Home Networking And IT Information And Discussion

Articles about home, SOHO and small-business IT and networking issues

Feature Article – Repurposing that ex-business laptop computer for home use

Originally published at my previous Windows Live Spaces blog in May 2007
First published on this blog in November 2008. Updated 31 July 2009
 
If you are repurposing an ex-business laptop computer for home use, you need to make sure that it is safe as far as the computer’s former life is concerned and able to perform well in the home. Here, you would need to “detach” the computer from its former business life by removing line-of-business applications and data; and business-specific configurations like network, VPN and terminal-emulation setups used in the business. In some situations like ex-kiosk computers where the computer was heavily locked down, you may have to research the Internet to find out how to reset the BIOS settings so you can boot from the optical drive for example.
 
1. Make sure that you have the original media and licence information for the operating system and any other software to be used in the home context.
2. Visit the computer manufacturer’s Website and obtain the complete driver set for the computer’s current configuration. Copy this driver set to a CD-R or USB memory key. You might find it better to work the computer directly with the operating system’s abilities like Windows Zero Configuration rather than use the software supplied by the system manufacturer.
3 Do any necessary repairs to the computer like replacing damaged keyboards. This could be a good time to track down replacement batteries, AC adaptors or AC cords for the computer. If the computer doesn’t have built-in wireless or isn’t able to have wireless networking retrofitted at a later date, track down a wireless-network PCMCIA card or ExpressCard to suit your home network.
4. Format the primary hard disk and install the operating system and other software from the original media. Activate XP / Vista / Windows 7 and Office as applicable and deploy the driver set from the CD-R or USB memory key that you prepared in Step 2.
5. Register the computer with network services that are part of the home network like the network printer. If the printer is hosted by a Windows box, you may be able to set it up using “Point and Print” where you load the printer drivers from the Windows box.
 
As far as software is concerned, you can use a basic “office” package like Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition as well as Screen Paver (the shareware photo screen-saver that I use) and the latest version of AVG AntiVirus Free Edition or Avast AntiVirus Home Edition for your additional software. Most functionality is catered for by the software that is part of the operating system.
 
If you are working with a Windows-based computer, it may be worth downloading Windws Live Mail, Windows Live Messenger and Windows Live Photo Gallery from http://download.live.com . These programs provide the essentials for instant mesaging, desktop POP3 or IMAP mail, RSS-feed management and digital-image management.
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31 July 2009 Posted by | Computer setups, Feature Article, Mobile Computing | , , , , | 2 Comments

Feature Article – Understanding and Managing your HomePlug network

If you want to have your HomePlug network segment working properly for you and your needs, you will need to be able to manage it properly. This article talks about how to connect the HomePlug devices for best results and how to organise the devices in your HomePlug segment for privacy or improved network performance.

Understanding the typical AC supply

A mains “phase” typically describes a single standard-voltage AC circuit from the street transformer through to your premises. In a typical residential power service, where the general-tariff power passes through one electricity meter, all the power outlets are on the one phase. Most US residential installations have two phases due to the low standard voltage but HomePlug has been designed to work around these installations.

The electricity meter for a typical household AC supply is considered a “firewall” for the HomePlug network segment that operates on that supply because of the way it works. This may be a problem for a multi-building home network where there is another building like a bungalow that is metered separately.

Electrical accessories and the HomePlug network

For best performance, you should have the HomePlug devices plugged directly in to the power outlets. But this is not always feasible due to distance from the outlets or the number of outlets available near the device.

An extension cord can be used for a HomePlug setup as long as it is of the right type. For short runs up to 10 metres, you can use the regular domestic extension cord that is typically used for the vacuum cleaner or portable radio. You will need to use “tradesmen-grade” or “caravan” extension cords for longer runs. As well, daisy-chained extension cords may not be beneficial to the HomePlug signal.

As far as powerboards / power strips and “double adaptors” are concerned, make sure that the HomePlug device is connected to one without surge-suppression or line-conditioning technology. On the other hand, you could use one equipped with surge-suppression or line-conditioning technology if it has an outlet that is marked “HomePlug” and you plug the HomePlug device in to that outlet. You can also get around this problem by plugging your HomePlug device in to one of the outlets on a regular powerboard and plug a surge-suppressor powerboard which has your computer equipment in to another of the outlets of the regular powerboard. A recent-issue HomePlug-Ethernet bridge that has a built-in power outlet or one of the surge-suppressor powerboards which have integrated HomePlug-Ethernet bridge functionality can solve the problem very easily.

Managing your HomePlug network

The network is typically managed with software that is supplied with your HomePlug hardware. This is usually in the form of a configuration tool, typically a version of “PowerPacket” for most operating systems. In some cases, you may have to download the software from the device manufacturer’s Website. Infact, the Solwise website has most of the software available for nearly all of the operating systems.

On the other hand, some devices, typically HomePlug wireless access points and routers can be managed by logging in to a particular Internet address, similar to managing an Internet router.

A recent trend that has emerged is for HomePlug AV devices to implement “SimpleConnect” which uses push-button control to enrol devices to a HomePlug network segment.

HomePlug Device Identifier

This value is unique to each device and is known as a Device Password in a HomePlug 1.0 network. This information is typically printed on a label that is attached to the HomePlug device itself, alongside the MAC address for that device. It may also be attached to the device’s packaging.

HomePlug Network Segment Identifier

This identifier, usually set to “HomePlug” but can be set by the user to a different value, is known to the devices that are part of a HomePlug network segment. It is typically known as a “Network Password” for both the HomePlug 1.0 or “Private Network Name” for some HomePlug AV networks and can allow multiple HomePlug network segments to exist on the one mains phase.

Configuring a Network Segment To A Particular Identifier

You will have to obtain the Device Identifiers from each of the HomePlug devices that are to be part of the Network Segment that is having that identifier. Then, make sure that they are plugged in to the AC supply and can be seen by the HomePlug device you are doing the configuring from. This can be checked using your configuration software that has come with that HomePlug device.

Add all the devices to your network by entering their Device Passwords in to the configuration software. Then go to the “Privacy” or similar option and set the Network Password for all devices that are on your network to make the segment

If the devices use HomePlug AV SimpleConnect, you just need to press the button on the device which is a member of the segment you want to enrol your other device in, then press the button on the device that is to be enrolled.

