It's fair to say that wireless networking using 802.11b-based hardware has changed my life.
When cables are removed from the equation, all sorts of computing possibilities appear. I regularly surf the Web from my living room couch and pull down e-mail while enjoying the view from my deck. And 802.11b lets me do it without having to lay wires all over the place. And let's not forget being able to go to conferences and get on the open network just by opening the laptop. You haven't experienced true network bliss till you've gone wireless.
Much to my chagrin, this beautiful wireless world came crashing down around me a few weeks ago. Due to a flaw in the Apple AirPort Base Station Design, my trusty 802.11b access point gave out and left me searching for wires. So devastating was it that the world got to hear all about it in my weblog, "Death of an Airport Base Station." I even tried to fix the access point following instructions I found online, but failed. My soldering skills must have been just too rusty.
Without wireless, I was going nuts. The Ethernet tether to my desktop in my home office was stronger and more oppressive than I remember it from before. I found myself taking my laptop to friends' houses just so I could sit on their couches and surf the Web. I had to fix the situation, and I had to do it fast. It was time to go shopping for a new wireless access point.
Scouting around, I found that the wireless world has evolved quite a bit since I bought my first base station. No longer are you limited to just getting a wireless access point, but you can have them combined with home gateway routers and print servers. I'm always on the lookout for ways to reduce the wired clutter that exists under my desk. Combining multiple devices into one sounded like a excellent idea to me, so I sat down and sketched out what I wanted my new home network to look like. After a few attempts, I drew out the following:
Settling on this diagram gave me the following set of requirements that I was going to look for in a combined gateway router and access point:
|Are there additional wireless base stations that you'd like to comment on? What are you using at home or in the office?|
Based on this list, I did quite a bit of researching of the various available products. Of the many available, two caught my eye: the 3Com HomeConnect Home Wireless Gateway (model 3CRWE50194) and the SMC Wireless Barricade (model SMC7004AWBR). Not wanting to spend another day without wireless access, I ordered the 3Com HomeConnect Wireless Gateway from their online Website and had it in my hands the very next day.
The 3Com HomeConnect comes well packaged with an excellent quick start guide for the networking novice. It was easy to set up the hardware, and the simple Web browser interface made it a snap to set up the router to work with my ISP. The software asked all the right questions for the way my ISP has my WAN connection configured and after a few screens, everything just worked. My client computers could hook up to the Internet. I could surf from my couch again. Life was good.
Whenever you need to manage the gateway, simply pointing a web browser to http://192.168.2.1/ (yes, they tell you this in the instructions that come with the gateway) brings up a clean, well-designed page from which you can perform all the management tasks.
The status page is also nicely presented. It gives your current Internet connection status and your ISP settings, and tells you the current status of your internal network.
However, even though the interface is nicely presented, it isn't quite telling the full truth. In the screenshot above, the gateway claims that I have one client connected to the internal network when I actually had two clients connected via the built-in Ethernet ports, and one wireless client connected as well. According to the user manual, the interface is supposed to display a different graphic when wireless clients are connected, but I never saw it.
I also found that the only form of access control given to limit the clients that can connect to the gateway is WEP encryption. There is no way to control clients connecting based on their wireless Ethernet card's MAC (Media Access Control) address.
WEP has proven to be a relatively insecure protocol with many exploits; it also imposes a speed penalty to your wireless connection. Since I always use protocol-level security (such as SSH and SSL) for all of my network traffic that needs to be encrypted, relying upon this functionality to control client access is questionable. I would much rather ask a guest for his MAC address than give him a security key that he might assume provided adequate security for their usage.
Another problem that I found with this gateway was in its DHCP implementation. The DHCP server faithfully managed the internal IP address space of my network, but I found that it wasn't configurable enough for my needs. DHCP servers typically have the ability to give out specific IP addresses based on the Ethernet MAC address of a client. This allows my laptops to always get the same IP addresses when I am in the house, making it easier to ssh into my Mac OS X machine or to test services running on my Linux laptop. This DHCP server didn't allow me to assign specific IP addresses.
The HomeConnect gateway advertises that it logs attempts by hackers to penetrate the firewall. I was interested in this feature as I am always curious to see who may be attempting to jiggle the locks on my network. Unfortunately, when I tested this feature, I found that the logs were almost useless. The interface only presents activity that occurred during the previous few minutes, and has no capability for saving the information. Evidently it was designed under the assumption that you only need to know about hacker attempts while you are using the management tool.
The last problem that I had with the gateway was that I could only rest it flat on a horizontal surface. There were no mounting holes on the bottom of it to allow for mounting it on the wall underneath my desk. And, even if resting it flat on a horizontal surface was acceptable, the unit is designed with a hump on the top of it. This makes it impossible to stack anything else on top of the gateway.
Since I wasn't satisfied with the 3Com gateway, I decided to give the SMC Barricade a spin.
Like the 3Com product, the SMC Barricade was easy to connect up to my computers and to start up. However, the process to get the Barricade up and running with my ISP was a little less intuitive than the 3Com setup.
Instead of an initial setup process, the Barricade starts up with a default configuration that needs to be customized if your Internet connection doesn't fit its assumptions. In my case, I had to change the router so that it would not get an IP address from my ISP automatically, but would let me specify my WAN IP address settings. This is not a problem if you are pretty good with networking, but the 3Com product has an edge here.
Like the 3Com gateway, you manage the Barricade through a Web-based interface. Simply point your browser at http://192.168.123.254/ for the unit's system status. The presentation of the page is not as polished as the 3Com unit, but it is functional and informative.
As shipped from the factory, my test unit did not allow me to configure DHCP or wireless client control to the degree that I wanted to using MAC addresses. But a quick check of the SMC Website showed that a firmware update was available and added exactly the features that I wanted. After a very painless firmware update process, I was able to access screens giving me the ability to assign specific IP addresses to MAC addresses and to allow or disallow them from joining my wireless network. The only minor problem is that the HTML for the MAC Access Control pages would not work in OmniWeb (my preferred browser for Mac OS X).
In addition to the features that I required for my network setup, the SMC Barricade ships with a few other features that are interesting. The first is that it has an integrated print server. The print server serves both as a Unix lpr server (offline printing to server) and as a Windows print server.
In addition, you can have the router dial out on an external modem if the primary WAN link goes down for any reason. I have not yet configured this, but will be investigating this soon.
Just like the 3Com, it has a bulge at the top of the case which impedes the ability to stack items on top of the router, but there are screw-mounting points on the back of the case that allow the unit to be attached to a wall. It mounted like a charm to the wall underneath my desk.
The 3Com product is better suited for people who want easy configuration and don't have any specific requirements. My requirements are admittedly nit-picky. If you don't need this level of control, go for the ease of setup of the 3Com.
The SMC product is better suited to more advanced users who know how networks go together and are not put off by an interface that is not as polished. But when you need this level of control, go with the SMC. For my network, I kept the SMC Barricade. Needless to say, I am back in the happy zone where I can compute where I want, free of Ethernet cables.
James Duncan Davidson is a freelance author, software developer, and consultant focusing on Mac OS X, Java, XML, and open source technologies. He currently resides in San Francisco, California.
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