By Jonathan Oski, contributor to the Internet section of The Macintosh Bible, Eighth Edition
Making the most of your Internet experience with a Macintosh poses some additional challenges and opportunities. The increasingly popular broadband networking options, both via cable modem and DSL, provide a great way to leverage a home network. But before you consider one of these high-speed, always-on connections, you need to ensure that your Macintosh, or home network of computers, is protected from unauthorized access--or worse, tampering. The Internet's vast, uncontrolled nature has its bright and dark sides. The wealth of information available to you (and your family) via the Internet grows by the day. Likewise, content that you might find objectionable also seems to grow at an almost equally rapid rate.
Sharing the Wealth
The advent of affordable, easy-to-install home and small-office (SOHO) networking technology has made it easy for two or more computers to share information and peripherals (such as printers). Although an Internet connection is not really a peripheral, much of the same logic applies to sharing one. Whether you have a dial-up or a broadband connection to the Internet, it is impractical to have multiple computers in your home connect to the Internet simultaneously. You will either need additional phone lines for each simultaneous connection or separate, expensive broadband connections to each of your computers.
During the past few years, some elegant software and hardware products have emerged that allow many computers to share a single Internet connection, much as businesses have been doing for years. These products depend on a device called a router that intelligently transmits packets from one network (the Internet) to another network (your home or SOHO network). Initially, these products appeared as software that you run on a Macintosh. Some examples are Sustainable Softworks's IPNetRouter (from $89; www.sustworks.com) and Vicomsoft's (www.vicomsoft.com) SurfDoubler (from $54.99) and Internet Gateway (from $149). SurfDoubler is strictly for the home user and allows a maximum of three computers to share a single connection. Internet Gateway can support unlimited users. IPNetRouter not only offers routing for an unlimited number of computers but provides some other key services, such as Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) support, filtering, and port mapping. You can use these link-sharing products with a dial-up connection or Ethernet connection to a cable modem or DSL router.
For those seeking an easier, plug-and-play alternative, a wide variety of products labeled DSL/cable modem routers and hubs have begun to appear on the market. Coming from network-equipment providers such as Linksys (www.linksys.com), NetGear (www.netgear.com), and Asanté (www.asante.com), these products are an appliance version of the software products mentioned earlier. They're typically restricted to broadband connections, so you can't use them to share a dial-up link, but they are priced competitively--starting at $80 or so. The nice feature of these products is that they are easy to set up and use. Administration is commonly done through a Web browser, and default configurations should suffice for many users. As an added protection, they do provide some firewall functionality as well restrict unauthorized access to your home network from most common types of intrusion attempts.
The Digital Watchdog
Having a high-speed, always-on connection to the Internet is convenient. It allows you to use your Macintosh as an Internet appliance with relative ease because you avoid the time-consuming process of dialing your ISP every time you want to find something on the Internet. As is usually the case, the reward does not come without some risk. Having your Macintosh persistently connected to the Internet can make it a target for attack--even though we all know that Macs traditionally have been more resilient than most when it comes to security vulnerabilities. You can add a layer of protection to your Macintosh by installing a personal firewall. To thwart those who may try to snoop, borrow, or damage information on your Mac, these applications restrict incoming access via TCP/IP. Some examples of personal firewall applications are Norton Personal Firewall, from Symantec ($69.95; www.symantec.com/sabu/nis/npf_mac/), IPNetSentry, from Sustainable Softworks (www.sustworks.com), and NetBarrier, from Intego ($59.95; www.intego.com). These products are easy to install and set up, even for the average user, and they provide you with a log of all the attempts made to access your Mac. If you have a high-speed connection in your home or small office, or you travel frequently to visit customers or stay in hotels with high-speed access, a personal firewall can give you an added level of security.