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Security
Much is made over wireless network security, and the possibility of an outsider tapping into your wireless network. Given our problems getting adequate connections within the same building, we’re not so sure. Still, it’s better to be safe than not- and radio waves behave by rules of their own. Just because we can’t maintain a connection down our own hallway doesn’t mean a neighbor can’t tune in loud and clear.

The usual advice calls for enabling WEP security, an encryption routine that relies on private keys (a fancier version of a password) to encode and decode transmissions. In theory, anyone without the key must either guess it or be locked out of your network.

Unless you’re a hacker target though (in which case WEP really won’t be adequate), we’d recommend foregoing encryption in favor of filtering network access through specific MAC addresses.

Conceptually, a MAC address is similar to a serial number associated with a specific network device. With MAC filtering, only those machines whose MAC numbers are on the router’s list of approved network clients can connect.

This strikes us as more than adequate for most installations, without the overhead of WEP procedures, resulting in improved performance. And when it comes to wireless, you need all the performance you can get.

Of course, if you’re prone to fits of paranoia, you probably ought not consider wireless anyway. If you insist, it will be much more secure to enable both WEP encryption and MAC filtering, providing two layers of protection against unauthorized access.


 

 

 


Wireless Networks Tempting,
But Beware the Hype...


Being old enough to remember early remote control fiascoes involving TV sets and garage door openers, we viewed the arrival of consumer-class wireless network equipment (and all its attendant hype) with no small degree of skepticism. 


Almost exactly as we’d envisioned...
Cross-talk, interference, and dropped signals are as old as radio technology, and ubiquitous as the waves upon which it rides.  In a word (or a few, as the case may be), we didn’t have a lot of confidence in these relatively low-cost devices transmitting network data through the air- at least not reliably enough across sufficient distances to make it useful.

Being not immune to the allure of gadgetry however, we waited for the inevitable collapse in pricing before we got involved, picking up a D-Link wireless router and matching wireless NIC at the ridiculous price (Summer, 2003) of $60 for the pair.

Jumping ahead of ourselves for purposes of this report, we’re pleased to announce that we were wise to have waited. It’s with some mixed emotions that we report our conclusion: the setup, after no small amount of tinkering, performs almost exactly as we’d envisioned.


Quality equipment
Given that our envisionment wasn’t all that great, the above is scant praise indeed. It may be tempting to dismiss it as a case of getting what you pay for, but it’s really not that simple. The equipment we acquired, though priced in the sub-cellar of the bargain basement for such things, could hardly be classified as junk. In fact, the exact same items were selling elsewhere at twice the price and more- we just happened into a good promotional deal.

D-Link is a well-known name in mass-market networking gear, and has been, in our experience, at least as good as other entries in the field (such as LinkSys, SohoWare, NetGear, and others). It may not be Cisco or 3-Com, but it’s typical of what the average small office or home office operator is likely to buy in pursuit of something both economical and useful.

From what we found, there’s some question as to whether a wireless network setup will, despite all the hype, be either. As with most things related to computers, the outcome depends on a lot of variables. The equipment itself is just a part of the overall equation.


Simple installation
Both the router and the NIC (network interface card- in this case a PC card model for a laptop) slipped into place as easily as could be expected. Having set up several wired systems on a variety of 95, 98, ME, 2000, and XP computers, we’re no longer qualified to judge just how easy something like this is for a beginner, but the process presented nothing that should stymie anyone prepared to read a quick start card.

In particular, the configuration screens of the D-Link router were more informative and user-friendly than we’ve grown accustomed to, and the wireless NIC practically installed itself on our XP Home laptop.

With XP equipped systems, the idea of “zero configuration” appears to have reached some degree of fruition. We were connected, within minutes of opening the boxes, both to our own LAN and to the WAN-at-large known as the Internet, wirelessly transmitting and receiving data through the air with convincing amounts of speed and reliability.

For a brief and shining moment, we were impressed.


Elation deflation
We couldn’t believe, in fact, how smoothly it was going- a disbelief that, as the hours wore on, wound up fully justified. So far, we’d been working with our laptop in the same room as the router, separated by only a few feet of relatively empty space. As measured by the software-based gauge on the laptop (part of the NIC installation), signal strength was “excellent” and our network connection hummed along at 22 megabits per second- double the standard rate for 802.11b connections.

In theory, at least, our D-Link “Air Plus” equipment utilizes proprietary techniques to boost connection speed with its own compatible equipment. When you’re accustomed to 100 megabit wired networks, though, two times too slow is still too slow, and, if there was any perceptible gain in performance at the reported connection speed, it was below our threshold of observation.

Nonetheless, it was working, and the main problem with slow network connections is in transferring large quantities of data- something we’d no intention of attempting, anyway. That’s what wires are for.

For Internet connections, one to two megabits per second is the range of what you get with cable or a very good DSL hookup, so even a standard 11-megabit wireless transmission is far more than what’s required for adequate performance. Transmitting a few test files from the LAN (word processing, spreadsheets, bitmaps) was more than quick enough, and all seemed to be peachy keen.

Until we picked the laptop up, and took it for a stroll down the hall.

Fifteen feet down the hallway, the nominal connection speed still read 22 Mbps, and signal strength claimed to be “very good”, but the slowdown in throughput- the actual transfer of usable data- was perceptible. File transfers took longer to complete, and (despite our very good broadband connection) web pages seemed to be arriving through a 56K dial-up modem.

