Know Your Network: The Complete Guide

Know Your Network: The Complete Guide
Know Your Network:
The Complete Guide
by Adam Dachis and Whitson Gordon
Know Your Network, Lesson 1: Router
Hardware 101
Home networking is something we all have to deal with, but it can be
confusing as heck. This week, we're going to turn you into a
networking wizard, starting with getting to know the most important
device on your network: the router.
Router Basics
Your router is the glue that holds your home network together. It
connects all your computers to one another, either through Ethernet
cables or a wireless connection. A router is different than a modem:
your modem connects you to the internet, while your router connects
your computers to one another. When you hook up your router to the
modem, however, you're then able to share that internet connection
with all of the computers on your network. Sometimes modems will
come with routers built-in, but this isn't always the case.
Devices that connect to your router—that is, the computers, tablets,
smartphones, DVRs, game systems, and so on—are called clients. Each
client on the network is given an IP address, which helps your router
direct traffic. Clients within the network get a local IP address, while
your modem gets a global IP address. Global IP addresses are like
street addresses, while local IP addresses are like apartment numbers:
one lets you find the building in relation to the rest of the world, while
the other lets you find the specific location within the complex. These
addresses make sure the right information from the outside world gets
to the right computer on your network.
Routers have a number of different features, so we'll go through some
of the most common router specs and how they affect your home
Wired vs Wireless
You'll want to hardwire any computer that doesn't need to move
around, like a desktop, since wired connections are fast, reliable, and
cheap. They're far from ideal for devices you pick up and move
around, though, like laptops, so for those we use a wireless connection
(commonly known as Wi-Fi). Wi-Fi is more than adequate for simple
web browsing, though wired connections are ideal if you're
transferring big files, gaming, video chatting, or streaming video.
Most people have a mix of wired and wireless devices on their
network, so most of our discussion today will be focused on wireless
routers. Since wireless routers allow for both wired and wireless
connections, you can wire up when necessary, and connect over Wi-Fi
everywhere else.
Wireless Throughput
Throughput is the speed at which a router can transfer data. The
transfer speed of your wireless connection is dependent on the
wireless standard it uses. The most common standards today are
802.11g and 802.11n (also known as "wireless G" and "wireless N",
respectively). Wireless N is faster than wireless G, though routers that
support wireless N are also more expensive. Most new devices—like
smartphones and laptops—support the faster wireless N.
Your router isn't the only thing that determines wireless speed: you
also need the correct kind of wireless card in your computer. If you
have an older laptop, it might have an older wireless G card inside,
meaning it can't take advantage of wireless N speeds. If you have a mix
of N- and G-capable computers, you can turn on a wireless N feature
called "mixed mode", which will let you use both on the same network.
You'll get faster speeds on the wireless N clients and slower speeds on
the wireless G clients. Some claim, however, that running both N and
G devices on the same network can lower speeds across the network,
even between a wireless N router and wireless N computer. So if you
want the fastest possible speeds, you'll probably want all wireless N
devices on that network.
Wired Throughput
The wired half of your router will come in one of two speeds: 10/100
Mbps and 10/100/1000 Mbps (also known as "gigabit"). 10/100
routers are cheaper, but won't transfer data between computers as
quickly as gigabit routers will. If you're only using your router to
connect to the internet, 10/100 is fine, since your internet connection
is probably slower than 100Mbps, meaning you wouldn't be able to
actually take advantage of the router's full speed. If you're transferring
data between computers, however, you'll want to go with a gigabit
router, since it'll transfer that data much faster than a 10/100 model.
Wireless routers can only reach so far. If you have a big house and
have the router on one side, you might not be able to access the
network from the other side of the house. Your range, like your speed,
is determined by the wireless standard you use. Wireless N has a
longer range than wireless G, so if range is important you'll want to
use wireless N.
That said, there are many other ways to connect to your network from
afar. Wireless extenders (also called wireless repeaters) are products
you can buy that do exactly what they say—extend your network
further. Alternatively, you can buy a powerline adapter, which lets you
use your home's electrical wiring to hook a faraway device up to your
router with an Ethernet cable (and thus get a faster connection than
wireless would allow for).
Number of Ports
Routers have two types of ports in the back: LAN ports and WAN
ports. Your WAN port hooks up to your modem (which, again, is what
connects to the internet), while the LAN ports hook up to your
computers and other clients. Most routers have one WAN port, but
you'll need as many LAN ports as you have wired devices. If you have
more wired devices than can fit on a router, you can plug them all in
using a wired switch. A switch is like a power strip for your router: it
lets you plug in more devices than the router originally allowed. Photo
by Ari Zoldan.
