If you buy a PC for your business and find it useful, chances are good you'll buy another. Then the fun begins.
You'll want to use the fancy laser printer you bought for your secretary's PC. Your secretary will want a copy of the draft proposal you typed on your computer, or the spreadsheet figures you worked up for a client. Or maybe someone needs the dot matrix printer attached to your machine to run off labels for a mailing.
In many small businesses, the answer is a simple system called sneaker-net. You copy the proposal to a disk and carry it to your secretary's PC. Of course, if you make any changes later, you have to copy it again and take it to her PC, where she can use it if she hasn't made any changes to your original herself. And so forth.
Big businesses get around this hassle by setting up networks to link personal computers and allow them to share files, programs and printers.
Because small business owners don't have the time, money or expertise to deal with the heartburn of big-time networking, manufacturers are developing simple solutions for small groups of PCs.
MainLan Easy, from MainLan Inc., is a mini-network designed to connect up to six IBM-compatible computers using standard telephone cable. A starter kit for two PCs is less than $200. Additional computers can be added for about $100 each, which is about a third the cost of big-time networks.
The package allows users to share files and run programs from disks attached to other computers. It allows users to access printers attached to other computers, and it includes basic electronic mail functions.
By network standards, MainLan Easy is a snap to set up, which means you can get it running with an hour or two of twiddling.
The starter kit contains a network adapter card for each PC, the networking software and 25 feet of cable. If you need more cable, you can get it at any store that sells phone equipment.
The half-length network adapter card fits in an expansion slot on your PC's main circuit board. You'll have to open the case to install it, but otherwise there's no particular hassle.
Once the adapters are installed and the cable is attached, a program tests the communications link. If there's a problem, or a conflict with other adapter cards, the software and the manual suggest solutions.
The network management software includes both DOS and Windows versions, although you have to start the basic networking software before you run Windows.
If you want everyone to access everything on the network, setup is easy. Otherwise, you'll have to do some thinking and tweaking. For example, you may want others to access your sales records, but not your payroll information. Or, you may want everyone to share printers but not disk files.
You can also set up a configuration that automatically connects your computer to certain other PCs or printers when you start the network software. Or you can leave that to a separate network management program.
Once you've set up the network, you can manage it in several ways. Copying and sharing files is relatively easy, since the network can automatically identify a drive on another computer as if it were a drive on yours.
TTC If your hard disk is the "C:" drive, the network will make the drive on the next machine appear to your computer as drive "D:", the next one as Drive "E:", and so on.
You can also use MainLan's menu program to connect and disconnect from other computers and printers, copy files or print documents. If you like, you can make the network menu memory-resident, so that it pops up over other programs with a couple of keystrokes.
The cost of all this is memory. If you enable all the options, you may not have enough memory to run some sophisticated programs.
Fortunately, the setup software allows you to pick and choose the options you want. I was able to share drives and printers between two computers and still have about 520K of memory free.
The performance of the network was acceptable. It's advertised at four megabits per second, which is fine for simple jobs like copying files from one machine to another, accessing files on remote computers or sending text-only documents to shared printers.
Overall, MainLan Easy worked as advertised. By network standards, it was easy to set up and maintain. The instruction manual, aimed at end users instead of techno-freaks, is clear and strikingly free of jargon. It even explains what networks are about and how they work -- in English.
If you have a couple of computers to hook up, MainLan Easy is worth a look. And if you outgrow MainLan Easy, the company will give you full credit for the purchase price if you upgrade to its standard Ethernet network products. It's not a bad deal.