Wireless networking works
great. For the most part. As standards settle and technology improves, you will
find wireless networks working seamlessly and worry free but you still have some
things to work on and decide before you install one.
Wireless networking has
gotten both more confusing and more settled with the final adoption of the
wireless standard 802.11g which allows for up to 54mbps data networking speeds.
It is still slower than the traditional wired lan 100mbps networking you get
with traditional Category 5 but for most of what we do, it will certainly be
fast enough. If you think about what most of us do with wireless networks, it is
to get on the internet and do email, any of the wireless standards will do just
fine because even 5mbps is fast enough for that simply because of the
limitations of the broadband access you have. What you need to think about is
the other things you will do with your networking. If you want access to other
computers files and printers, again, the slower networking will work just fine.
Where it gets interesting is if you want to do file transfer or data backup on
your wireless network. The problem here becomes the size of the data you want to
transfer across the wireless network. Backing up your documents for example,
again, takes little bandwidth because text files and spreadsheets really don’t
take up much space. But, if you want to backup your entire disk, your pictures,
or other large files, you want the largest amount of bandwidth you can get your
hands on. Now backing up your computer takes another column and a half and
hopefully, you already have a plan in place because if you try to backup a 10
gigabyte hard drive’s worth of data across a network, you better plan on
spending all night doing it.
Right now, the 10mbps
standard 802.11b which is the most common, gives you a good mix of easy access
to computers and networks and a reasonable performance for copying data files
all at a reasonable price. Again, as long as you don’t have much to transfer on
a regular basis and what I consider much would be less than a couple of hundred
megabytes of data to transfer, then you should be ok. If you need the higher
performance of the network, then look at the 802.11g wireless standard that is
coming out today. While most companies have the hardware, look for the prices to
come down quickly as more is introduced.
What I haven’t talked
about yet is the fact that there is also another wireless standard out there
called the 802.11a. In a nutshell, here are the differences. “b” is the basic
standard at 10mbps in the most common 2.4gigahertz radio spectrum range. “g” is
the new 54mbps standard in the same radio spectrum range. “a” is another new
standard that while being a 54mbps speed network, uses a different, little used,
and unregulated radio spectrum of 5 megahertz. My inclination is to stick with
either “b” or the “g” standards. Here is a web site that has a great chart on
these: http://www.linksys.com/edu/wirelessstandards.asp. By the way, Linksys
has some great information pages to tell you more about these networks,
security, and installation.
Pricing for these networks
is getting pretty good and as long as you stick with good quality hardware, you
will do fine. The problem is if you start mixing hardware companies you may have
problems with the setup partly because a company like Linksys, for example,
while they have a great wizard program to set things up for you, uses what they
call a pass phrase to generate a code for the wireless encryption. If you use
someone else’s hardware on one of your notebooks for example, you might have to
figure out what it translated to and manually enter it.
Data security and
intrusion protection should also be high on your list of requirements when
looking at wireless. If your wireless system is connecting you at a broadband
network, you should be sure it contains some hardware firewall features. Those
firewall features should include SPI which is Stateful Packet Inspection to
check each packet coming and going; NAT, Network Address Translation routing to
hide the computers behind the firewall to the rest of the internet, and Denial
of Service (DOS) attack protection. If your hardware box doesn’t include these,
you should also consider including a software firewall application on each of
the computers attached to your wireless system. And as to software firewalls, I
don’t include the built in Windows XP software, it is too weak. Go with a good
company like Zone Labs Zone Alarm firewall program. For the hardware firewall
wireless router, my favorite right now is the Linksys BEFW11S4 model that
connects your wireless network to a broadband network and has 4 ports onboard
for locally situated computers. If you want to step up to the “g” standard, go
with the Linksys WRT54G. You will note that these don’t have the full firewall
security that other networks have and so you should run the firewall software as
The good news about
security, is that wireless networks have their own type of security to keep your
wireless network free from prying computers hanging out outside your door. What
you need to remember if you are using a wireless broadband router is that you
have two different security needs. One is to keep people from the broadband
world from hacking into your network, and the second is to keep people from the
wireless world away as well. So here is what you need to look at from the
The first thing to do is
to change the password on the router. This is a basic item that will keep
unauthorized people from changing the settings on your wireless network.