Number of Bands
Wireless routers broadcast on a radio band, and many new wireless N
routers can broadcast on two bands. These are called, appropriately,
dual band routers. Older routers and computers operate on a 2.4Ghz
band only, while dual-band routers allow for both the 2.4Ghz band
and a 5Ghz band. The 5Ghz band is great because it has less
interference, since tons of other devices—from other networks to
Bluetooth to cordless phones to microwaves—operate on the 2.4Ghz
The main downside of the 5Ghz band is that, since it uses a higher
frequency, it isn't as good at penetrating walls. As such, if you run your
router in 5Ghz mode, you might have a shorter range than if you ran it
in 2.4Ghz mode. In addition, some older devices don't support 5Ghz.
The solution to this problem is to use a simultaneous dual-band
router, which can broadcast on both bands at once.
Wireless Security
Unless you don't mind strangers eating your bandwidth and
potentially accessing your networked files, you should always protect
your wireless network with a password. WPA2 is currently the most
secure type of wireless encryption, so make sure you use WPA2 if you
can. Some old wireless devices won't support WPA, in which case
you'll have use the less secure WEP instead. Basically every device
made in the last four years support WPA2 encryption.
If you're planning to use your router for a small business, you might
want to look for a router with the "guest network" feature, which
allows other people to access the internet without giving them full
access to your computers and sensitive data.
Hardware specs like these are important, but routers also come with a
lot of software and firmware features, like DHCP reservations, Quality
of Service, or firewalls that can make managing your network easier.
However, the more of these features a router has, the more expensive
it's likely to be.
If you're comfortable with flashing a new firmware on your router,
you're better off getting one that's compatible with a third-party
firmware like DD-WRT or Tomato. Make sure your router is on DDWRT's list of supported devices or Tomato's list of supported devices if
you want to go this route.
When It Comes Time to Buy a New Router
If you have a particularly old router, you may read a lot of the above
information and decide it's time to upgrade. Be sure to check out our
guide to buying a Wi-Fi router, and take all the above information into
account as you shop: for example, if you need your network to reach
long distances, make sure you get a simultaneous dual-band router for
maximum range.
A note on user reviews: unlike most technology, reviews for wireless
routers are not to be trusted. Most routers have a mix of 5-star "works
perfectly" reviews and one star "totally sucks" reviews, and it's because
everyone's home is different. There are so many other factors that go
into network quality, like the walls, interference from other devices,
and so on that you can't really extrapolate much from a given person's
experience. The best thing to do is evaluate your needs, buy a router
from a trusted brand that fits those needs, and return it if it doesn't
work for you.
Understanding your router is merely the first step in the process, but
it's an important one. In the next few lessons, we'll be talking about
some of the software and firmware features of your router (like the
aforementioned DHCP reservations and Quality of Service) and how
they can make your network as fast and reliable as possible.
You can contact Whitson Gordon, the author of this post, at
[email protected] You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook,
and lurking around our #tips page.
Know Your Network, Lesson 2:
Understanding Your Router’s Admin
In the first lesson of our networking night school, we looked at the
basics of router hardware. Today we're going to start setting things up.
The goal here is to get the most important things set up and then
explain all the other details you ought to know. You may not use every
section in your router's admin page, but understanding the features
will help. We're going to use the DD-WRT router firmware in our
examples—since it's a Lifehacker favorite available for many routers—
but we'll explain how each topic applies to whatever router you have.
Your router may not have every feature we talk about today, but if
you're stillconsidering which router to buy you may want to take the
contents of these lessons into consideration.
Note: In future lessons we'll cover some of the more exciting and
complex things you can do with your router, but first this episode just
focuses on the basics.
Naming Your Router
While it may seem trivial, there are actually a few things you need to
know about naming your router. To start, the name of your router and
wireless network are different. Naming your wireless network is really
naming the service set identifier (SSID) that the router broadcasts and
you select on your computer when you want to connect. The name of
your router, however, is how it is identified to other devices on the
network. In most cases, this name is much less important than what
you choose for your SSID.
Choosing your SSID can be important, however. Leaving it as the
default can lead to confusion with other networks, so it's important to
pick something specific to you. You can even choose a name that's the
first half of a phrase so it's easier for you to remember. This is, of
course, somewhat less secure. Clever names can even discourage
people from trying to use your network(e.g. "c:\virus.exe") or even
communicate a message (e.g. "SexIsTooLoud"). Change it to whatever
suits your purposes, but do make sure you change it.
