Peer-to-peer networks for small groups

Peer-to-peer local area networks are the simplest, cheapest LANs. They don't offer the full range of network "services" you find in client-server networks such as Novell's NetWare and Microsoft's LAN Manager. In most peer networks you won't find sophisticated backup and fault tolerance support, processor sharing, and work flow automation interfaces.

Peer networks can share printers, files and messages, though.


For groups of two to 25, peer networking is hard to beat. It can work for larger nets as well but starts to show limits, especially if there is a particular program or file that most of the computers need.

The Macintosh system software has peer networking built in. As long as the Mac has been around, Macs have been able to share printers easily. You would just string an AppleTalk cable from Mac to Mac to printer. Then each Mac owner could pull down the "Apple" menu on screen, select the "Chooser" program, and there find the names of printers on the network.


AppleTalk was and is a slow network, operating at only one-fortieth the speed of most PC networks, but that's fine for sharing printers. Add e-mail software, and you can exchange messages.

Move up to Apple's System 7 software, and you've got file sharing as well.

PCs don't come with networking built in, not even the simplest printer sharing. They need a network operating system, a NOS. There are now a half-dozen competing peer NOS choices.

When you're deciding among them, ask questions about:

* Price (per "node" -- per "computer," that is);

* Printer sharing and file sharing;

* E-mail (is it built in or available as an option?);

* Platforms (is a Windows version available? a Macintosh version?);


* Security (can you assign levels of security, with passwords, to files, directories, disks and printers?);

* Connectivity (can the peer net be linked to larger client-server networks, especially NetWare?);

* Unique or additional features (scheduling or voice mail, for example);

* And network card support (to work with the largest variety of network cards, it should support the NDIS card driver standard and the NETBIOS software standard).

Finally, ask about ease and performance. Is it easy to install, use and administer? How many computers can it link, processing how many file, printer, and message requests, before there's a traffic jam?

LANtastic (Artisoft, $99 per node, (800) TINY-RAM) is the most popular, with nearly a million users (by company claims) in about 200,000 networks.


LANtastic comes in DOS and Windows versions. A Macintosh version can be connected to the network as well (though you'll need a dedicated "server" PC to link to the Mac). Even the administration tools come in Windows versions.

The Windows version has similar commands to the DOS version, so you can find your way around pretty easily. It adds the "drag-and-drop"ability of Windows, so you can choose printers and disks to share by just clicking on graphic images of those things. E-mail is built in, and includes a voice-message and voice-mail option (for which Artisoft even makes a sound board with a microphone).

There's also a simple text "chat" mode for interactive messages to other computers on the net. An audit file keeps track of who has been using what on the network -- a necessity for maintenance.

NetWare Lite (Novell, $99 per node, (800) 453-1267) looks a lot like NetWare on screen. But it is much easier to install and should be much easier to maintain. Some performance flaws in version 1.0 seem to have been fixed in the latest version 1.1. A Windows version will soon join the DOS version.

Lite comes with a copy of DR-DOS 6, the DOS-compatible DOS %% challenger, which can get more out of your PC's memory and hard disk than DOS can and still run DOS programs.

Administration features mimic those in NetWare, though there are fewer. They include an audit log. Security is here, too, though not with the plethora of levels and options found in LANtastic or 10Net.


10Net (Sitka, $79 per node, (800) 445-8677) has been around for a few years and is now at home with the division of Sun Microsystems that also sells the TOPS network famous among Macintosh users.

10Net has DOS and Windows versions. Along with all the standard user and administrator features you might want, you'll find more extensive security options than I've seen in any other network, even client-server packages. There isn't built-in e-mail, but simple communications are possible.

Windows for Workgroups (Microsoft, $100 per node, (800) 426-9400) puts Microsoft back in the networking game. NetWare left Microsoft's LAN Manager client-server operating system far behind in the market, outselling it many times over. Now Microsoft has put some of the foundation software of LAN Manager into Windows 3.1, and called the new product Windows for Workgroups.

* (Phillip Robinson analyzes and writes about computers. You can reach him at (415) 289-9598 or at P.O. Box 1357, Sausalito, Calif. 94966 or on the MCI Mail e-mail service as "probinson" at mailbox 327-8909.)