Ten feet more, with two intervening walls, and signal strength dropped to “good” while the connection speed remained 22 Mbps. These reports, encouraging though they may have been, belied the reality: file transfers aborted midway through, and we were as likely as not to get DNS errors attempting to access the web. When we did connect, performance was what you might expect from an antique 14.4 Kbps modem. Local hard drives mapped to the LAN flickered in and out of existence- sometimes accessible, and sometimes not.


Connection deflection
Twenty-five feet from the wireless router, with two intervening interior walls (wood-frame and sheetrock construction), and our wireless network had become unusable. So much for the notion of reading email and uploading web site pages from the patio.

Picking up the laptop again, we went back down the hallway, and set up in a room directly across the hall, with no walls between the laptop and the router. Signal strength returned to “excellent” and everything worked well.

The problems were, by this time, fairly obvious. As long as we had a clear path for the signal, things worked well enough. Throw a few obstructions into the mix, and the signal degraded sharply, rapidly achieving a state of uselessness. “Strength” and “speed” were not enough to overcome transmission errors and resultant resends. Although far superior to “line of sight” infrared connections, the wireless network failed to achieve even our modest expectations.

We’re emphatically not criticizing D-Link’s equipment here: we’re convinced it’s as good as any, better than some, and an excellent value in terms of what it is. Our quarrel is with the state of the technology in general, and the way it’s marketed and hyped as being a solution when, in fact, it’s more like a different set of problems.


Proper installation = setup ease negation
It should, of course, be pointed out that our installation was (and remains) far from optimal. The router should be mounted high, ours is almost on the floor. It should be away from all sources of RF interference, ours is maybe three feet from a 19” monitor. It should be clear of shielding materials, ours is next to a metal file cabinet.

We’re certain we’ll get improved results with a proper installation, but therein lies the rub. The primary appeal of wireless is supposed to be ease of installation: no wires to run, no holes to drill, no unsightly mess, and so on. The reality is somewhat different, though. To install our wireless router for optimal performance, we would have to literally rearrange our whole computer setup, reroute existing network cables, and generally make a project of it- with no guarantee the improvement would be adequate to overcome the problems.

That more or less defeats the whole idea of going wireless, as far as we’re concerned, and it’s not just us. Seems there’s a whole industry in aftermarket wireless network accessories, from more powerful antennas to network bridges and repeaters, all designed to overcome problems with connectivity in real world environments.


A false economy
Signal boosting and/or relay equipment is easily more expensive than the basic wireless setup, and each added piece is another link in a Rube Goldbergian chain of events that can (and very likely will) go wrong.

In what strikes us as a classic “break the bad news slowly” marketing technique, our local outlets don’t display these likely to be needed items- doing so might reveal too much of what may really be required, and interfere with sales of equipment for the basic wireless setup.

In fact, by the time you get a wireless installation working flawlessly in any but the most favorable environments, you could probably have installed (or have someone else install) high-speed, ultra reliable, ultra secure cable runs instead, capable of transferring gigabytes of data quickly and reliably.


Not so great expectations
Wireless may work in your environment, and it may suit your specific needs, but before you get involved with it you need to be aware: it just as well may not, and you may wind up spending far more in terms of effort and expense than you’d bargained for.

As far as we can see, wireless networking is best suited, not as an alternative to wired, but as a convenient way to connect portable equipment in the same room as the wireless access point. A coiled CAT-5 cable will accomplish the same result, at a fraction of the price, and with far greater speed and reliability.

Based on our experience, and what we’ve seen in other installations, we continue to recommend a wired network if at all possible. If you must go wireless, go ahead. The basic setup’s cheap and easy. Just don’t expect a lot, and you won’t be disappointed.


Our Recommendation
There are environments in which a wireless network will be adequate, straight from the box and with nothing else to buy. It ought to work okay, for example, in a large one-room office with three to five desks- provided there are no cordless phones installed (these interfere with wireless network signals, along with microwave ovens and your neighbor’s higher-powered setup).

All things considered, though, we recommend a wired network if there’s any way at all of doing it. The influx of wireless routers and network cards into the markerplace has driven the cost of their wired counterparts to near-giveaway status. At the big chain stores, you could easily spend more on CAT 5 cables than the hardware itself, but you can get around this by shopping online.

Wireless network technology will likely someday achieve cost-effective status, enabling small office and home users to forego wired connections with no performance penalty, but that day remains (Summer, 2003) in some as yet undefined version of the future. For now, with wireless networks, we wish you the best of luck.


Footnote: 802.11g
Our wireless network uses the well-established 802.11b Ethernet standard, the equipment for which is being rapidly displaced on dealer shelves by the newer 802.11g. Although considerably faster, with a theoretical limit of up to 54 Mbps, it utilizes the same 2.2 GHz radio frequency as the 11b standard, making it subject to the same limitations with regard to connectivity. For favorable (unobstructed) environments, it should certainly be better, especially for local network traffic. For multi-room applications, though, we’d expect to encounter the same set of problems as above.


Equipment as reviewed
D-Link Wireless Router / 4 port 10-100 Ethernet Switch DI-614+
D-Link Wireless Network Interface Card (PC Card model) DWL-650+
Toshiba Laptop Celeron 1.1 GHz 256 MB RAM XP Home
Comcast Broadband Internet
Existing three station wired LAN



 




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