained in how to share files, folders, and printers. In a peer-to-peer network, suddenly shutting down your computer can cause one of your colleagues to be unable to print.

Hosting Resources

The last concern is that each computer that attaches to another computer, whether for printing or for file sharing, takes up system resources on the hosting computer. If the drain becomes dramatic enough to slow down the host computer then perhaps it is time to start thinking about a dedicated server.

What Are Your Options?

If you've assessed your situation, and you've determined that a peer-to-peer network is appropriate, the setup can be relatively simple if you are using one of the common operating systems available today.

Macintosh

The Macintosh has included peer-to-peer network capability in its operating system for many years. You even have the option to setup the network with phone lines and very simple connectors. For more detailed information:


Windows 95/98/ME/2000/XP

Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000, and XP all include the capacity for peer-to-peer networking and can be set up with limited hardware expenditures. For detailed information:


Cross-Platform

It is possible to connect your Macs to your PC network -- and vice-versa. Here's how:


Conclusion

A peer-to-peer network is sometimes the perfect (and cheap) solution for connecting the computers at a small nonprofit. However, peer-to-peer networking has its limitations, and your organization should tread with caution to avoid headaches -- security issues, hardware inadequacies, backup problems, etc. -- down the road.