Windows Foundation

Windows XP Peer-to-Peer Networking

Windows XP's Peer-to-Peer Networking Wizard allows you to set up a firewall-protected network. This month, we go through the process step by step.

The micro-business space—defined often as home offices and small retailers with between one to 10 users&—has bedeviled Microsoft, which has tried to provide a well-accepted solution within this niche. Some published reports claim that the micro-business space is where the company's competitors such as Linux have enjoyed success. But Microsoft hopes to turn it around with a little-known capability in Windows XP Professional known as peer-to-peer networking. This feature allows these micro-businesses to easily deploy a functional network without a server-class machine.

Windows XP's peer-to-peer networking capability is based on the following functionality:

  • A physical network that connects all computers
  • Folder sharing
  • Printer sharing
  • Sharing-level permissions
  • Workgroup networking model (not domain)
  • Basic Internet firewall

It's called peer-to-peer networking, but one of the machines in the network is actually made superior to the others. While all machines are capable of sharing folders and printers, the "mothership" computer (a user workstation) is designated to host the Internet and firewall configuration. Windows XP does this by creating a separation zone between the network interfaces (e.g. NIC cards) on the mothership computer. It's here that the built-in firewall capability provides basic network address translation (NAT) that effectively prevents shared resources from being visible on the Internet. Granted, this firewall capability may not meet everyone's needs, but at least it's available. I don't blame you if you seek out a more robust hardware-based firewall to increase your security comfort level.

Stepping into Peer-to-Peer
So let's get going. I assume you have Windows XP Professional in front of you. Note that the Windows XP Home Edition does not support this peer-to-peer network functionality.

  1. Click Start, Control Panel, Network Connections.
  2. Select Set up a home or small office network link under Network Tasks on the left-side.
  3. The Welcome to the Network Setup Wizard screen on the Network Setup Wizard appears. Click Next.
  4. The Before you continue screen appears, listing the steps that will be completed. Click the checklist for creating a network link. The result is shown in Figure 1.

Peer Creation Steps
Figure 1. The steps for creating a home or small office network screen is truly a methodology for successfully deploying a peer-to-peer network. (Click image to view larger version.)

  1. Close the Steps for creating a home or small office network screen.
  2. Click Next on the Before you continue screen.
  3. If the wizard finds disconnected networking interfaces, you'll see the screen in Figure 2, entitled The Wizard found disconnected network hardware. You'll need to connect the network interfaces or select the Ignore disconnected network hardware checkbox to continue. Once you've resolved this problem, click Next.
Resolve Network Connections
Figure 2. You need to resolve network interface connectivity before proceeding to a connection method. (Click image to view larger version.)

  1. The Select a connection method screen appears. Here you will select from three connection options (see Figure 3). Make your selection and click Next.

Define network topology
Figure 3. Define the network Internet connection topology. (Click image to view larger version.)

Note: For the first computer you set up, which typically acts as the "mothership" of the peer-to-peer network, you should click the This computer connects directly to the Internet radio button. For the computers that you set up thereafter (second, third, fourth, etc.), select the second radio button, which says that another computer is already hosting and managing the Internet connection.

  1. On the Select your Internet connection screen, select the network connection that relates to the Internet under Connections and click Next. You must make a selection or the Next button will remain grayed out (see Figure 4).
Configure Internet Connection
Figure 4. Configuring the Internet connection. (Click image to view larger version.)

  1. The next screen, Your computer has multiple connections, is very important for both Internet connectivity and firewall issues (see Figure 5). It's here you begin to assist the wizard by defining the "inside" network adapter (local area network) and the "wild-side" network adapter (Internet connection). Make the appropriate selection and click Next. In my case, I selected Let me choose the connections to my network.

Local routes to Internet
Figure 5. Establishing the routed connection between local computers and the Internet. (Click image to view larger version.)

