The Explorer: Five New Access-Sharing Solutions - InformationWeek
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Fred Langa
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The Explorer: Five New Access-Sharing Solutions

Eighteen months ago, I wrote in Windows Magazine: "Today, new hardware -- and most interestingly, incredibly inexpensive 100-percent software solutions -- make it almost ridiculously easy to share Internet access among Win9x machines. The products differ internally, but in essence what they all do is allow several networked computers to share one Internet connection. The connection can be almost anything: standard dial-up modem, ISDN, cable modem, ADSL, dedicated Ethernet. The only prerequisite is that all the machines be connected with some kind of LAN. You can use even a simple peer network (such as the one built into Windows 95) running on inexpensive, generic Ethernet cards and low-cost cable. No server is required."

That article then goes on to discuss a range of hardware and software options for sharing anything from a 56K modem connection, on up. Although 18 months is a long time, the concepts discussed in that article haven't changed an iota.

If you're fully up to speed on connection sharing, feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph. But if you'd like to refresh your memory on the subject or if you're starting from scratch, click on over to that article -- and to the other "For More Information" links at the top of this page. With the information there, you'll be able to get the most of the information that follows:

SyGate 3.1 and two related products: I've been using workgroup/home-office scale connection sharing hardware and software for some three years now, and my long-time favorite has been Sybergen's SyGate (mentioned in many of the above-referenced articles). SyGate is now up to version 3.1. It's more configurable and fleshed-out than earlier versions, and has better (actually outstanding) security. It's Y2K-compliant, works with Windows 9x and with the release candidates of Windows 2000, and is incredibly simple to setup. It costs $30 in the three-computer version; the prices go up proportionally with each additional machine you want to connect up to the "unlimited" license, which costs $300. It's an incredible bargain.

Sybergen also has released a companion product: SyShield. It's a powerful and highly customizable "personal firewall" you can install on any machine where you want additional protection from hackers trying to get into your system. I think it's best suited for laptops and stand-alone machines that aren't otherwise protected by a firewall. Or, to argue it the other way, if you already have a decent firewall -- even an inexpensive one like SyGate -- you really don't need SyShield, especially at $30 a pop.

And there's SyAccess, now in beta: You can think of it as SyGate's big brother. It's essentially a more powerful, more configurable version of SyGate with some additional features. SyAccess, for example, lets you determine who gets the lion's share of your bandwidth: If some user or group of users often needs more bandwidth than others, you can tweak SyAccess so it gives preferential treatment to access requests from those people. Unlike SyGate, SyAccess isn't cheap, however: it costs $700.

And there are SyGlitches: Documentation has never been the strong suit of Sybergen's products -- it's tended to be sketchy at best, and sometimes confusing (it reads like bad translations in many places). In the past, this wasn't much of a problem because the software was so simple to set up and use you hardly needed the documentation anyway. But with each succeeding software generation it's gotten more complex, and the lack of good documentation is becoming troublesome.

I still recommend SyGate -- for the money, it's a great bargain -- but I'm not enthusiastic about SyShield or SyAccess. Both are complex enough that you need much better documentation than what's provided; neither is cheap; and both are buggy: You expect bugs in a beta, like SyAccess; but the shipping version of SyShield caused a number of lockups and crashes on my test systems. I give a big thumbs up to SyGate (it would be a rave if they had better documentation) but thumbs down for SyShield and SyAccess.

If you want to make your own decision, all three products are available for free 30-day trials.

WinProxy: Proxy software used to be a pain to set up. You had to install the proxy software, register the kind of apps you wanted to use on it and figure out which software communication "ports" to open (a PC has 65,000 potential networking ports), and then configure each client machine and application to talk to the proxy.... Yuk.

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