Next is to change the SSID
name. This is the name, similar to a work group name in a normal network, that
the network calls out to each wireless computer and if you don’t change the
name, the defaults are easy to find.
If you have a router or
access point to go to, then make sure you are in what they call infrastructure
mode rather than ad-hoc which is used to go from a single computer to another.
The “infrastructure” mode tells the notebook or remote computer that it is
looking for a network as opposed to another computer sitting out there.
To keep other computers
from listening in, disable the broadcast mode in the router so that it doesn’t
constantly send out a signal letting anyone know that it is there. That way,
you have to know the SSID of the router in order to connect and if you use a
name not easy to guess, then it makes it more difficult for people to tap in.
The next security measure
is to enable the WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) which is the encryption between
the router and the computers talking to it. Even if someone was able to guess
the SSID, if you have WEP encryption enabled, they still can’t get into your
network. The good news is that there is another encryption standard coming
called the WAP which will be even more tighter.
Finally, what you can do
to keep unwanted computers out of your network is to enter in the MAC addresses
into the router’s permitted access listing thus enabling the MAC address
filtering to only allow those computers who are on the list.
Once each of these are in
place, your wireless side of the network is safe from the outside world.
Lastly, the problem you
may have next will be if you decide to go to another wireless network like you
would find in a Starbucks or at a hotel. Those will have different requirements
and you will need to setup your notebook’s wireless connection unit differently.
Want to see what PC World
thinks are the best hardware and software products of 2003? Then hop over to
their review at: http://www.pcworld.com/reviews/article/0,aid,110653,tk,sbx,00.asp
You will find some
interesting things and some surprises there and knowing one of the reviewer
quite well, you will certainly find some things there to disagree with but
having looked at much of what they talk about, I do have to agree with a lot of
the winners. Some really good choices there.
One of the neatest tools
that I saw at the last computer show that I still use a bunch is the DiskOnKey
device that I picked up. What I have is a 128mb flash memory device that has a
USB connector on it. An easy size to use, it is less than 4 inches long and
about an inch wide and half an inch thick. Since they are the creators, you need
to pick one up from one of their partners like HP, IBM, and Iomega. Other
companies making a similar product include Fujitsu, the Memorex USB Thumb Drive
(256MB $90); Lexar Media has their USB JumpDrive Pro2.0 (256MB for $110, 1Gig
$315). Which every you get, be sure you get the USB 2.0 version as if you have
that on your computer, you will see a much higher throughput in your data
transfer in and out.
Want to know what Consumer
Reports thinks is the best anti-spam software out there? Their August 2003 issue
rates Stata Labs SAProxy as the top one to get. Best of all, it is free. It was
the highest rated in scoring and effectiveness. www.bloomba.com.
Industrial Design Excellence Awards 2003 (IDEA)
The IDEA is a contest
sponsored by Business Week magazine, www.businessweek.com and judged by the
Industrial Designer Society of America and this year, they really picked an
interesting bunch of products. They select everything from the neatest and
coolest new car, the BMW Mini Cooper, to a new Dutch Boy paint can, to
naturally, a bunch of computer products. They gave out 122 medals out of a total
of 1279 products. Logitech, www.Logitech.com walked away with six medals
including the Logitech Pocket Digital Camera, a really slick $99 1.3 megapixel
digital camera. Palm won with their Zire Handheld Computer and Apple with their
Powerbook G4 17 inch notebook. Other computer products winning gold include
Logitech’s Mobile Cordless and FlexLoop headsets for digital phones to IBM’s
Thinkpad Exploration ergonomically designed line of notebook computers. Take a
look at the site because you will see some really interesting products and
designs for a really wide range of items.
To look at all the winning
entries, go to the IDEA web site at: http://www.idsa.org/whatis/seewhat/idea2003/idea2003.htm
Robert Sanborn is an
Independent Personal Computer Consultant and a contributing writer for PC
Lifeline and contributing editor for the Indy PC News. Reach him through the net