Basic Wi-Fi Configuration and Security
There are a few things you need to do when configuring your Wi-Fi
and they're all very simple. First, you need to make a few basic setup
decisions. Generally you'll find these settings in the Wireless tab on
your router's admin page. This is the case in DD-WRT and on Linksys
routers. For Dlink routers, it's generally in the Setup section under the
Wireless Settings subheading. Netgear also calls it Wireless Settings,
and Belkin tends to stick it under a Wireless header but label it
Channel and SSID. There are a lot of router brands out there so we
can't go over every naming convention, but as you can see they're
pretty similar. You're basically looking for the word "wireless" and
"setup" and/or "settings" in some combination.
Once you're there, the first thing you want to do is choose your SSID
as we discussed in the section above. Choosing a wireless channel is
also important, but we're going to talk about that in depth in the next
lesson. The goal is to pick the channel with the least interference, and
since the default channel is 6 for most routers you're likely to run into
more interference on that channel. Feel free to pick another one for
now, or just stick with the default and see how things run. If you're not
getting the quality signal you'd hoped for, we'll talk about what you
can do to about it in the next lesson.
Next you may need to choose a broadcast mode. In most cases you'll
be working with a router that broadcasts both 802.11g and 802.11n, if
not also others as well. As we discussed yesterday, mixed mode is
going to reduce your speeds somewhat. If you really want to maximize
throughput, broadcasting only 802.11n is your best bet. If you need
backwards compatibility with 802.11g, however, you'll need to choose
mixed mode.
Next, hop on over to the Security section of your wireless settings.
Most routers will separate these settings from your basic channel and
SSID setup, but some keep them together. If you look for a section
with a label approximating "wireless security" you should find what
you're looking for. When you do, this is where you can enter a
password. Generally WEP is easier to crack, so using WPA2 (or WPA if
WPA2 is not an option) is a better choice. You also can choose a more
complex password when using WPA2. One thing to note is that some
Wi-Fi cards (in your computers) will have trouble connecting to a
WPA2-secured network via 802.11n when you don't support multiple
WPA2 algorithms. If you find that you or visitors have difficulty
connecting via 802.11n, be sure to set your WPA2 algorithms to both
AES and TKIP. This is usually represented as "AES+TKIP" or
something similar.
You don't need to mess around with much else beyond that to get your
Wi-Fi up and running securely. While there are a few more advanced
options worth looking at, too, we'll cover those in tomorrow's lesson.
Security Settings
Setting a Wi-Fi password isn't the only security you're going to have on
your router, and generally various security settings will be split up into
different sections. For example, password-protecting your router's
admin page will generally be in the Administration section and some
things like MAC Address Filtering like to find themselves in no
consistant location between the various brands of routers. Often times
you'll have to go looking around for what you want to find, but
generally you'll also find a few things clumped together. They often
deal with your router's firewall.
The firewall is the greatest challenge to any Hollywood actor playing a
hacker in a film, but in reality it's not that big of a deal. Basically, you
receive many network transmissions you're not aware of because your
router's firewall is blocking them from getting through to you. It has a
set of rules that allows certain kinds of data to reach you while
blocking others that you presumably don't want. A semipermeable
membrane is likely a better metaphor, but it's not quite as exciting or
dramatic as firewall.
For the most part, the default firewall settings should be just fine for
most people, but you should know that can less or more types of data
if you choose. For example, you can filter out things like cookies and
Java applets. You'll find that most routers are already filtering
anonymous ping requests, which you may want to disable. It's also a
good page to look at for troubleshooting purposes, as sometimes
settings in your firewall will prevent certain applications from working
properly as they require communicating outside of your local area
network (LAN). If you're trying to debug a problem, temporarily
disabling filters and/or features on your firewall can help you do so.
Most of the time, however, you can just leave things as they are.
NAT and QoS
NAT stands for network address translation and QoS stands for
quality of service. As NAT andport forwarding are related, you'll
generally find them together. Sometimes port forwarding is also
known as Virtual Servers in some routers. QoS is often paired with
these features as well but not always.
So what do they do? Let's start with NAT and port forwarding. You're
probably aware that you have local IP addresses that differ from the IP
addresses out on the internet. On your local network, they usually look
like 192.168.x.x or 10.0.x.x but they can essentially be anything
because they're local. NAT is what translates the outside IP addresses
to your local network so you can interact with people as far as the wide
internet can take you. Port forwarding relates to this because, by
default, nobody on the outside can access your local machines. You
can use port forwarding, however, to open up certain ports for certain
machines on the network. For example, if one computer has a web
server and another has an FTP server, you could open up ports for
both of those services so people could access them from outside of
your local network. If this is new to you and a little confusing, don't
worry—we're going to cover this in a lot of depth in the next lesson.
