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Networking Computers In The Operatories

Besides being mandatory for the use of high-end digital systems like intraoral cameras and digital radiography, they also allow the office to become more decentralized by permitting many functions to be completed chairside, such as scheduling and insurance submissions. The underlying assumption in these scenarios, of course, is that all of the computers are connected together. The challenge 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 Cat 5. The actual cables that have been in use for many years are Cat 5e. What’s the difference? Well, Cat 5 cable will support 10/100 Ethernet—that is, Ethernet (10 MB/s) and Fast Ethernet (100 MB/s). Cat 5e cable will support Ethernet, Fast Ethernet, and Gigabit Ethernet (1000 MB/s). Cat 5e cable is completely backwards compatible, and can be used in any application for which you would normally use Cat 5 cable.

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If you want to ensure that your network is ready for future speeds, however, then I would suggest investing in Cat 6, as well as other network components rated for higher speeds: 1) a

Network Interface card, or NIC (look for a NIC that is rated 10/100/1000; most of the Dell computers that are now available come with 10/100/1000 NICs as standard equipment) and 2) a gigabit switch.

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

Cutting the Cord

In many offices, wiring computers is either not practical or else impossible. Many older buildings do not have drop ceilings or proper conduits run, and so installing them would not be cost-effective for the office. 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 user-friendly to the point that even people with no technical expertise can still set up a wireless network. Wireless is certainly an option for any office, but there are reasons why I prefer wired over wireless:

  1. Speed. The first wireless networks that were accepted mainstream were Wi-Fi, also called 802.11b. The speed was a maximum of 11 MB/s. Those have been replaced in the past year with 802.11n, which has a maximum speed of over 100 MB/s; real world speed is closer to 70-80 MB/s.

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

  4. Security. With a wired network, someone must be physically plugged into the network in order to access it. With the 150-foot range of wireless, 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 too inexperienced to set up the proper security.

Dentists should consider the pros and cons of the different types of networks, and work with a network specialist to properly install what will be the backbone of their entire technology systems.

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