- By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols -
Want to launch wireless networking into open source orbit? Then
Sputnik, founded by the trio behind Linuxcare, wants to help you.
Sputnik lets you turn an ordinary PC into a
dedicated 802.11b wireless access point (WAP). In the future, Sputnik
will be able to run as a daemon on Linux systems and will also
support the faster (54Mbps vs. 802.11b's 11Mbps) 802.11a wireless protocol.
While this GPL project is still in beta, there's enough there to see that Sputnik will achieve a successful
If you want to give Sputnik a try today, it's easy to meet the basic hardware
requirements--32 MBs of RAM, a bootable CD-ROM drive, a 486 or better Intel processor and a CD-ROM burner -- but the network
requirements are more exacting. You must have one ordinary Ethernet
card and an available PCMCIA slot for an Intersil Prism II chipset
802.11b card with 8.0.3 or higher firmware. These PCMCIA 802.11b
cards are common enough, but many cards, like Lucent and Orinoco, use
other chip sets. You can expect most cards to be supported in the
future, and the company is working on PCI wireless cards, but for today,
it's Intersil Prism II and PCMCIA cards, or you can forget about
Sputnik getting off the ground.
David Sifry and the rest of the Sputnik crew
are on the verge of releasing a new beta, which will use the Linux
2.4.18 kernel and include PCI and PLX card support. However, in this beta it will still be a dedicated server, so you won't be able to
run as a daemon.
To get your Sputnik moving, download
the CD ISO 9660 image. At 48.7 MBs, you don't want to do this on a
modem connection. Once on disk, you'll need to burn the image on a
With fresh CD in hand, I was able to boot up Sputnik on an old NEC
Ready 9734 with a 200MHz Pentium MMX processor and 64MBs of RAM. For
the network, I used an Intel EtherExpress card and a NetGear 802.11b
Wireless PC Card that hooked into the box's ISA slot with an Eiger
Labs PCMCIA ISA Adaptor.
You may not be so lucky as to get a successful launch the first time
out. Keep in mind that this is a beta. It will fail on hardware that,
based on the firmware and chipset, should work. Sputnik today is for
the brave and adventuresome. No one should consider it for production
for one moment, whether you're running an enterprise or just want to
share a 'Net connection with your kid.
The usual failures appear to come from people trying to run the code
on unsupported hardware. A quick check of the Sputnik gateway
requirements lists will save you much grief. That said, 802.11b is 802.11b -- once a Sputnik WAP is up and running, any PC with an 802.11b card can access
the network via Sputnik. For example, I was able to use connect to
the network via Sputnik with an IBM ThinkPad 240X using an Agere
(formerly Lucent) Orinoco Silver PCMCIA card, which couldn't possible
work as a gateway with the current generation of Sputnik software.
Once Sputnik loaded, for me it worked like a charm. I was able
to transfer files back and forth over the gateway between my Toshiba
Satellite 2805, whether it was running Red Hat Linux 7.2 or Windows XP
Professional, using both ftp and Server Message Block (SMB) to NT,
Windows 2K and Caldera Linux with Samba servers. I also had no trouble
accessing the Internet via the gateway and its Fast Ethernet link to
a DSL router. In short, the Sputnik server worked exactly like a WAP
Of course, with 802.11a WAPs from Intel, NetGear and Proxim averaging
street prices between $350 and $400, and their slower "b" ancestors
hovering between $100 and $200, you might wonder why you should experiment
with Sputnik, and for now, lose a computer completely to become a WAP server. Well, besides the simple answer that it's Open Source, the Sputnik company plans to add on integrated network administration, VPN, and directory service plug-ins in the forthcoming Sputnik Enterprise and Chokepoint versions.
The dedicated WAPs also have a range advantage. I was able to
maintain 5Mbps speeds using 802.11b with my NetGear MR314 outside my
office at 500 feet, while the Sputnik equipped at the same range had
slowed down to a slightly better 2Mpbs crawl. In the office, the
range dipped down to about 200 feet with similar performance.
The fault doesn't lie with Sputnik, it's simply that the dedicated
WAPs' antenna give them better range. Within your typical home office/small
business, you probably wouldn't notice any problem. It's only when
you're pushing 802.11b's range -- which is never as good as advertised
regardless of the vendor -- that you'll see bandwidth problems.
Technically, a Sputnik WAP can deliver 802.11 wireless to about 500
feet distance, but the FCC, relative scarcity of broadband wired
access to enable effective shared wireless, the rise of 3G, and ISPs'
acceptable usage policies, all make the future of freely
accessible hot-spotting very cloudy indeed.
By year's end you should be able to add a complete
business-class wireless WAP and network management to almost any
existing Linux server through Sputnik. Now, that's something to look forward to. None
of this is technically that difficult, so I believe that Sputnik will
be able to achieve its goals.
Another of Sputnik's goals is to join companies like Boingo Wireless and Joltage in delivering public
wireless hotspots. Whether this bottom-up approach to delivering
802.11 networking to the world will work is still anyone's guess.
Today, within its technology limitations, Sputnik works
very well. Tomorrow, given Sputnik technical growth and goals and its
business service plans, I expect Sputnik to be a major player not
just in the Linux networking business, but also in the wireless
networking world at large.