If you own more than one computer, chances are you already have a network.

These days, most broadband service providers throw in a router with a new connection. Typically it has four slots on the back, which means that you can connect up to four computers to the Internet simultaneously without adding any other hardware. Once you connect a second computer to the router, you have a little network of your own. The next logical step for most people is to plug in a network-enabled printer into the router so that they can print to it from any of the computers on the network.

This kind of network is called a peer-to-peer network because all computers on it are peers — none of them is more important than the others. Unfortunately, that’s where many small networks stop growing in functionality. Few progress beyond sharing an Internet connection and a printer. But there is a lot more that you can do with a network.

It is possible to access data on a computer on a peer-to-peer network from any other computer on the network. This opens up many possibilities. You can back up important data on to the hard disk of another computer, for example, to protect it from disk crashes.

To share data between computers, you must take two steps:

  1. Make a folder sharable
  2. Grant access to the shared folder to others

The first step is easy enough. Bring up the properties of the folder of the drive in Windows Explorer, Click on the Sharing tab, and choose Share this folder option.

Granting access to others is a bit tricky. If you want Joe to share a folder on your computer, Joe must have an account on your computer as well. Once you create one for him, he can see the shared folder in My Network Places on his computer. When he clicks on it, your computer will ask him for a password, because it doesn’t know that Joe is the same Joe who has an account on your computer. Joe can then enter his user ID and password to authenticate himself with your computer. After he is authenticated, he can use the folder on your computer as if it were on his own computer.

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The authentication can be seamless if you use a feature of Windows called pass-through authentication. The trick is to have an account for Joe on your computer as well as on his own computer with identical user ID/password combination. If this condition is met, Windows on his computer passes on his authentication information to Windows on your computer when Joe clicks on the shared folder. Your computer verifies it and allows Joe to access the folder without popping up an authentication dialog.

Sharing data this way is better than not being able to share it at all but this scheme of things has a couple of problems:

  1. Your computer must be powered on when Joe wants to access the shared folder
  2. Every time Joe changes his password on his computer, he must remember to change it on yours as well.

"Big deal" you might say, "We can easily manage that." And you would be right. But only as long as you and Joe are the only people sharing data on your network and you share a single folder. If you have ten people, ten computers, and forty shared folders, you will rack up dollars on your electricity bill and Joe will have to spend all his day changing passwords.

Wouldn’t it be great if all the authentication information could be stored in a single place away from all your computers so that Joe can do some useful work instead of changing his password three hundred times? And why not have the shared folders in the same location as the authentication information so that you won’t have to leave all your computers running all the time?

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Such a solution does exist. It’s called a server. A server is a special computer which fulfils requests from other computers. Once you add a server to your network and entrust the responsibility of authentication to it, your network is transformed from a peer-to-peer network in to a client/server network.

A server merely provides a service when asked. Severs can provide different kinds of services. Large networks typically have many servers. Each server is usually dedicated to providing a single service. Those that provide file-sharing facilities are called file servers. Those that server Web pages are called Web servers, and those that provide authentication services are called Domain Controllers. There are many more. In smaller networks, typically found in home or small-business environments, a single physical server performs several of these duties.

Servers need special operating systems which are optimized for providing services as opposed to serving a single user interactively. They are much more difficult to install and configure than installing Windows on a desktop.

If you are technically challenged, you will probably need professional services for installing a server and setting up a network around it. If, on the other hand, you consider yourself a power user, you may be able to install a server yourself using an easy-to-install server operating system such as Windows Small Business Server 2003.

Windows Small Business Server 2003 performs several duties, which includes:

  • Authentication
  • Internet security
  • Serving database queries
  • Hosting of a Web server
  • Hosting of an e-mail server
  • File sharing services

Not every small business needs a server, but if you find that you and your co-workers are spending a good bit of time locating and exchanging documents, a server may just be what the doctor ordered.