February 28, 2002

Wireless networking for the (Linux) masses

Author: JT Smith

- By Robin "Roblimo"
Miller
-

Once you've gone wireless, you'll never go
back. Get a laptop and a wireless card, and you can work (or
goof off) online anywhere you want instead of being stuck
behind a desk or worktable. The problem has always been cost
and, to a slightly lesser extent, Linux compatibility. But
I've finally put together a wireless setup that's affordable
and works 100%, totally, all-the-way with Linux.

The heart of my system is the
SMC Barricade, a
combination 802.11b wireless access point, wired
network router, and printserver that typically retails for

less than US $200. This little gem has been
favorably reviewed elsewhere, but the
recommendation that made me decide to go out and get one for
myself came from Steve Killen, better known as
Resident
Geek
on freshmeat or
as r_g on the UMBC LUG
IRC channel.

"Barricade rocks," Steve said.

You have to understand: Steve lives in the
Baltimore area, where people hate to let go of a buck ("Mark
Downs" is the most popular clothing label here), so if
something "rocks" for Steve, it can't just work, but needs
to be a great bargain. He got his wireless Barricade at
CompUSA on sale for about $150. By the time I got to CompUSA
myself, they were sold out, but eventually they got more in,
priced at $199, and I grabbed one. Still a bargain.

Configuration was easy. The instruction booklet says you
should connect to your Wireless Barricade through CAT-5
first and do your initial setup that way instead of trying
to do the setup over the airwaves. I cheated because I
wanted to see what happened if I tried to do the setup
through the PCMCIA wireless card already configured in my
laptop. It worked. I logged into the unit -- the default is
no password at all -- and that was that. Connected.
"No-plug" and play, you might say. The only real reason to
do your setup through a wire, it seems, is so you can set up
wireless security and input an admin password before
connecting wirelessly. If you live, as I do, in a
neighborhood where few people are likely to be roaming
around looking for open wireless networks to get onto, you
too can probably go wireless from the first moment.

Then came the thrill of getting a serial port dialup modem
to work with the Barricade, because I do not currently have
broadband available to me. I tried a Creative ModemBlaster
and it created problems. Finally I got creative and tried it
on my laptop's serial port, directly. It worked, but not
well, and died after a few minutes. I couldn't find the
receipt, so I guess I'm out $69.
Oh, well. Sometimes buying the cheapest thing you see is a
bad idea, and you need to bump up a notch to get something
that works.

My next move was back to CompUSA for a $79 Best Data V.92
modem, the second-cheapest one they carried, the one I
should have gotten in the first place; it says, right on the
box, in big red letters, that it works with Linux. And it
does. Quite well, too -- 53K all the way, either through my
laptop's serial port or attached to the Barricade. So
about $280, plus $89 for the wireless card in my computer,
and I'm on line without a hookup, I'm on the front lawn, I am happy. And I don't even need a Mac.

Bye-bye, Airport

My previous wireless hub, bought slightly over a year ago,
was an Apple Airport. It was cute, had a built-in modem, and
took up very little room, but to configure the thing you
really needed a Mac. Yes, I found a Java setup utility for
it, originally written for the Lucent wireless hub on which
the Apple Airport was based, that sort of worked, but a
couple of times it messed up the Airport settings so badly
that I need to reinstall its firmware, and there we were,
back at the Mac. My wife is an iBook person, so we were ok
on that front, but far from perfect. For one thing, we had
one of the old-model Airports that was purely wireless,
without the option of plugging in with cable, and now and
then friends come over who don't have wireless cards.

(I suppose the fact that that most of our close friends
carry laptops with them everywhere they go says something
about us, but let's not speculate about that right now,
ok?)

Another objection to the Airport was limited range. It would
make it to the front yard, and that was about it. The
Barricade let me ping cleanly about 300 feet down the
street, no problem. Beyond that it was chancy, and depended
on the alignment of the two little antennas. We wiggled them
a bit and got out to about 400 feet, but were beyond the edge of true usability; any small movement led to a momentary disconnect. Without Pringles cans or other directional antenna devices,
300 feet is apparently about as far as you're going to get
with this baby. (There is no obvious place to attach an
external antenna, although one could probably be rigged up
one way or another.)