Note. Figure 5 is conceptually similar to the early screens of the Internet Connection Wizard (ICW) in Small Business Server 2000 where the inside/wild-side definition occurs. If you select Determine the appropriate connection for me (Recommended), Windows XP performs tests to see which network interface returns Internet information.

  1. Because of the selection I made in, the Select the connections to bridge appears. This is shown in Figure 6. Make the connection selection and click Next.

Select network interface for LAN
Figure 6. Select the network interface that applies to the local area network. (Click image to view larger version.)

  1. Complete the Computer description and Computer name fields on the Give this computer a description and name screen (similar to Figure 7), and click Next.
Name of computer
Figure 7. Name the computer and provide a description. (Click image to view larger version.)

  1. Complete the Workgroup name field on the Name your network screen and click Next (see Figure 8).
Create workgroup
Figure 8. You are creating a workgroup, not a domain. (Click image to view larger version.)

  1. Review your settings on the Ready to apply your network settings screen and click Next (see Figure 9).

Selections summarized
Figure 9. Your selected settings are summarized here. Don't forget you can select this information with your mouse and copy and paste it into a WordPad document for future reference. (Click image to view larger version.)

  1. Click Finish after the configuration process is completed.

You have now created the mothership machine on the peer-to-peer network. Next, you will configure a client computer (any other client computers you add to the peer network will be configured in a similar manner). This is easily accomplished by running the wizard on the other Windows XP Professional computers and at Step 8 (see Figure 3), selecting the second radio button. You would then complete the screens that follow asking for network naming information.

E-mail Drawback
The only missing component in Windows XP's peer-to-peer networking solution is native SMTP e-mail support. With the solution you just implemented, you still must continue to use POP-based e-mail. This means that two co-workers who want to transfer a file as an e-mail attachment must do so over the Internet, not locally. If the attachment is large and the Internet connection is slow, this shortcoming will reveal itself front and center. My guess is that Microsoft will correct this limitation in the future by providing some type of workgroup post office SMTP-based e-mail solution.

Child Play or Good MCSE Consulting Pay?
So is this Windows XP peer-to-peer networking capability just child's play for the MCSE? No. There are bona fide experienced MCSEs already building their consulting businesses around this new micro-business opportunity. One MCSE doing this is Bea Mulzer of Intellisys in Cocoa, Florida. Bea, who is also an active MCT teaching at an AATP college, assessed that the Windows XP peer-to-peer networking capability was a perfect fit for her marketplace. As told to me, aside from NASA and a handful of prime contractors, the Florida landscape is decorated with micro-businesses (and alligators). In the past, Bea had met some resistance with a server-based solution such as Small Business Server 2000 over cost. Just a few weeks after the Times Square release of Windows XP, Bea had already implemented two peer-to-peer networks. This is truly a case of an MCSE consultant detecting and capitalizing on a new niche—not a bad accomplishment in this era of shifting technology landscapes.

Not Lost On Microsoft and Gateway
The type of early Windows XP success that Bea the MCSE has achieved isn't lost on Microsoft. The company not only knew that this micro-business market existed and was underserved, but it's also the SBS "farm league." A micro-business today is a bona fide small business tomorrow. So Microsoft can sell these types of business the Small Business Server 2000 product one year hence, when the micro-business outgrows peer-to-peer networking. Gateway Computers has also latched onto that idea, with its network of 300 stores dedicated to serving small businesses. Several business solution advisors in different regions of the U.S. have told me that they sell a lot of machines to businesses with only a handful of users. These same BSAs are only too happy to sell a Gateway server down the road when the firm wants to implement a true client-server LAN.

The Future
All MCSEs should appropriately scrutinize technology solutions before deployment. And while the peer-to-peer networking capability is easy to set up and manage, the bigger question is, will it enjoy Microsoft's support in the future? In my interaction with the development team at Microsoft, I get the sense that the small business sector has support at the highest levels and XP's peer-to-peer networking capability will progressively improve.

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