Network know-how

Sept. 1, 2005
Ihave discussed many times in previous articles the need for computers in the operatories.

Ihave discussed many times in previous articles the need for computers in the operatories. Besides being mandatory to use high-end digital systems such as intraoral cameras and digital radiography, operatory computers also allow the office to become more decentralized by permitting many functions to be completed chairside, such as scheduling and insurance submissions. Of course, the underlying assumption in these scenarios is that all of the computers are connected together. The challenge, though, is deciding how to accomplish this.

It's a wired, wired world

The typical method of connecting computers together is through use of Ethernet cabling, also known as network cables. The industry-standard cabling is known as Category 5, often referred to as Cat5. The actual cables are termed Cat5e. What’s the difference? Well, Cat5 cable will support 10/100 Ethernet. That is, Ethernet (10 MB/s) and Fast Ethernet (100 MB/s). Cat5e cable will support Ethernet, Fast Ethernet, and Gigabit Ethernet (1000 MB/s). Cat5e cable is completely backwards compatible and it can be used in any application where Cat5 cable would most often be used.

If you want to ensure that your network is ready for future speeds, then I would suggest investing in Cat6. However, there are many components to a network, and all of them must be rated for the higher speed:

1. Network Interface Card or NIC. Look for a NIC rated at 10/100/1000. Most of the current Dell computers come with 10/100/1000 NICs as standard equipment.

2. Cat5e or Cat6 cabling.

3. A gigabit switch.

While some people still refer to switches as hubs, this in not technically correct. A hub is a less intelligent device which passes information requests to every computer in the network. A switch, on the other hand, is a “smarter” hub in that requests pass from a workstation to the server. While the first gigabit switches were very expensive, you can now find 16-port gigabit switches for less than $200.

Cutting the cord

In many offices, wiring computers is either not practical or impossible. Many older buildings do not have drop ceilings or proper conduits, and installing them would not be cost-effective. Also, many dentists want the ability to use a laptop or Tablet PC throughout the office. In these cases, the best solution is to consider a wireless network.

Wireless networking has improved dramatically in the past few years. The devices used to set up a network - either a wireless router or wireless access point - have become very user friendly to the point that even people with no technical expertise can set up a wireless network. While wireless is certainly an option for any office, we prefer wired over wireless for the following reasons:

Speed - The first wireless networks that were accepted mainstream were called Wi-Fi or 802.11b. The speed was a maximum of 11 MB/s. These networks have been replaced in the past year with 802.11g, which has a maximum speed of 54 MB/s. Real-world speed is closer to 20 MB/s. The newest standard, which probably will be out in 2007, is 802.11n, with a minimum throughput of 100 MB/s. There are already devices out called “pre-802.11n,” but since nobody knows what the standard will be, these will likely be obsolete.

Cost - Once the network cables are in place, the cost to add computers is practically nil. For wireless networks, each computer will require a wireless adapter. While many notebooks come with built-in wireless adapters, most desktop computers do not. You will need to add either a PCI or USB adapter to each system.

Security- With a wired network, someone must be physically plugged into the network to access it. With wireless - due to its 150-foot range - anyone driving in the neighborhood can access your network. Most wireless systems allow for a high level of security. You can set up WPA, a type of wireless encryption; employ filtering that only allows computers you designate to connect; and turn off the broadcasting of the wireless network. The problem, though, is that all wireless systems come with security turned off by default, and many people are either too intimidated or don’t know how to set up the proper security.

Dentists should consider the pros and cons of the various types of networks - and work with a network specialist if they are not sure - to properly install what will be the backbone of their entire technology system.

Lorne Lavine, DMD, practiced periodontics and implant dentistry for more than 10 years. He is an A+ certified computer repair technician, as well as Network+ certified. He is the president of Dental Technology Consultants, a company that assists dentists in all phases of technology integration in the dental practice. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected], or by phone at (866) 204-3398. Visit his Web site at www.thedigitaldentist.com.

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