QoS is designed to keep your network's bandwidth evenly distribute,
and it's something we'vepreviously covered. Basically, the idea is that
certain users and/or applications may hog the bandwidth on your
network and from your connection to the internet, but QoS will let you
define rules to let you throttle users and services when they are using
too much. This allows for the network to run more smoothly in general
and can help the router from getting so bogged down that you need to
manually restart it. QoS isn't available on all routers, but it's becoming
more and more common. If you use custom firmware like DD-WRT
it'll be there when you need it.
Administration and Status
Your router generally has two sections that go by the same name with
pretty much every router on the market: Administration and Status.
Administration is where you add a password to your router's admin
section, choose whether or not the router admin pages can be accessed
outside of your local network, and also accomplish tasks like settings
backup and firmware upgrades. The Status section will give you
information about your router, such as its current wide area
network(WAN) IP address, the computers that are connected to it, and
more. This is also where you can check your router's logs. Generally
you won't need to spend much time in either of these sections, but
knowing what they do and what's inside can be particularly helpful.
Various Router Services
Your router may have a section called Services, Tools, Advanced, or
something that isn't particularly descriptive. This section will often let
you set up things like a VPN, turn on advanced options like SSH, and
enable or disable the system log (although you'll usually find that in
the Status section, too). We'll cover these items more later, but if
you're looking for anything that doesn't seem to fit in the available
categories you'll generally find it in your Services/Tools/Advanced tab.
That's all for today. Our next lesson will concentrate on improving
your network speed—both wired and wireless—and router
performance, so be sure to check back tomorrow night for the next
You can follow Adam Dachis, the author of this post, on Twitter,
Google+, and Facebook. Twitter's the best way to contact him, too.
Know Your Network, Lesson 3:
Maximize Your Speed, Performance,
and Wireless Signal
You've picked your router and set up all the basics, so now it's time to
optimize your network. In this lesson, we're going to look at how to
improve your network's speed and wireless signal so it's operating at
full capacity.
In theory, your network should work just fine as-is, but we all know
that reality can differ from what should ideally be the case. How well
your router performs is going to depend on a lot of factors, so these
tips and tricks might work better for some than others. For example,
strategies for improving your wireless signal aren't going to do much
unless your router is dealing with some interference. On the other
hand, tweaks can only do so much if you're dealing with really bad
interference. That said, whether the improvement is marginal or great,
we're going to look at all sorts of ways to get your network running as
fast and efficiently as possible.
Use Your Wires Whenever Possible
Wi-Fi is nice, but it's
rife with signal issues
and slower than a
wired ethernet
connection—even when
Wi-Fi is performing its
best. If you can wire up
your devices, you
should. When
transferring files
between devices you'll always get better performance over a wire, and
internet connections over 25mpbs will also benefit from wires. That
may seem strange when many routers advertise wireless speeds that
are much higher, but real-world performance is generally far lower.
If you can't wire up your home, power line ethernet adapters (like
Belkin's gigabit option) can be a good alternative. It's pretty rare that
you'll have a power line capable of maintaining gigabit speeds, but you
may still achieve better performance than you would over the air with
802.11n. If you want to give power line adapters a shot, just buy a set
from a store with a good return policy and see how they work. If they
don't, you can always take them back. If they do, you can buy as many
as you need. Just be sure to test them on every outlet you're going to
use, since some outlets work better than others with power line
Check out our guide on ditching wireless and going completely wired
in your home for more tips.
Improve Your Wi-Fi Signal
There are plenty of tricks you can employ to improve your Wi-Fi
signal. Your mileage may vary depending on your situation, but most
methods are pretty easy and worth a look. In this section, we're going
to take a look at our favorites. They're all things you can accomplish
with very little effort.
Choose the Best Wireless Channel
While radio frequency
interference is going to be
an issue in your home,
one of the biggest causes
of interference that'll slow
down your Wi-Fi speed is
other Wi-Fi routers in
your area. That's often
because most Wi-Fi routers default to the same channels: 6 or 11. (You
don't need to understand all of this to fix the problem, but we'll
explain.) Additionally, the standard channel width is 20 MHz, which
means that even though you're on channel 6, which has a frequency of
2.437 GHz, your channel width spans 20 MHz around that frequency.
Since each channel is only 5 MHz apart from the next, your signal is
bleeding into the others. While you can adjust the channel width, this
may only help some of the time as your router's needs will change.
