Lesson 2 - Identifying the Benefits of Networks

In the early days of the personal computer (PC), during the late ’70s and early ’80s, often a PC was used as a stand-alone computer and operated inde- pendently from other computers, as shown in Figure 1.3. When, over the span of just those few years, their use proliferated and more PCs were found relatively close to each other, users began sharing information. The information was either printed out or copied from one computer to another using backup or storage devices, such as tapes, disks, or other digital storage media.


Figure 1.3 
Stand-alone computers are operated independently.

The printout or the storage device was then physically carried to another computer where the information was reentered or copied from the portable media into the next computer. This process was referred to as a sneakernet because users actually had to walk from computer to computer. It was 
probably the cheapest type of network—unless the computers were large distances apart or the information needed to be shared among many com- puters. Other drawbacks to sneakernets were that printouts were often bulky, and the storage devices could hold a relatively small amount of data compared to the large amount of output users produced.

One sneakernet alternative was the floppy disk, 
which was used to transfer data between computers that were not networked. 

Once computers were connected by networks, information sharing in- creased dramatically. People found that more data helped them make better decisions, and companies started saving money. Many original networks were designed to facilitate communication, but they were quickly expanded as businesses noticed increased productivity and reduced costs. 


Sharing Information

Computers increase your ability to communicate. Once you begin working with a computer, you are likely to become more productive. However, what do you do with that increased productivity if you are not connected to any- one? Communication requires not only someone with information to share but also someone on the other end with whom to share it. Companies don’t benefit by creating sheer volumes of output—they benefit when the in- creased output helps them make better decisions or increases the likelihood of increased income. Having your computers networked allows you to do both with your newfound increases.

The initial reason for developing most computer networks was to assist users with sharing their increased output, especially between computers in the same general vicinity, as shown in Figure 1.4. However, users wanted not only to share information with others, they wanted to communicate about that information after someone else had it, too. In addition to trans- mitting the user’s original information, computer networks enabled those users to discuss what was being transmitted, and this resulted in even more communication. Additional network communications techniques thus came into being, such as e-mail and video conferencing. Furthermore, with the increases in the sizes of networks, sharing no longer had to be concerned with proximity. The use of networks has effectively erased distance and time constraints. You can communicate almost instantly to anywhere in the world that is connected to your network.
Figure 1.4 
Computer communication—
Two computers in the same general vicinity should be able to communicate.

Networks are an effective way to communicate. Using networks, companies can send the same information to large numbers of employees or customers quickly and efficiently. Examples include company newsletters and announcements for employees, as well as advertisements and purchase in- formation for customers. Also, individual employees are more likely to communicate with larger numbers of individuals both inside and outside the company using e-mail, an electronic means of communicating that is similar to mail but done on computers, usually over the Internet, over net- works. E-mail is the most commonly used feature of the Internet, and its use is growing dramatically. In fact, e-mail is fast becoming the primary choice for much of our daily communication.

Sharing Resources

In the sneakernet era, users spent huge amounts of time attempting to share their resources. They had to physically distribute files that others needed. Expenditures for printers and other attached computer components rose apidly while the individual components themselves were not being used to their full capacity. On top of that, the hard disk storage on each local computer began filling up, partly because everyone had a copy of every document. One copy of that data, and even the applications that produced it, could more efficiently be stored in a single location and shared over a network.

The ability to share resources was another reason networks were created, and it is still one of the main purposes for using networks. The inevitable technology creep (the continuing need for additional investment in technology that is required to stay current) extends the computer user’s involvement in technology because companies expect employees to learn new systems as they are installed. Companies also look for ways to make the best use of their investments by sharing the purchased resources among multiple de- partments. Let’s look at some of the resources that are commonly shared over computer networks.

Peripherals

Many companies start with multiple stand-alone computers. Not too long after the initial computer purchase, however, additional components that attach to a computer, called peripherals, like printers, scanners, and speak- ers, are purchased and are connected to that computer to expand its use (see Figure 1.5). When there are multiple users and computers, it soon becomes ap- parent that the peripheral devices are seldom fully utilized. Money can be saved if some of these peripherals are shared, instead of having to purchase a separate set for each computer. Networking enables the sharing of peripherals.

The ability to share printers was very often enough of a cost savings for companies to invest in implementing and supporting a simple network. The company could then also realize additional cost savings as it shared additional peripheral devices, such as faxes, modems, scanners, plotters, and virtually any other device that connects to computers. Sharing peripherals often ends up producing significant cost savings and more than justifies the expense of adding a network.