What you can do

“Pushing out” a HomePlug installation

As I have mentioned before in my feature article on multi-building home networks, you may have to “extend” your HomePlug network if you can’t get proper network operation on some of the mains circuits such as in remote buildings.

This involves creating two different HomePlug segments, with each segment having at least one HomePlug-Ethernet bridge on the same mains service. Then the Ethernet connection from a bridge associated with one HomePlug segment is connected to the Ethernet port on the bridge associated with the other HomePlug segment. These can be connected directly or via an Ethernet switch so one can run network devices from the Ethernet link.

The above setup would then have to be deployed halfway between the HomePlug devices that are trying to communicate such as in an outbuilding nearest the main house like a garage.

HomePlug AV and 1.0 in the same premises

HomePlug 1.0 and AV can exist on the same mains service but will work as separate network segments in a manner which doesn’t compromise their bandwidth. The separate network segment issue can be mitigated with a Ethernet bridge device from each technology connected to each other or to the LAN ports of a router or Ethernet switch.

Conclusion

Once you know how to understand and manage the HomePlug powerline network, you can gain a lot more out of this technology and make it work well in your building.

17 February 2009 Posted by | Feature Article, HomePlug powerline networking, Network Management | | 1 Comment

Network Management Hierarchy Terms

Term Description Example

Network Areas

   
Subnet or Logical Network The network that exists behind a router and has a particular IP addressing scheme. This is independent of the media that the devices connect to the router with. All of the computers and network devices that connect to the Internet through the router – the typical home or small business network.
Network Segment A group of devices that connect through a particular network medium or identified part thereof. An Ethernet LAN, HomePlug network with the same Network Password or WiFi Extended Service Set (WiFi AP(s) with a common ESSID and security parameters; and communicating with each other)

Devices

   
Edge or Gateway A device that is between two or more logical networks The broadband router
Bridge A device that is between two or more network segments but part of the same logical network Ethernet switch, HomePlug-Ethernet bridge, WiFi access point
Device; Node, Endpoint Any computer, games console or other device that benefits from the network A PC or laptop computer, the XBox 360

14 February 2009 Posted by | Feature Article, Network Management | Leave a comment

Feature Article – Video conferencing in the home network

You might be thinking of using video conferencing as a way of talking with distant relatives or friends. Infact, there was an article on TV Channel 7 News (Melbourne, Australia) on 4 December 2008 regarding the use of this technology to allow families to communicate with elderly relatives who are in nursing homes that are a significant distance from the family.

Is your network ready?

You shoud make sure that you have a broadband service of at least 512kbps ADSL or standard cable specification. As far as your router is concerned, it needs to support UPnP IGD / NAT traversal behaviour. This may be easier with most home-use and SOHO / small-business routers bought from retailers. But you may have to be careful about routers supplied by Internet service providrs, especially if the equipment is not available for general retail sale.

Also check that you are getting good WiFi reception if the computer you intend to use is to be connected to the network via WiFi wireless. This may include making sure that the aerial(s) on the wireless router is upright and, perhaps, considering setting up a wireless network with two or more access points. This has been talked about in my feature article on multple-access-point wireless networks. If the computer is a desktop unit located far from ther router, such as a home theatre computer, and you don’t want to pull Ethernet cable out to it, it may be worth considering a HomePlug powerline network kit. This kit uses the AC wires in the home as a network segment and still provides Ethernet stability in a “plug and play” manner.

What hardware to use

Computer with properly-performing video and audio subsystem and and a decent-quality webcam like a Logitech or Microsoft unit. Most recent laptops have a webcam built in to them for this kind of activity. If you don’t have a microphone attached to your desktop computer, the microphone that is part of a decent-standard webcam can do the job for picking up the voices.

What software to use

There are three different platforms to work with for video conferencing. One is the Skype platform which has existed mainly as an international free-telephony platform. But now it has become more popular as a video-conferencing platform. This one is available for the common computing platforms such as Windows, MacOS X and UNIX / Linux as well as some devices like the Sony PSP and would be the preferred choice if you want to be sure of accessibility.

The other two are the Yahoo Messenger and Windows Live Messenger. Both of these are popular instant-message platfrms but have voice and video telephony built in to them. The main problem with them is that they work only with the Windows platform and the MacOS X platform, which may preclude UNIX / Linux users from using them. Windows Live Messenger is at the moment being rolled out to the XBox 360, mainly as a text chat system but could be rolled out for full video chat.

Going about it.

You will have to complete the setup wizard for the conference program and this will typically require you to use your e-mail address as your identifier.

As well, you will need to complete an audio-video check which allows you to make sure that the microphone is going to pick up the sounds and that the speaker is loud enough without causing unnecessary echo or feedback “howl”. This test simply requires you to set the microphone gain to a proper level by you saying a test passage in to the system at your normal voice and checking a level meter on the user interface. It also requires you to set the speaker volum by you hearing an audio test signal and adjusting the volume for personal comfort. At this point, the system sets itself to avoid the echo or feedback “howl”.

There will usually be a “video” test to make sure that the webcam is working properly and can see you. This will typically be a “mirror image” showing up on your screen of what the camera can see, so you can focus the camera and determine how much lighting you may need for proper visibility.

Then you exchange your video-conference ID with your family and friends who are running the same software. Typically, when a user adds a contact to one of these programs, the program sends a message to the contact asking for permission to add them to the list. This is to protect the contact’s privacy and make sure they are dealing with the right people.

Other issues to consider

If you are planning to engage in “group” video conferencing such as when your family is talking to a distant relative, it may be worth using the large-screen TV set for this purpose. Such a TV set should have a VGA connector or HDMI connector and can be connected to the computer via the VGA socket or a DVI or HDMI socket. If you are not using HDMI as the connector or your computer doesn’t pass audio through the HDMI connector, the sound should just be connected to the TV set or home-theatre receiver via a standard audio lead. Most older CRT-based sets can only be connected to a computer via a composite or S-video cable and the video driver set up for work with the composite / S-video output.

