Network Basics: Peer-to-Peer Networking with Windows

A simple peer-to-peer network based on a desktop version of Windows can allow you to avoid the complexity and expense of using dedicated network operation systems. As in all things, there are advantages and disadvantages to each choice.

Advantages of peer-to-peer networks

The main advantage of a peer-to-peer network is that it’s easier to set up and use than a network with a dedicated server. Peer-to-peer networks rely on the limited network server features that are built into Windows, such as the ability to share files and printers.

Recent versions of Windows, including Windows 7, Vista, and Windows XP, include wizards that automatically configure a basic network for you so that you don’t have to manually configure any network settings.

Another advantage of peer-to-peer networks is that they can be less expensive than server-based networks. Here are some of the reasons that peer-to-peer networks are inexpensive:

  • Peer-to-peer networks don’t require you to use a dedicated server computer. Any computer on the network can function as both a network server and a user’s workstation. (However, you can configure a computer as a dedicated server if you want to. Doing so results in better performance but negates the cost benefit of not having a dedicated server computer.)

  • Peer-to-peer networks are easier to set up and use, which means that you can spend less time figuring out how to make the network work and keep it working.

  • You must consider the cost of the server operating system itself. Windows Server can cost as much as $200 per user. And the total cost increases as your network grows, although the cost per user drops. For a peer-to-peer Windows server, you pay for Windows once. You don’t pay any additional charges based on the number of users on your network.

Drawbacks of peer-to-peer networks

Yes, peer-to-peer networks are easier to install and manage than domain-based networks, but they do have their drawbacks:

  • Because peer-to-peer networks are based on computers running client versions of Windows, they’re subject to the inherent limitations of those Windows versions. Client versions of Windows are designed primarily to be an operating system for a single-user desktop computer rather than to function as part of a network. These versions can’t manage a file or printer server as efficiently as a real network operating system.

  • If you don’t set up a dedicated network server, someone (hopefully, not you) may have to live with the inconvenience of sharing his or her computer with the network. With Windows Server, the server computers are dedicated to network use so that no one has to put up with this inconvenience.

  • Although a peer-to-peer network may have a lower cost per computer for smaller networks, the cost difference between peer-to-peer networks and Windows Server is less significant in larger networks (say, ten or more clients).

  • Peer-to-peer networks don’t work well when your network starts to grow. Peer-to-peer servers just don’t have the security or performance features required for a growing network.