Ideally channel width would be adaptive, but since that isn't a reality
the best thing you can do is pick a channel as far from the others as
Previously mentioned wireless network locater WiFi Stumbler is a
webapp that provides a simple way to check what channels are in use
in your computer's range. Simply look for the channel with as much
space around it as possible and use that channel instead of what you're
currently using. Also note that while you may pick up competing
signals on the same channel, if they're all very weak that can be a
better choice than choosing a lesser-used channel with a strong,
competing signal.
Basically, if your neighbor's on channel 1 and a few people down the
block are using channel 4 (and you're somehow picking up their WiFi), you're still probably better off using channel 4 for your Wi-Fi. That
is, unless there's a huge amount of interference on channel 5. As you
can see it can get a little tricky, but the goal is to pick a channel that
keeps its distance from other signals with the same or overlapping
We discussed where to change this settings in the previous lesson, but
you'll generally find it in your basic wireless settings on your router. It
tends to sit in the same section as your SSID.
Boost Your Signal's Transmit Power
Your Wi-Fi router
transmits its signal
with a set amount
of power, but that's
something you can
adjust. In theory, if
your signal sucks you'd want to just transmit it as powerfully as
possible. In reality, boosting your router's transmit power too much
can actually make things worse. But there's a magic number: 70 mW.
In general, your router's transmitting at 28 mW, but most routers can
handle 70 mW without issue. According to the DD-WRT
documentation, setting this any higher could fry your router's radio
chip because your router's not designed to handle the excess heat. You
technically canturn it all the way up to 251 mW, but if you do you're
just asking for trouble. If your router overheats, it's going to perform
far worse—or die. Staying in a safe range may only show marginal
improvements, but that's much better than a dead router.
Unfortunately most routers don't allow you to boost your transmit
power, so if you're not using custom firmware like DD-WRT or
Tomato, you're probably out of luck on this one. If that includes you,
just read on as the next section can help solve signal issues with
virtually any router.
Extend Your Signal with DIY Projects
Sometimes router settings just
aren't going to cut it, so you
need to put on your tinkering
hat and make a DIY booster. In
episode four of the Lifehacker
Show, we built this simple
Windsurfer booster out of card
stock and tinfoil. On top of that, we have many more Wi-Fi boosting
projects, such as this tin can extender or a repurposed satellite dish.
There are also several range-boosting products on the web (like this
one), but if you can avoid shelling out another $70, it's worth giving a
DIY option a try.
Use QoS to Help Prevent Bandwidth
Hogging and Network Overloads
In our previous lesson we talked a little bit about Quality of Service,
which is essentially a set of rules that throttles bandwidth when a
person (your roommate) or application (BitTorrent) is trying to hog it
all. Say, for example, you want to video chat while your roommate is
downloading a movie. QoS helps make sure both endeavors have
enough bandwidth. We have a full guide on configuring QoS, but
here's a quick overview of what you need to do.
First things first, navigate to your router's QoS page (if it exists—not
all router firmwares have this feature) and enable QoS. That's not
going to do anything yet, because we have some settings to fill out
first, but I always forget to enable features so I like to do that first. In
your QoS settings you should have a few settings and toggles to deal
with. Here's a quick look at your options in DD-WRT (note: this will
vary from router to router, but obviously we can't go over every single
brand's firmware):
WAN, LAN, or Both - Generally QoS is used to handle traffic
from outside your local network, so it defaults to WAN (Wide
Area Network). Unless you have a reason to change it, just leave
this setting as-is.
Packet Scheduler - This can be set to HTB or HFSC. HTB is
the default method that uses a "token" system to manage
bandwidth. Don't change this to HFSC unless you know what
you're doing.
Uplink and Downlink - Here you can set a limit for the total
network bandwidth can be used on your network. If you don't
want to max out your connection, you can set these speeds to less
than their theoretical maximums. DD-WRT recommends
80-95% for uplink and 80-100% for downlink.
Once you've got those global settings taken care of, you can start
specifying rules. DD-WRT splits these rules up into three categories:
Services, Netmask, and MAC priorities.
Services Priority will let you set bandwidth priorities for different
applications. These applications are pre-set and include everything
from SMTP to BitTorrent to Xbox Live. If a particular service isn't
listed, you can add it yourself.
Netmask Priority can give bandwidth priority to a range of IP
addresses. For example, if you have three computers that use the IP
addresses,,, you can specify that
range to receive priority. This can be useful if you want to ensure that
your machines will always take priority over any guest computers that
show up on your network.