As well, you will have to make sure the webcan stays on top of the TV set. This may involve the use of a USB extension lead to connect the camera to the computer and the use of Blu-Tack or double-sided tape to keep the camera from falling off the set. This issue is more real with flat-screen sets which don’t have much space on top of them

If you are concerned about your privacy and security, you may need to keep the webcam disconnected while you are not involved in video conferencing so that rogue software doesn’t “open” the camera up.

5 December 2008 Posted by | Feature Article, Network Activities, Video-conferencing | , , , | Leave a comment

Feature Article – DLNA Network Media Series: Setting up PC-less networked AV

Why set up a PC-less networked AV setup

A PC-less networked AV setup doesn’t need a particular computer to be present and running to provide AV media to DLNA client devices.

The media is provisioned by a box that is designed for providing AV media to client devices 24/7. This avoids situations where the media is not available due to the PC crashing or being infested with malware; both events that can be very common occurrences with most home computers. There is no need to worry about a PC which is being used for playing games or doing other system-intensive activities limiting media availability. Similarly, these setups use less energy than a PC working as a media server.

This setup also suits today’s laptop-based computing environment where laptop computers are more likely to be moved from place to place. It also suits environments like holiday houses where there is no real use in keeping a desktop computer on the premises but there is the desire to have occasional Internet access at such locations.

As well, this kind of setup appeals to computer-shy people who may want to benefit from digitally-hosted media. This is because there is no need to have a noisy ugly computer in the house for this kind of activity to occur.

Another bonus is that when you add more media client devices to the network, a dedicated media server can handle the increased demand more capably. Contrast this with a PC where the odds of failing when serving more devices can increase rapidly.

What kinds of PC-less media server exist?

Dedicated DLNA music server (Philips Streamium WACS-7000, Sony GigaJuke  NAS-S55HDE, etc)

This unit is typically in the form of a hi-fi system or component that is part of such a system. It has a single hard disk that is primarily for storing media, typically music files and have a network interface, either in the Ethernet or 802.11g wireless form.

Such units will have a built-in CD drive and can “rip” audio tracks from CDs loaded in that drive. They will have access to a metadata service like Gracenote so that the tracks are properly indexed by song title, artist (both album and contributing), genre and album title. As well, they could record audio to the hard drive from a device connected to the server’s line-level input or, where applicable, from a built-in radio tuner. This is in a similar manner to recording music to tapes from the radio using that good old cassette deck.

A lot of these systems expose features and functions that only work best with selected client equipment sold by the server’s manufacturer. They may have limitations concerning transferring audio files to and from the unit’s hard disk, which may limit backup or secondary-storage opportunities. Usually they require a computer to run a special utility in order to transfer music files to or from the unit.

Standalone NAS (network-attached storage) box

These devices are simply a dedicated file-storage device that is connected to the home network and handles files according to standard network-based file-handling protocols. They often provide backup file storage and secondary file storage for computers on the network as well as media-server functionality.  Some users may use the hard disks in these units as a “holding bay” for their computer’s hard-disk contents while they are upsizing that computer’s hard disk.

These boxes will typically come either as a single-disk unit which is the size of a book or as a multi-disk unit that is typically the size of a toaster or breadmaker. These units  either uses the hard disks as a huge storage volume or sets aside some of the disks as a “shadow store” for the data should any of the disks fail. This latter technique, which also provides higher data throughput is known as RAID which stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks.

They are available as a unit fitted out with the necessary hard disks to the capacity you pay for or as an enclosure where you install hard disks that you buy separately. Earlier versions of these enclosures required the user to mess around with a screwdriver and end up losing screws in the assembly process, but the newer units just require the user to slide in or “clip in” the hard disks.

This class of device includes “headless” small-scale server platforms like Windows Home Server and some Linux distributions which can be expanded by the user to perform different functions. They may include this kind of software being loaded on an otherwise-redundant PC that is being repurposed as a small-form file server.

This device will be the way to go eventually because of its ability to provide a flexible media-sharing solution for most small networks.

“Ripping” NAS units

There are a class of NAS boxes that are just like a regular NAS box, having the same number of hard disks as these devices and having the same capacity and functionality as these boxes. But these units, such as the RipFactory RipServer, have a built-in optical disk drive and software which “rips” CDs loaded in to the unit’s optical drive, in a similar manner to a dedicated DLNA music server. They will use a music metadata service like Gracenote to index the tracks that are ripped from the CDs loaded in the unit’s optical drive. These units would be considered as a “bridge” between the dedicated DLNA music server and a general-purpose NAS box.

USB hard disk connected to a DLNA-compliant USB file server

Another common method is to use a USB network file server device that is connected to a USB external hard disk. The device can typically be part of another network device like a router or just become a standalone box. These units, again, handle files according to the standard network-based file-transfer protocols.

They work best with one self-powered USB hard disk because most of these server devices usually run on a low-output power supply that typically powers the electronics within. They also don’t have the logic to properly handle a USB hub or multiple USB hard disks. If you are using a small hard disk that doesn’t have its own power supply, you may need to connect it via a self-powered USB hub.

These setups are useful for a temporary media-sharing arrangement where you are providing media to one or two devices.

Storing your media on these devices

If you use a dedicated NAS unit without a built-in optical drive, you will need to make sure that you have SMB (Windows, MacOS X, Linux) or NFS (Linux) read/write access to the media share on that NAS unit. As well, make sure that there is a desktop shortcut, mapped drive letter or other mount point to that share on your computer(s) that you are preparing the media on.

Prepare your media as you normally would, with it ending up in your computer’s media directories. Then copy the media directories to the NAS media share using the standard practices that you use for copying files and directories. You may need to set up a “sync” routine to automatically copy new media to the media share so you can be sure that the new media is available on the network.

Avoid the temptation to “rip” a CD directly to the network share because there is the increased likelihood of errors and slow performance due to multiple points of failure existing between the CD and the NAS’s hard disk, being the optical drive, the ripping and encoding processes and the network transfer process.

Increasing and evolving the DLNA networked media system

One media Server, work towards a NAS unit

This is more analogous to a business’s file server where the IT department want to make sure that all company data is seen as one collection to back up and manage and is at one location. This may appeal to you if you want to have only one primary storage point for your media.

The only limitation about this is that if you need to “do anything” with the NAS unit like upsize it or replace a failed hard disk, you will have to have the media library out of action.