Figure 1.5 Common network peripherals


Storage 

Data was being loaded on the computers of every fledgling network user as they expanded their network use. Users quickly ran out of space on their own local computers, so the people in charge of the networks began devis- ing ways to store data centrally so that it was accessible to any user who needed it. Large amounts of storage capacity, usually in fast, very powerful computers, were set up to act as storage locations for this data where access to it could be controlled by the person storing the data. 

Applications 

Cost and space savings are achieved when computer users can centrally store their software applications—the computer programs (organized sets of computer instructions) that make a user’s computer do what needs to be done. Applications, such as those used for preparing taxes, creating text documents, or playing computer games, have grown in complexity and size and often take up considerable local storage. Installing an application once on a network and then sharing it cuts down on the storage space required when multiple users need the same application. 

Unfortunately, there are still several problems with this type of arrange- ment. Some applications work fine with different setups for each user (dif- ferent choices for screen settings and other custom features), but normally all such settings must be the same for all users. Sometimes, applications still function better when installed on a user’s local computer.


Assisting Collaboration

Once you have digital information and the ability to share it instantly with oth- ers over networks, you can have multiple people working on the same process collectively. Much of the initial communication about computer-produced products that occurred during and immediately after the sneakernet era dealt with coworker collaboration, with coworkers discussing each other’s work or possibly even exchanging opinions about what other users had created. Those early computer users found that once they created something and sent it out for review, the comments returned often led to important adjust- ments that would improve the original product. Such collaboration assisted the widespread use of computers because it provided a tangible benefit that businesses could associate with the increased costs of installing computers in the first place.

Many software makers took this early form of collaboration into consid- eration and added that feature to the capabilities of their software. The new- est versions of the applications included in Microsoft’s Office suite (such as Word, Access, Excel, and PowerPoint) allow multiple users to access and make changes to the same document at the same time. That way, all users can work together on the original document, and changes made by any col- laborating member are immediately posted within the document. A more powerful implementation of this concept can be found in an application designed to facilitate collaboration, such as Microsoft’s Terminal Server (see http://www.microsoft.com/windows2000/technologies/ terminal/default.asp for more information).


Facilitating Centralized Management

Just connecting computers to a network meant that some sort of similarity existed among them (or else the computers would not be able to communicate), and a maintenance capability may have been available in the early networks. However, it wasn’t until much later (in the mid ’90s) that maintenance per- sonnel started using networks to assist with the management tasks associated with the network’s operation and maintenance.

It came about as a direct result of standardization and interoperability, which meant computers worked the same way and could work with each other. This was a drastic change to the original networks, where all the dif- ferent networked components had different computer programs, or soft- ware (a set of instructions that control the operation of a computer) running them. Having more similarities meant lower support costs. These savings were usually due to economies of scale brought about by buying more simi- lar computers and obtaining a lower per-unit cost. Companies soon began directing technicians to purchase similar equipment to obtain the benefit of those savings. Once that happened, the network could be used to help main- tain those similar components, and this further increased efficiency and re- duced the total amount companies would spend on a particular component over that equipment’s usable lifetime, called total cost of ownership (TCO).

Managing Software

Using the network helped reduce software costs. Savings occurred when all users on a network used the same software and when software was bought in bulk quantities for a discount. Centralizing the installation of that soft- ware also reduced operation costs because the installations could be accom- plished remotely—over the network. The computer programs that were needed to perform the installations were stored on servers and made accessible over the network. The maintenance personnel would then simply log on to the network from a client computer and install the needed applications us- ing the installation software stored on the server.

Within the past few years, even more savings have been achieved by having the centralized server initiate the software installations or updates on the client computers without the need for maintenance personnel to actually visit any of the clients.

Maintaining the Network

Purchasing similar equipment for use on the network meant that network maintenance costs were reduced because there were fewer dissimilar components. Maintenance workers no longer had to attend numerous training sessions on many different components, which meant they could spend more time maintaining the actual components.

Backing Up Data

Along those same lines, a network minimizes the time spent backing up (saving extra copies, called backups) of necessary files. In the event of a hardware or software failure that causes information or applications to be lost, vital information and necessary applications can be restored if sufficient backups exist. The backup process is normally a regular activity in a company, and all transactions between scheduled backups are recorded so that the files can be restored as completely as possible. Technicians can access the backup files and recorded transactions from a central location without having to physically visit the source computers.