MAC Priority is a way to set which specific devices receive priority
over others. Here you enter your device's MAC address (a MAC
address is a unique identifying address for your computer's network
adapter) and set a relevant priority.
Once you've chosen a service, IP range, or MAC address, and added it
to your priorities list, you have to actually define the priority. By
default the priority will be set to Standard, but you can promote it to
Express or Premium to give it a higher bandwidth priority over other
items on the list. These categories are good for applications that will
sometimes require additional bandwidth, such as video chat and
VOIP. You can also set any item to Exempt to let the app or computer
use as much bandwidth as it wants and Bulk if you want it to only use
bandwidth that is left over from other applications.
After you've finished adding all your devices and setting their
priorities, you can save your settings and let your router reboot (if
necessary). That's really all you have to do to get QoS working.
That's all we've got for today's lesson. Join us again tomorrow when
we'll be going over how to set up your computers for remote access. If
you've missed any previous lessons, you can always find them on the
Lifehacker Night School tag page.
You can follow Adam Dachis, the author of this post, on Twitter,
Google+, and Facebook. Twitter's the best way to contact him, too.
Know Your Network, Lesson 4: Access
Your Home Computers from Anywhere
You've picked out your hardware and set up the basics, and configured
your network to perform at its best and fastest. Now it's time to open
the gates to the outside world. In this lesson, we're going to walk you
through how to set up your router so you access your home computers
from anywhere—and with your own friendly, easy-to-remember URL.
Setting up remote access to your local network is one of the coolest
things you can do with your router, as it allows you to remotely view
your screen, access files, control services like BitTorrent remotely, and
so on. Basically, anything you can do at home can be made possible by
just opening a few ports on your router. It can seem a little daunting if
you've never done it before, but once you understand what everything
means and where to find the information you need, you should have
no trouble getting things to work. We're going to go over basic setup
and then talk briefly about a few bonus options as well.
Port Forwarding and More
By default, your local network is local and cut off from the rest of the
internet. In most cases you have just one IP address that's shown to
the world, despite the many that your router distributes to your
individual computers and devices locally. What port forwarding does
is take a port on that shared IP address that's available to the rest of
the web and forwards it to one of your local machines. This lets people
from outside access services on your local network.
Setting up port forwarding is pretty straightforward, but before you
get started, you need to know what ports you want to open up. Most of
the time, you'll set up port forwarding on an as-needed basis—say after
you've set up a new service on your computer For example, if you're
trying to run a web server off your machine you'll need to open up port
80. If you want to open up SSH access, you'll need to open up port 22.
Those are just two of many possibilities, and you probably don't have
every port for every service memorized.
This is where a site like can help, as it provides a
handy list of common ports for specific services. You can use this list
to check which ports you need to open for whatever services you want
to make available from outside your home network.
Once you've figured out all the ports you want to open, just head on
over to the port forwarding section of your router (if you don't know
where it is, just click around a little). In DD-WRT, it's in the NAT &
QoS section. Other routers may list it simply as Port Forwarding (all
on its own) or Virtual Servers. Let's take a look at what a filled-out
port forwarding table looks like:
While things may differ slightly depending on your router's firmware,
this table is pretty standard. Here's what all of those fields mean:
1. Application - The name of the application you're forwarding
this port for. You can use any descriptive text you want—this
field is here to help you remember why you set this up; like the
name suggests, you normally want to use the name of the
application you're setting up port forwarding for. I also include
my computer's name along with the service, since I forward ports
for the same applications on different computers. For example,
you'll see VNC service set up for both Grey and Hunter. I include
their names in the Application section so I know which port
forwarding rule is for which computer.
2. Port to - "Port to" is the port on your local IP address. If you
were setting up VNC for a local computer, you'd fill this in with
5900 as that's the port number VNC uses.
3. Port from - "Port from" is the port on your external IP address.
Generally you'll also enter the same port as you would in the
"Port to" field. This works just fine when you're configuring only
one machine for one type of service. But say you wanted to be
able to remotely access two or more computers using VNC. If you
used 5900 on a single, external IP address they would be in
conflict. The router would see a request for port 5900 and not
know which local IP address should handle that request since the
port forwarding table has two. To solve this problem, you can use
the standard port for one and not for the other—kind of like an
apartment building has a single address but multiple
apartments. As you can see in the sample routing table above,
Grey's "Port from" is set to 5900 while Hunter's "Port from" is
set to 5901. If you try to use VNC normally on my external IP
address, you'll be asked to log in to Grey because it uses the
standard port. If you want to access Hunter, however, you can
easily do so by just using port 5901 instead of the default. This
way you can set up identical services with a single external IP
address without conflicts.