Two or more Media Servers serving different content

You may want to have the media on two or more media servers rather than one media server. This may appeal to a household which has young adults or adolescent children living in it. In this situation, they may want to keep their media on an NAS that they have responsibility for and can take with them when they move on. This avoids you having your media server being “clogged up” with their media which you will less likely want to touch whether they are with you or when they have left your place.

Similarly, you may have media to do with your personal activity as well as media to do with your business or community-engagement activity. Here, you can run a separate media server which houses your business media and this one can be managed under business standards and be financially underwritten by your business. This includes Web developers who run a NAS box as a “Web-page workbench” and want to view primary pictures for their Web page on a DLNA media client attached to the big-screen TV.

Here, you create the different media servers but you make sure they have different names so that your DLNA client devices can differentiate between the server devices. You may use different types of server such as a USB hard disk connected to a DLNA-capable USB file server for a small project or a business-class NAS unit for your business data.

An increasing number of NAS devices pitched at the domestic market are starting to support the ability to aggregate multiple DLNA media libraries in to one large media library. This allows the user to point their media client device at one reference point for all the media that exists on the one home network.

Media Servers in different geographical locations

There may be the possibility of running another DLNA-based media network in another geographic location like a business premises or another house.

The main issue about this is keeping both locations in sync with the desired content. You may have to use an Internet-based sync utility which is supported by your media server to synchronise content between locations.

On the other hand, you could set up an IP-based NAS-NAS backup set for incremental or differential (only files that are new or have changed) backup, but the backup jobs could still be large if any metadata is changed.

You would have to make sure that both NAS units are accessible from the Internet. This may involve establishment of a “dynamic DNS” setup through the use of “DynDNS” or similar utilities; or having each location have a fixed IP address. Then there is the issue of setting up a port-forwarding rule in your router, which may be easy if your NAS units implements UPnP-based port forwarding and you are using a UPnP-compliant router in each location. On the other hand, you may have to visit the router’s Web page to set up the port-forward rules.

This situation hasn’t been made easy because typically the concept of using multiple NAS boxes for applications like multi-location file storage hasn’t been defined as a key application.

Conclusion

Once you have moved towards the PC-less DLNA-based media network, you will thank yourself that you have headed down that path. You won’t need to keep a noisy computer on all the time just to enjoy your music over the network.

3 December 2008 Posted by | Feature Article, UPnP AV / DLNA media-playback hardware), UPnP AV / DLNA media-server hardware | , | 1 Comment

Feature Article – Using an ex-business laptop computer as a kitchen PC

When I originally wrote this post on my old blog site in May 2007, a close friend of mine was given a computer by her partner who is in the business-computer trade and the partner had, at that time, inherited a recent-model ex-business laptop which he was going to give to her. Here, I had pointed out a useful article written by Sharon Crawford for the Microsoft Windows XP Expert Zone column about this kind of situation where recent-model secondhand laptop computers can come in to their own as a computer for use in the kitchen. The article, which is located at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/web/learnmore/crawford_kitchenpc.mspx , explained about use of a computer in this situation.
 
There are many reasons why I certainly agree with the use of a laptop for this kind of application. One main reason is that the computer can be quickly and easily stowed away when not in use. This is certainly of importance in this close friend’s kitchen where she had cats that were prone to spraying on anything they could when she is not watching. Similarly, you will have to clear away the computer when you need more space to put those dishes when you are preparing or serving food or cleaning up after the meal. The other main reason that is enhanced by the portability of these laptop computers is that they can be moved around as the user desires.
 
As far as software is concerned, I would deploy Windows XP or, if the computer is capable enough (i.e. made in the last two years), Windows Vista Home Premium or Windows 7, and a basic office suite like Office 2007 Home and Student.
The kind of use that I am likely to see out of these computers would be Web surfing with IE; e-mailing which can be done with Outlook Express, Windows Vista Mail, Windows Live Mail or a Web-mail service like Hotmail, Yahoo or GMail or your ISP’s Web mail front; and instant messaging with Windows Live Messenger for example. Let’s not forget basic word-processing and spreadsheet work which would be used for recording information; as well as access to some casual games ie Solitaire, Spider Solitaire or Mahjongg Titans that are good for whiling away the time during a long cooking process or long phone conversation. Windows Media Player 11 and Windows Live Photo Gallery would come in to their own for music, pictures and video in the kitchen.
 
As far as working out the shortcuts for the Favourites Menu is concerned, I would certainly add the following shortcuts:
* Any Website for any organizations (school, community / faith organization, business or government department)  that you have regular business with
* Transport information websites, including the departures / arrivals information page provided by your local airports
* Online navigation sites and street directories
* The local "White Pages" and "Yellow Pages" websites
* The box offices for your local cinemas or theatres – you can book online for that upcoming show that you want to attend
 
As far as printing is concerned, you don’t need to attach a printer to the machine if you have a reliable network printer on your home network. If you need to use a mouse with your computer rather than the inbuilt joystick or touchpad that is part of the laptop, make sure that it is an optical type because there is less likelihood of the kind of dirt and crumbs that appear on kitchen benches getting in to these mice and affecting their performance. Here, you could get away with a basic 2-button or 2-button + wheel mouse for this application.

30 November 2008 Posted by | Computer setups, Feature Article | , , | Leave a comment

Feature Article: Extending your wireless network’s coverage

 Many of you who have viewed this blog have been looking for information about extending the wireless segment of your home network. Typically it may be to cover a large house or to gain wireless coverage past a radio obstacle like thick brick / stone walls, foil-lined insulation or double-glazing which uses metal-based heat reflection techniques. Previously, I have mentioned about using this technique to mitigate microwave-oven interference on the 2.4GHz band which 802.11g works on.

Most wireless-network equipment manufacturers have released repeater devices that catch the existing wireless-network signal and expose it in to the new area. Some of these setups work on a vendor-specific manner or may work according to standard WDS bridging techniques. But they all require the use of equipment compatible with each other, usually equipment supplied by the same vendor.

The “extended service set”

The method that I am going to talk about here is the establishment of an “extended service set” comprising of multiple access points serving the same network and using the same SSID and security parameters. All the access points have to be connected to a common wired-network backbone which is part of the same logical network.