The price difference between the
Wireless Barricade-plus-modem combination, and the new
Airport, which also has CAT-5 ports, is barely
noticeable. By the time you factor in the serial cable to
connect the Barricade to the modem, your "big box retail"
price is going to be just below $300 in either case, maybe a few bucks lower for Barricade-plus-modem, and I
did not find either one priced enough lower online to
overcome shipping. But if you don't have a Mac handy and
don't want to get one, the Wireless Barricade is the clear
choice.

Setting up a printer

I'll quote from the setup booklet: "Follow the traditional

configuration procedures on Unix platforms to set up
the Wireless Barricade print server. The printer name is
'lpt1.'"

I did this, and it worked. No fuss, no hassle, using an old
HP DeskJet that's nearing the end of its lifespan but still
chugs out pages well enough for my simple needs.

The joy of compatibility

My wife's iBook can use the Wireless Barricade's
browser-based setup utility just as well as my (Mandrake)
Linux-running HP laptop. We have a Windows-free household,
since we don't deal with companies that flout the
law and try to "campaign donate" (AKA bribe) their way out
of punishment, but we know people who respect laws less than
we do, who use illegal drugs and Windows and that sort of
thing, and their computers seem to work fine with the
Barricade's setup utility, too. Windows people can download
and upgrade its firmware just as easily as Linux users. I
think it is very broadminded of SMC to make sure their
product works with Windows, not just with Linux and/or Mac.
More hardware vendors should take this approach. It makes
life easier and more pleasant for everyone!

Wireless for the masses

I started lusting after a wireless home network
nearly three years ago, but it was simply too expensive
back then, especially if you included the cost of the
laptops. Nowadays a pair of sub-$1,500 laptops and less than
$500 in additional gear (Barricade, modem, and wireless cards for the client computers) is all it takes to give
yourself the freedom to work anywhere in your house or yard,
with more than enough computing power and connectivity to
do "office type" work and even play a simple game or two.

I have seen low-end laptops, new, for under $1,000 recently,
which would drop the total hardware cost of a
wireless-networked, two-computer household below $2,500, with
everything bought new at the same time. And the old desktop(s)
can still be plugged into the Barricade with CAT-5, using a
plain-jane NIC like the ones so many of us seem to have
accumulated in our sheds or basements over the years, which
is also rather nice.

The wavelan_cs Linux kernel module is easy to set up; in
Mandrake, ELX, Lycoris, Red Hat, and other
user-friendly distributions it is an "autodetect" operation
that takes no human involvement beyond clicking on "DHCP" a
time or two. Mac OS 9.x or OS X requires only a few control
panel clicks to get wireless going, and even in Windows, it
only takes a driver installation and clicking through eight
or 10 setup screens to make a typical wireless card work.

But the big kicker is the drop in wireless equipment prices.
A year or two ago, a decent wireless access point, by
itself, cost $400 or more, and wireless PCMCIA cards were
$150 to $200. Now you can find 802.11b PCMCIA cards for less
than $80 if you look around a little, we have a $200 base
station that also works as a printer connection. Without the
modem, your two-client Linux wireless network can cost as
little as $340 to put together (not counting computers), and
that is less than the cost of running CAT-5 to three or four
rooms through the walls in most houses.

Setting up the Wireless Barricade took less than five
minutes. I did a firmware upgrade in under two minutes, not
counting download time. All setup and administration of the
unit is point and click, and the instructions are very
clear. No thinking was required.

At these price levels, with this kind of compatibility, and
with setup so easy (DHCP r00lz!), wireless is the way to go
in home and small office networking. Yes, there are security
problems with even the highest levels of 802.11b encryption,
but this is probably not important to most people; 128 bit
will keep out casual data snoopers, and most of us don't
have any vital secrets to keep anyway.

But enough typing. It's nice out here on the lawn today,
far too nice to work. I think I'll go across the street and
sit on the banks of the little stream over there. And take
my (wireless) laptop with me in case I want to check in with my
people or jump on IRC for a minute.

Category:

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