4. Protocol - This is where you specify whether or not your service
uses the TCP protocol, UDP protocol, or both. When you look up
your ports you'll also want to make note of the protocols used. In
most cases it will just be TCP.
5. IP Address - This is where you specify the LAN (local area
network) IP address of the computer you want to use for this
port forwarding rule. You can easily find this information in your
computer's network settings. The IP address will generally be in
the 192.168.x.x or 10.0.x.x format. Because these IP address are
generally dynamic (meaning they can change), you'll want to
either set up static IP addresses or DHCP reservations. More
information on that is available below.
6. Enable - You need to check this box to enable the port
forwarding rule. If you don't check it, you'll still be able to save
the rule but it won't be active or function in any way.
Now that you understand what these fields mean, click the "Add"
button at the bottom to add a new port forwarding rule. Fill everything
out with the desired information (such as port 21 for FTP, 22 for SSH,
5900 for VNC, etc.) and don't forget to check the enable box to make
sure everything works. When you're done entering all your rules, save
it and you're all set.
Port Range Forwarding
Sometimes you want to open a range of ports on a particular machine
and not just one at a time. Some routers offer the option of port range
forwarding in addition to regular old port forwarding (like we just
discussed). This works in the same way, except you specify a range
(e.g. ports 21 - 80).
DMZ stands for De-Militarized Zone and is a simple way to open up
every port on a single computer. If your router has this feature, just
visit the DMZ page and enter that computer's IP address. While
convenient if you only have one computer you want available for
remote access, this isn't very secure. You're essentially allowing any
kind of traffic to be forwarded to this machine. Even if you only have
one computer, you're still better off manually entering each service
you want to open. Only use this if you really have a good reason to do
DHCP Reservations
One of the annoying aspects of port forwarding is that your router
dynamically assigns IP addresses to your computers. That means the
local IP addresses of you computers may change, which can render
that port forwarding you did incorrect or non-functional. While setting
up static IP addresses on your local machine is one option, DHCP
reservations are better if you've got the option in your router. This is
common in Linksys and D-Link routers but generally not included in
Belkin. It's also available in DD-WRT in the Services section, but it's
easy to miss.
DHCP reservations let you specify static local IP addresses on the
router's side so that when your computer connects to your network,
your router will always assign it the same local IP address. To set it up,
decide what local IP address you want for a given computer (or other
device) and find it's MAC address. Your MAC address is a 12-digit
alphanumeric string separated by two digits at a time. It generally
looks like 1A-2B-3C-4D-5E-6F or 1A:2B:3C:4D:5E:6F. To locate it on
Windows, click the Start menu and choose run. Then type ipconfig/all.
The "Physical Address" is your MAC address. On Mac OS X, just open
System Preferences, choose Network, click More Info, and then the
Hardware tab. Your MAC address should be the first thing displayed.
Once you've got that you can just enter it in the reservation list with
the local IP address you want and you're also set. Just be sure to save
and enable it. You may need to restart your router to see the changes
take effect, but once you do the computers and devices in the
reservations table will retain the same local IP addresses. This solves
pretty much every kind of problem. For information on setting this up,
check out our guide to DHCP reservations.
Assign a Friendly Domain Name to Your Router
with Dynamic DNS
DNS is a service that lets you access your home computers using a nice
doman name (e.g. instead of a numeric IP address
(e.g. Depending on your internet provider, however,
your external IP address may periodically change. That's why you need
Dynamic DNS. It points a friendlier domain name to your numeric IP
address just like regular DNS, but compensates for that IP address'
proclivity to change. So, rather than typing in every time
you want to remotely access your home computer, you can type
something friendly like
You can accomplish this task in a couple of ways. First, you can
download some software from your dynamic DNS provider that will
automatically check and update your external IP address at a set
interval. Second, your router may already support some dynamic DNS
providers and can perform this update for you automatically (which is
the easier method). Two of the most popular providers of dynamic
DNS services are DynDNS and No IP, but there are others. These
services are generally free but offer perks at a cost. Some routers only
support one of these services, but custom firmware like DD-WRT
support both and more.
To set up dynamic DNS, you just need to sign up for an account with
one of these services and enter your account credentials into the
dynamic DNS section on your router. If your router doesn't support
your service of choice, you can just download software from your
service provider like we mentioned earlier. You'll need to keep this
software running pretty much 24/7, so it's definitely better if you can
leave the task of dynamic DNS to your router.
If you want further setup instructions, here's how to set things up with
DynDNS and No IP. Your router may support other services, but it's
likely to support at least one of those.