This method can be performed with access points or wireless routers supplied by different vendors, thus permitting the use of equipment which is suited for the job at hand. It can allow for use of surplus routers simply as access points as long as they are configured correctly.

The diagram below shows what a small network should be like when running an extended service set.

Home Network with extended wireless segment

The network backbone

The wired-network backbone can work on any wired-network media such as a Cat5 Ethernet, HomePlug power-line, fibre-optic LAN, MoCA TV-aerial coax, HomePNA phone-line or a mix of these technologies bridged to each other. It can even work with a dedicated inter-building wireless backbone that may be used for larger properties.

The network backbone can handle other network traffic from wired-network devices like servers, desktop computers and games consoles; and become the network’s local data path to the Internet. This is while it works as the backbone for the wireless “extended service set”.

You may have be lucky to have an Ethernet cable in your house if you had it “wired for data”. But most houses typically wouldn’t have this facility everywhere.  The other technology that I have found to do this job equally well is HomePlug powerline networking which works over the cable infrastructure used to provide AC power to your lights and appliances. It can reach further than the existing building, which is a boon if you need to extend coverage to garages, sheds, cabins or other outbuildings or have Internet access in a caravan or campervan used as a “sleepout” or mobile office.

Access Points

These devices are the transmitters that bring the data from the wired network backbone to the wireless client devices and make up the extended service set.

You typically will have one such device in the form of your wireless router which is at your network’s Internet-network “edge”. The wired-network backbone used as part of this “extended service set” would be connected to one of the LAN ports on this device. If you use a wireless router with one Ethernet port for the LAN and that port is used for a desktop computer or similar wired-network device, you will need to expand the number of sockets by using an Ethernet switch. These will typically be a “dime a dozen” for a five-port or eight-port unit. There are also some HomePlug-Ethernet bridges that have a built-in four-port switch that are worth considering if you are setting up a HomePlug backbone.

Repurposing the old wireless router

If you upgraded your wireless router to a newer model, you will still have your existing router gathering dust. This can work as an access point but will need to be configured appropriately. You will need to disable the following functions:

* DHCP server

* UPnP Internet Gateway Device functionality (typically referred to as UPnP)

* Dynamic DNS functionality (if used)

As well, you will need to set the LAN IP address to something that is within your network’s IP address range but preferably out of the address pool used by the current router. The reason you have to take care of this setup is because there needs to be only one device performing “network-Internet edge” functions such as DHCP in a network and this device should be the one at the logical network-Internet border.

When you connect this router to the wired backbone, you use any of the LAN ports to connect the backbone. Never use the WAN port on this router for the wired backbone.

“3-in-1” HomePlug wireless access points

There is an increasing number of wireless access points that work with a HomePlug or Ethernet backbone. These devices, such as the Netcomm NP290W / Solwise PL-85PEW and the Devolo dLAN Wireless Extender, are as big as a compact “wall-wart” power adaptor used to power most electronic devices from the mains and plug directly in to the power outlet. They bridge between an 802.11g wireless segment (as an access point or wireless client bridge), a HomePlug powerline segment and a Cat5 Ethernet segment.

These units come in handy if you need to extend a wireless network on a temporary basis or simply if a compact device can do the job better than a large access point. They would come in to their own when you are using the extension access point to mitigate microwave-oven interference in the kitchen or if you want to extend the home network to a static caravan.

Configuring the access points

You will need to know the SSID and the WEP or WPA wireless security parameters that are operational for your network. These are the only factors that need to be common amongst all of the access points of the network. The reason that the SSID and security parameters are set to the same details is so that wireless client devices can roam between the different access points without any user intervention.

The radio channels for each of the access points have to be set differently to each other. It is a good idea to set the access point closest to the kitchen to Channel 1 if you have a microwave oven in that kitchen. This is because, from my research, most of the domestic-market microwave ovens work at 2450 MHz which is between Channels 8 and 9 on the 802.11g channel list. I had tried an experiment to see whether a microwave can upset a wireless-network “cell” that is tuned away from its operating frequency.

The wireless client devices

There is no need to reconfigure any of the wireless client devices such as laptop computers once you have set up the network according to the above instructions.

You will see an improvement in network performance when you operate your wireless client devices in areas where you barely could operate them. The signal-strength bar-graph that is part of your wireless client device’s network management software will register a stronger signal as the client device comes in to vicinity of the access points.

Conclusion

Once you have followed the steps in this article, you will be able to extend the effective coverage of your wireless home network or make your wireless network cover everywhere in your house even if it uses metal-based energy-efficiency measures or has thick brick or stone walls.

 

28 November 2008 Posted by | Feature Article, Network Management | , | 4 Comments

Feature Article: Making Sure Your Home Wireless Network Is Secure

This Christmas, you may have received a new wireless Internet router as a Christmas present and are eager to dabble in the joys of wireless “hot and cold running Internet”. You will need to make sure that this network is operating in a secure manner in order to stop unknown and unaccounted use of your bandwidth allowance and to stop others from raiding your household’s private data. This is as essential as making sure that your home is physically secure through your use of deadlocks and intruder alarm systems.

Most likely, you will have implemented computer security measures like installing and using a desktop firewall and desktop virus-control and spyware-control utilities. You will also have deployed a spam-control utility on your e-mail inbox or signed up to a spam-filter service provided by your ISP.

Getting started on making your wireless network secure

Use the “Getting Started” leaflet for your router to identify how to configure it. You may have to run the CD that was supplied with your router and will need to connect your computer to it using the Ethernet cable that should have been supplied with it.

Windows Vista

Those of you with Windows Vista who have routers marked with a “Certified for Windows Vista” logo may find this job easier because the operating system will discover the router and put up a prompt at the right hand side of your screen upon power-up. You may have to click on “Control Panel”, then “Network and Internet”, then click on “Connect to a network”.

Next click “Set up a wireless router or access point” and click “Next” twice. Windows will interrogate your router and if it can’t be configured through Windows Vista, you will see a window which offers two options – “Configure the device manually” and “Create wireless network settings and save to USB drive”. Click on the first option to open the wireless router’s configuration page. If you just unwrapped it, you will need to use the default password printed in the router’s documentation.

Also, click on the second option to prepare a configuration set for your router. With this wizard, you will need to create an SSID and WPA network security key. Work through the wizard and choose a network name (SSID) that is peculiar to your premises and transcribe this SSID. Then click “Next” and accurately transcribe the passphrase written in the wizard.

