By Joe Stoddard. Just a few years ago, it was rare for small contractors or builders to have more than one computer in their office, not to mention extra desktops in the family room, laptops in the truck, or pocket PDAs. Now, one of the most common questions I'm asked is: "How do I keep all my computers synchronized with each other?"

Let's say a small builder has a full-time receptionist and a part-time bookkeeper, each with their own desktops. The builder also has a laptop he carries back and forth from jobsites to the office. All three of them need to read, modify, and print a common set of Microsoft Word and Excel files that are too big to fit on floppy disks, and they would all like to access the Internet to check e-mail and research product Web sites.

Sure, they could replace their floppy disks with some other removable media, such as zip disks or CD-RW. Another option would be to transfer files using a proprietary rig of software and special cables and then hassle with a mechanical printer switch. But what's really needed is a small-office network.

If you've tried to set up a network in the past and failed, don't worry. Thanks to more user-friendly PC operating systems, and new network hardware from Netgear, Linksys, D-Link, and others, hooking together a small network is much easier today. A basic Ethernet workgroup Local Area Network (LAN) with Internet access can be set up that connects three or four computers for well under $300. Here's what you'll need to get started:

Cabling. The most common network wiring method today is Cat-5 or -6 (certified for higher transmissions) unshielded twisted pair cable run from each computer location to a central hub location. This is available both in bulk and in various lengths with the requisite RJ-45 connectors (which look like extra-wide phone jacks) pre-installed. Prices range from a few cents to over a dollar per foot.

An inside look at a small networking setup for two desktops and a laptop.

Network Adapters. The network adapter, or Network Interface Card (NIC), is the hardware that hooks each computer or other device to the network. Many computers come with NICs pre-installed; if yours didn't, you can purchase either internal or external network adapters. Basic NICs sell for under $20. Hubs and Switches. A network hub or switch is a junction box for all the devices on your network. They both do the same job but a switch has additional electronics that let it transfer data more efficiently, typically yielding better network performance. Eight-port switches cost around $50.

Internet Router. These days, an Internet router is an important component of most small-office LANs. A router lets all users share a broadband Internet connection and provides a measure of security by keeping the "inside" network hidden from other Internet users. Models start at under $50.

In our example above, since the bookkeeper is part-time and her computer (Desktop01) is largely unused, it could be designated as the network file server, with the common Word and Excel files everyone needs to access always being opened from, and saved back to, that computer. This will ensure that the most recent file version is always available to everyone.

Printers can also be shared on the network. The fast laser printer that's currently hoarded by the receptionist (Desktop02) could be accessed by everyone in the company. And finally, by using an Internet router in conjunction with a DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable modem, every user will have a fast, always-on Internet connection.

This just scratches the surface. Next month, we look at ways our builder can connect to his new office network from a home office or jobsite, as well as some additional software and hardware that makes file management and synchronization a snap.

Joe Stoddard is a technology consultant to the building industry. He can be reached at