That's all for today's lesson. In our final lesson, we'll be taking a look at
some fun and useful bonus features you may have on your router plus
resources for learning more. As always, if you're behind on our
lessons, you can always find everything you've missed on the
Lifehacker Night School tag page.
You can follow Adam Dachis, the author of this post, on Twitter,
Google+, and Facebook. Twitter's the best way to contact him, too.
Know Your Network, Lesson 5: Bonus
Features and Further Resources
You've picked out your hardware and set up the basics, optimized your
network for speed and performance, and set up remote access. Now
it's time for a little fun. Here's a look at some cool bonus features you
may have on your router and how you can learn more.
Bonus Features
We've already covered most of the great big things you'd want to do
with your home network, but there are a few extras your router may
support that could come in handy right now or some day down the
line. We're going to give you a brief overview of some of these bonus
features so you can decide if you want to give them a shot and learn
more about them.
Bridge Mode
If you have more than
one router, you
probably don't have
much use for the
second one. That is,
unless it's in bridge
mode. Bridge mode will
turn a router into a Wi-Fi repeater so it can take the signal from your
original router and broadcast it in another area of your home. If you're
trying to get better wireless coverage around the house, this is a good
way to make it happen.
Bridge mode can work in two different ways, and what type of router
you have will determine if you can use only one of these ways or both.
More commonly you'll have the ability to connect the bridged router
via ethernet and then use it only to broadcast a wireless signal. Less
commonly, the bridged router can do the same thing but connect over
Wi-Fi. This comes with the disadvantage of slightly degraded
performance. If you have a bunch of routers in your home you also run
the risk of added interference. That said, this can be an effective way to
ensure you actually get a signal where you need it.
So how do you activate bridge mode? This varies a lot from router to
router. The easiest routers to work with are Apple routers, as you just
have to run through the setup options and choose "Connect to my
current wireless network" (rather than create a new one). Then choose
"Extend the range of my wireless network." That's pretty much all you
have to do, aside from choosing another network. On other routers it
gets more detailed and pretty specific, so here are a few tutorials you
can use for these popular brands:
DD-WRT (custom firmware compatible with many Linksys
routers and more)
Guest Networks
You have your
primary wireless
network, of course,
but if you want to
separate guests you
can set up a guest
network. This will
give them a separate
SSID to choose when
connecting and keep
them from accessing
anything locally. It's not a bad idea for security and privacy purposes.
You'll find the guest networks feature on custom firmware DD-WRT
and some other routers as well. To see how to set it up with DD-WRT,
watch this video. If you want to enable guest networks on your nonDD-WRT router, first make sure you have the feature. It's more
common with higher-end routers, but still not a feature every router
will have. In most cases the setup will be very simple and you'll simply
need to turn guest networks on.
For Cisco/Linksys E-series routers, you'll need to use the Cisco
Connect software included with your router to enable a guest network.
It will not be on the router admin page. Once you run the software,
just click "Change" in the Guest Account area and it will create a guest
username and password. When a guest connects to the guest
network's SSID, that username and password will be necessary in
order for them to use it.
Belkin routers with this feature will have the option on the admin page
in the Guest Access section. The same goes for D-Link routers, but the
area is called Guest Zone. Some Netgear routers should have a similar
option as well. If you're using a newer Apple router, MacLife has a
great setup guide.
For more information on guest networks, check out our guide.
Further Resources
We've mainly talked about routers in these lessons, but there's
more networking hardware to learn about. The Petri IT
Knowledgebase has an article the differences between routers,
switches, and hardware firewalls you might want to read to learn
If you run into trouble down the line, DV Hardware has a handy
router troubleshooting guide. eHow also has a variety of
troubleshooting articles, some specific to certain kinds of routers.
We've already talked about how to do a lot of practical things
with your home network, but it doesn't hurt to know exactly
what's actually making all of that stuff work behind the scenes.
HowStuffWorks has a good explainer on the subject.
One of the most valuable sources for information about your
router is the user guide. It's probably a little dry, yes, but it still
contains lots of good things you'll want to know. If you need to
ease yourself into learning about everything, look at your router's
admin pages and see if there are any tool tips or sidebar help
blurbs. Often times router admin pages include more
information right where you'll need it most.
Lastly, recommends several home networking books
if you really want to read quite a bit more. We don't have much
experience with home networking how-to literature, and
encourage you to explore and learn on your own, but if you like
the comfort of a book you might find what you need on that list.
You can follow Adam Dachis, the author of this post, on Twitter,
Google+, and Facebook. Twitter's the best way to contact him, too.
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