Put a USB memory key in the computer then click Next. When the screen darkens, click “Allow”. Choose the situation appropriate to your network. If your network is already established, select the “Custom settings” option and click “Next”. Then click “Close”. You have created a master configuration set for your wireless network and that is now stored on your USB key.

Go back to the wireless router configuration page that you opened before in the second paragraph and go to the Wireless Network option. Copy the SSID into the “SSID” or “Wireless Network Name” box. Then go to the Wireless Security box and set your router to WPA-Personal and copy the WPA network security key into the passphrase box. At this point, go to the administrator password option and change the administrator password to something that you remember but is secure.

Windows XP SP2

If you don’t have the “Getting Started” leaflet on hand, connect to the router as described before and type “cmd.exe” in to the Run prompt. This is accessible by pressing [Windows| and R together on the keyboard. Then type “ipconfig” in to the command prompt. Look for the “gateway address” and note it down. Then use your Web browser to log in to the router.

Opan Control Panel and click on Wireless Network Setup option. Enter an SSID (wireless network name) that is peculiar to your premises and select “Automatically assign a network key”. Tick Use WPA encryption instead of WEP and click “Next”. Select “Use a USB flash drive” and click Next to copy the details to a USB memory key which you have inserted in your computer. Select the drive letter that corresponds to the USB memory key. Click “Next” to copy the details to your USB memory key.

Windows Vista, Windows XP SP2

“Dip” the USB memory key into the USB port on any Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista computer with a wireless network ability that is part of your network and select the Wireless Network Setup Wizard option on the AutoPlay dialog box.

Apple MacOS X, UNIX (Linux)

Put the USB memory key in to the computer and open the SMRTNTKY folder. Open the WSETTING.TXT file and copy the SSID and WPA network key in to your wireless network configuration utility. In the case of the MacOS X, make sure that it is part of your “keyring”. Then dismount and remove the USB memory key.

All operating systems

Then put the USB memory key in to a computer attached to a printer and click on the “Open Folder to view files” option  Open the SMRTNTKY folder and click on WSETTING text document (WSETTING.TXT) . Print this document out and keep it in your files. This is of importance for when you connect up newer wireless network devices.

28 November 2008 Posted by | Feature Article, Network Management, Network Security | , | Leave a comment

Feature Article – DLNA Media Network Series: Getting Started with DLNA Media Sharing

Most of us will end up with a large collection of picture, music or video files on our computers, especially if we use our computers as a large media library. It would be nice to have access to this content without having to copy it out to thumbdrives, SD cards or iPods before we can enjoy it.

Why share your music the DLNA way?

An increasing number of dedicated network media client devices are on the market and nearly all of these devices work according to the UPnP AV / DLNA media-client standards. The ubiquitous Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 games consoles that every teenage boy dreams of having both work according to these standards. Most manufacturers who are selling premium table radios are supplying at least one which can pick up Internet radio broadcasts through a home network and these sets are also capable of picking up media made available to them from a UPnP AV media server. This same function is increasing becoming a product differentiation feature for most consumer electronics equipment like home-theatre receivers and plasma televisions.
 

004 - Denon S-52 network audio receiver playing Pink Floyd over the network

 
Denon S-52 Wireless Network CD Music Systm (DLNA enabled)
 
005 - Tivoli Networks Radio
Tivoli NetWorks Internet Radio (DLNA enabled)
 
By using a DLNA-based setup, you don’t need to install different media-server programs for each network-media client that you happen to buy. In some situations, you may only need to run whatever is supplied with the computer’s operating system.

Setting up your network for DLNA media

Most home, small-business and some branch-office networks don’t require any revision because they typically are one logical network that spans the premises with the router that exists at the network-Internet “edge” being the device that handles basic network housekeeping. This doesn’t matter whether the network has one or more media segments like WiFi wireless, Cat5 Ethernet or HomePlug powerline cabling.
 
You will need to know the ESSID and the WEP or WPA security key for your wireless network. This may be obtained through the router’s Web administration page or through your client PC’s wireless-network-setup parameters such as in Windows Connect Now. If you are connecting your DLNA media client to the network via wireless, you will need to make sure that the wireless access point or router is broadcasting the ESSID so you can pick it from a list using the device’s user interface and be sure you are “in reach” of the network. This practice would be important when you run a multi-access-point wireless network or simply to help with making sure that neighbouring wireless networks are set up properly. As well, you will need to be ready to enter the WEP or WPA security passphrase by “picking out” characters from a list using buttons on the device or its remote control.
Home Network with DLNA equipment
 

Network layout

 

Setting up your PC jukebox software for DLNA

If you are running Windows XP or Vista, you can use Windows Media Player 11 as your media server. Before you start “ripping” CDs to the hard disk, make sure the program is set to rip without DRM (Copy Protect Music checkbox in the Rip Music options tab is cleared) and that it is set to rip CDs at 192kbps WMA or 320kbps MP3. The reason I would rip at these settings is to be assured of sound reproduction that is as close to the CD album as possible. You may use the MP3 codec for maximum compatibility or WMA for efficient storage if your DLNA media clients can handle WMA.
.Windows Media - CD ripping settings
 
As well, you will have to set Windows Media Player 11 to automatically permit devices to benefit from its media library. This is done by going to “Library”, then selecting “Media Sharing” and clicking on “Settings”. The “Media Sharing – Default Settings” dialog box will open whereupon you make sure that the “Allow new devices and computers automatically” checkbox is selected.
If you don’t use any sort of ratings in your media as far as sharing is concerned, you may have to select “All ratings” in both the “Star Ratings” and “Parental Ratings” options. This will make sure all media is available for all of the devices.
Windows Media - Media Sharing settings
For your pictuers, you will have to add the folder that contains your photos to Windows Media Player’s media library. Similarly, you will have to do this for your video folders.
Linux users have access to a large plethora of media-server software such as TwonkyVision and TVersity as well as a large collection of open-source media-server software. You will still have to use a CD jukebox program set up to rip CDs at 320kbps MP3.
 
Apple and Windows users who use iTunes as their CD jukebox but will need to use either TwonkyVision, Elgato EyeConnect or Allegro Media Server. They will need to make sure that the iTunes directory is the one to be provided by the media server. Again, iTunes will need to be set up to rip at 320kbps MP3 for best compatibility and quality. The program may support transcoding to lower bandwidth settings for use whenever music is being transferred out to an iPod.
 
The media server would need to be set up to work with the folders that are being used as the primary folders for music, photo and video storage.  I have explained how to go about this for your music, especially if you use iTunes or Windows Media Player. For your photos and videos, you simply add the folders used by your photo management and video management software to store your images.
The DLNA media-server programs typically index music files according to artist, album, track, genre, and some may support separate identification of composers, contributing artists (important for soundtracks and compilation albums) and other metadata for pictures and videos. Some, like TwonkyVision, allow for alphabetical clustering and other efficient sorting arrangements. This is typically because UPnP AV / DLNA allows for the server to determine how it presents the library to the client devices.
 
As far as playlists are concerned, they will typically be listed in a “Playlists” collection with each playlist being its own collection in that tree. By having a playlist as a collection of tracks rather than a reference to a playlist file, it means that the media clients don’t have to be compatible with the playlist file format that the jukebox program works with.
 
Some of the media servers like Windows Media Player 11 or TwonkyVision support transcoding to common file formats for situations where a DLNA media client cannot handle a particular media type. This can come in handy for file types like WMA which aren’t handled by all UPnP AV media players.
 

Setting up the DLNA clients

Enrolling the DLNA clients in to your network

You will need to make your DLNA media client become part of the network. This can be a simple task of plugging it in to your Ethernet network segment or into your HomePlug powerline network segment using a HomePlug-Ethernet bridge.

Integrating wireless-enabled DLNA clients to the wireless network

If you are connecting your wireless-enabled DLNA media client to the WiFi network, you will need to configure it for this network. This will require you to enter the device’s setup menu and select the option pertaining to wireless network setup. Then you get the device to search for your network’s ESSID which is commonly referred to as the SSID, Network Name or something similar. Once your device has detected your wireless network, you will be prompted to enter the WEP or WPA security passphrase. At this point, enter the passphrase in to the device. These procedures will have to be done as mentioned in the “Setting up your network for DLNA media” section.
 
Some DLNA network media clients may use a “quick set-up” method like Windows Connect Now or WPS. This will typically involve either transferring a USB memory key between a Windows XP or Vista wireless-equipped notebook computer and the device; or registering the device with the wireless router. This procedure may be as simple as pressing a “register” button on the router and the device or copying the device’s PIN number (which would be on the device itself or in a WPS setup option in the device’s setup menu) in to the wireless router’s setup menu.
 
If you use MAC-address filtering on your wireless router, you will need to register the DLNA media device as an “accepted” network device. This will require you to copy the device’s wireless MAC address, which will be on a sticker attached to the device itself, in to the router’s trusted MAC-address list.

Making sure the DLNA clients detect the media server

You will need to make sure that the media server program is running on the PC that has the media that you are sharing. Most such programs may run a media server component as a background task while the computer is fully on but some may require the jukebox program to be running all the time.
Another thing to check is the desktop firewall software. This should be set to allow the media server software outbound and inbound access to the network as a server. The Windows Firewall software that is part of all Microsoft desktop operating systems since Windows XP Service Pack 2 makes this easy by allowing immediate access to Windows Media Player or asking you if you want to allow the application to have network access. Other third-party firewalls may require the server application to be allowed Internet access by you adding the software to their application “white lists”.
You may have to select “Network Music”, “PC Music” or something similar on most network-enabled music devices like Internet radios in order to gain access to the music library that you have made available.  Then you select the “hostname” of the PC, which may be commensurate to its standard computer name or its primary owner’s name. The DLNA client will then show the media type that it can work with. You then select that type and use the controls to select the media you are interested in.

Summary

Once you have your network and media-server computer set up properly, you can work with providing music and other media to network media receiver devices without much hassle.

28 November 2008 Posted by | Feature Article, UPnP AV / DLNA | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Feature Article: Multi-Building Home Networks

What is a multi-building home network

A multi-building home network is a home or other small network where network devices are used in at least two buildings on the one property. The idea is for the whole logical network to be pervasive in all or some of the buildings that are on that same property.

The network will end up comprising of multiple segments (physical network connections) that cover each building where network presence is desired. Then there are segments that exist to create a bridge for data to move between buildings.

What properties and situations is this kind of network relevant to

The situation where this network comes in to its own is where it is desirable to have the home office in another building such as a detached garage or barn, but also the same Internet bandwidth needs to be available in the home and the detached building. This is more prevalent with farms where the “office” is the barn and none of the farm business is transacted in the homestead.

The same situation can exist with properties where there is at least one cabin, bungalow or static caravan that is used for extra guests or older children. Here, it may be desirable to provide the same Internet access as what exists in the main house to these locations. This is important with older children who use these buildings as their private space for activities including playing online games. In a similar vein, the same situation may extend to the use of a cabana that is located by the pool or in the garden as a place to benefit from Internet access through the use of a portable computer.

Now that various manufacturers are making network appliances like Internet CCTV cameras or Internet-enabled games consoles that benefit from being part of a network, this concept of multi-building home networks is becoming a lot more relevant. Imagine being able to keep an eye on the valuables in the garage or livestock in the barn from a PC in the house; or the older son playing an on-line game on the Xbox 360 using XboxLive in the bungalow.

How does this kind of network operate

This kind of network consists of many different segments that exist to cover the areas being served as well as segments that exist to transfer data out to the area-specific segments. All the segments are joined using media-specific bridge devices like wireless access points, Ethernet switches, HomePlug-Ethernet bridges or simply the local-network connections of the typical wireless router.

This means that all network devices that are part of this network setup are on the same logical network or subnet. This means that if they ask for IP addresses,  they will get their IP addresses from the same DHCP server that is in the network-Internet “edge” router. They will also benefit from that router’s Internet gateway functionality and from resources made available to them by other network devices.

Techniques And Methods

Dedicated wire run 

The buildings may be linked by a direct wire, usually Category 5 / 6 twisted-pair copper Ethernet cable or fibre-optic cable. The fibre-optic cable is more expensive than copper-wire cabling, especially for smaller runs, but would suit installations where the buildings are a very long distance (3 kilometres) apart or there could be excessive electrical noise. On the other hand, copper-cable twisted-pair Ethernet can suit inter-building runs of up to 100 metres.

Both cables will need a dedicated run, which will typically require a trench to be dug between the buildings and the cable to be run in a conduit for best results. This work can be affordably done if you are running low-voltage communications cable like a telephone line between the buildings.

Each end of the cable run would need to have an Ethernet switch in the case of a copper-cable run or media converters in the case of a fibre-optic run. The Ethernet switches are just about a “dime a dozen” for a five-port or eight-port unmanaged 10/100Mbps unit suitable for small networks and a bit extra for Gigabit units. An existing switch that is part of your home network, such as the one built in to your router or used as a “hub” in your Ethernet-based home network can do the job equally as well as a dedicated switch. 

Wireless

This method uses a radio link as the means for data-transfer between the buildings. It is based on the use of 802.11a/g/n equipment, commonly known as WiFi equipment, which works at a theoretical raw data speed of 54Mbps for 802.11a/g and 248Mbps for 802.11n. The range where the speed will be maintained will depend on the wireless equipment used and the antennas (aerials) used with the equipment. Typically the bandwidth will taper off as the distance between the equipment increases.

Inter-building applications have typically used equipment that is capable of working with higher-gain directional antennas than what is typically supplied with the equipment and such equipment is typically installed outdoors with an Ethernet cable used for bringing data in to the buildings.

It can involve the use of “shared WiFi” where remote buildings are equipped with wireless client bridges that are pointed towards the wireless access point installed in the main building. This same method permits WiFi use by portable devices used in or near the main access point, but requires different SSIDs for access points used in remote buildings.

Another method is to use a dedicated wireless link for building-building data flow. This can be achieved through the use of multi-function access points that are set up as “wireless bridges”. This wireless link wouldn’t be able to be used by portable devices for wireless network access.

Yet another method that works with some wireless access points and wireless routers is to use Wireless Distribution System. It allows the member devices to become wireless-segment repeaters, thus expanding wireless segment coverage and becoming an Ethernet bridge for the data. Portable devices can roam amongst the stations as if they are moving around an “extended service set” collection of access points with a wired backbone.  At the moment, the setup doesn’t permit true fault-tolerant signal meshing without bandwidth starvation, but can do a fair “hands-off” job of extending the “extended service set”.  

Non-dedicated wire run 

This method uses wires that are used to provide an existing service to the building rather than a dedicated wire run. It avoids the need to spend money on costs associated with running that dedicated wire, such as trenching and conduit runs, while avoiding the need to dig up established landscape.

There used to be two methods based around this concept but the most common one would be the HomePlug system which uses the infrastructure that is used to provide AC power to appliances that are used on the property. It is often marketed as a “no-new-wires” backbone for establishing new networks but can be used as a supplementary segment for existing networks. This is typically promoted through the small “infill” access points like the Netcomm NP290W which plug in to the wall and provide extra coverage for an existing wireless network.

It can work effectively in most residential, small-office and rural properties because they are often wired to the one general-purpose electricity service from the head transformer. This is typically exemplified with the property having one “common-tariff” electricity meter accounting for all the “common-tariff” electricity used on the property. It may not work if any building, like a bungalow, has been metered separately because, in most situations, the different services may have been derived from different phases.

Some sites may, because of inter-building wiring distance, require the HomePlug segment to be pushed out further. This situation is typical of buildings that are used as a “go-between” wire point for other buildings or static caravabs. This involves the creation of extra HomePlug segments for the remote buildings.

This is achieved by the use of 2 HomePlug-Ethernet bridges connected to each other by an Ethernet patch cord or Ethernet switch and installed close to the building’s AC switch board or fuse box.

One of the bridges is configured to use the Network Password (segment identification name for a HomePlug network, equivalent to an SSID for a WiFi wireless network segment) of main segment, while the other uses a new Network Password representative of the new segment. Remote HomePlug devices use new Network Password.

The appropriate method

Working From Scratch

You may be building the outbuilding from scratch or doing extensive renovations to an existing building, which involves work with the electrical circuits in the building. This includes running AC wiring to and establishing AC circuits in an existing building that has no AC power. In this case, you may want to “cover all your bases”, especially if you are dealing with a garage, barn, bungalow or cabin where the building is going to be a point of activity. This means running a dedicated wire run between the main building and the outbuilding. The materials that you use may depend on your budget that you allocate for the project.

This option can work very well in making maximum value from your tradesmen who are doing any cabling work on the project. If cost is an issue, you may have to use HomePlug as your inter-building link.

Existing Buildings

For existing buildings, especially on properties where there is established landscape, you will need to use either a wireless or HomePlug link.

If you prefer to run a wireless link, it may be preferable to use wireless infrastructure hardware which works with third-party antennas and is capable of working outdoors.

HomePlug can also and has been known to do a more reliable job as a building-building link in this context than wireless. This is more true of buildings that are made out of metal such as the “quick-assemble” garages and sheds because the metal frame and / or walls do block or limit the transmission of radio waves.

Static Caravans

Typically these vehicles are capable of being moved around the property at a moment’s notice. Most of the time, these vehicles are hooked up to the nearest power outlet on the property using a long high-current low-resistance extension cord. This is often to enable use of interior lights and appliances that are plugged into power outlets that are installed in the vehicle. Also, this practice allows one to use the gas-electric fridge that is built in to the vehicle with it running off AC power rather than gas or the vehicle’s 12 volt battery.

A highly-reliable method of bringing the home network to these vehicles would be the HomePlug power-line link. This technology would be suited to the job because of the metal-based construction of the typical post-1950s caravan or campervan which can interfere with wireless inter-building links. The HomePlug access points like the Netcomm NP290W can work effectively in this situation by providing a strong wireless signal within the metal walls of these vans while using the power link as the data run.

Conclusion

As governments and Internet service providers make an effort to provide less-dense communities like the country and outer-urban areas with broadband Internet access, the idea of extending the home network beyond the main house on a large property will be very real. This article has explained how this idea can be achieved with the existing technology.

28 November 2008 Posted by | Feature Article, Network Management | , , , | Leave a comment