Home Networking And IT Information And Discussion

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

Quick “extended service set” setup routines for WiFi access points

Why a quick setup routine for WiFi access points (or client devices capable of operating as access points)?

It makes it simple for one to extend or improve wireless coverage by adding access points to an existing “extended service set” with a wired backbone. This includes mitigating microwave-oven interference to computer equipment being used in the kitchen by using an access point tuned to Channel 1 installed there. Increasingly this functionality will become more relevant with WiFi-based VoIP cordless phones and come in to its own with location-based WiFi security and home-automation applications. It will also allow a device with built-in Ethernet or HomePlug network connectivity as well as a WiFi client functionality (which typically covers most WiFi-enabled devices) to become a low-power WiFi access point thus making it easy to expand the wireless network by providing infill coverage.

This is achieved by enrolling the device as a client device of the wireless network, then if the device is connected to the same Internet gateway that is visited by the wireless network via the wired network, it sets itself up as an access point with the same SSID and security data as the master access point. It then avoids users having to re-enter network data and make mistakes in setting up multiple-access-point wireless networks.

Methods

Semi-automatic operation – without WPS on master AP

  1. User: Connect to new AP via Ethernet or HomePlug
  2. User: At Web UI for new access point:
    1. Select AP – quick setup
  3. New Access Point: AP becomes wireless client bridge, direct link to host
  4. New Access Point: AP presents list of SSIDs that it can receive and their security status (open or secure)
  5. User: Clicks on SSID matching their home network’s SSID or enters home network’s SSID (for hidden SSID networks), then enters WEP/WPA-PSK key as applicable when the new AP locks on to the desired AP
  6. New Access Point: Perform DHCP test to see if it can find the gateway
    1. If successful, offer to set up as AP, gain MAC of gateway & BSSID of master (& other) APs on SSID,set WEP/WPA-PSK parameter
  7. New Access Point: If user OKs with setting up as AP for network, then switch to AP mode, self-tune to vacant frequency, remain dormant
  8. New Access Point: Once gateway is discovered through Ethernet / HomePlug interface (backbone detect), activate AP mode.

Automatic operation – with WPS on master AP

  1. User: Select Access Point mode, then invoke WPS on new and master AP (PBC “push-push” method)
  2. New Access Point: new AP gains WiFi details through WPS as if it is a client
  3. New Access Point: become wireless client bridge on these details until connected to wired backbone
  4. New Access Point: detect wired backbone (via Ethernet, HomePlug), self-tune, become AP with WPS “peer” status

Limitations

Some details may not be able to be conveyed to the new access point, especially if the access point is of lesser capability than the master access point. This may be of concern when extending the coverage of a wireless hotspot and want to enforce client-computer isolation at the access point. The client-computer isolation functionality should be achieved at the link-layer level by the hotspot gateway router thus allowing for media-independent client isolation. It can then cater for hotspots that use wired media (Ethernet, HomePlug, MoCA TV-aerial cabling) to extend WiFi coverage or connect computers supplied by themselves or their guests to their Internet service.

Similarly there may be issues with setting up a multi-LAN wireless network where there is a VLAN set up on the wired network and multiple SSIDs that are radiated by the same access point. This kind of setup describes a “private” LAN segment and a “public” or “guest” LAN segment

Conclusion

Once the WiFi equipment vendors look at using “quick-setup” methods for WiFi access points, this can allow home and small-business users, especially those with limited computer skills, to set up their wireless networks to suit their needs more easily.

18 August 2009 Posted by | Wireless Networking | , | 3 Comments

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.

31 July 2009 Posted by | Computer setups, Feature Article, Mobile Computing | , , , , | 2 Comments

SmallNetBuilder – Small Network Help – 802.11n Headed for September Ratification

 SmallNetBuilder – Small Network Help – 802.11n Headed for September Ratification

Cited text from SmallNetBuilder article

SmallNetBuilder has learned from a reliable source that the final issues in 802.11n have been resolved in this week’s meeting of the IEEE TGn in Montreal.

The draft standard is now expected to successfully pass through the final steps required for a ratification as a final standard in September. This is four months earlier than the currently published January 2010 date.

The key issue holding up the standard has been the mechanisms to be used to prevent interference between 802.11n and Bluetooth devices.

My Comments on this stage for 802.11n

Once this standard is ratified, most of us can now buy 802.11n-compliant wireless-network hardware while being sure it will work with other manufacturers’ equipment.

But the main issue with this ratification is whether most hardware manufacturers will roll out firmware for existing draft-specification 802.11n hardware that is in the field. This is of importance whenever newer final-specification hardware is deployed, because there could be compatibility issues between the different versions of the standard.

A good step to go about this is to go to manufacturers’ Websites and look for upgrade packages for any 802.11n hardware. In the case of laptops, use the laptop manufacturer’s Website or “quick-update” routine to check for updates for the wireless-network subsystem. If you run an “n-box” or other equipment serviced by your Internet service provider, check with the provider if there is new firmware in the pipeline for the hardware. This may be dependent on whether the device’s manufacturer is rolling out compatible firmware for provider-distributed devices.

In some cases, you may need to run your 802.11n wireless network segment on a “mixed” setup which observes best compatibility with 802.11g devices even if the segment is running only with “n” devices.

6 June 2009 Posted by | Wireless Networking | , | Leave a comment

Use of WiFi technology for safety and security

Ekahau Enhances Staff Safety of Hospital Psychiatric Wards

My comments on this issue

The Ekahau press release that is linked to from this article details the use of a WiFi-based staff badge that can be used to locate particular staff members in the hospital’s psychiatric ward and deliver messages to them.  But the feature that drew me to this device was the remote panic-alarm functionality that sends its signal via the hospital’s WiFi network.

Any panic-alarm or medical-alert system that is deployed in the home typically requires a transmitter and receiver working on a dedicated frequency, in a similar manner to garage-door openers.  If they are monitored by an external agency, the devices then transmit their alert signal to the monitoring station via a dedicated telephone or cellular circuit.

Now there is a different reality being brought about with cost-effective Internet service provided to WiFi-based wireless home networks in many households. This has included the concept of providing telephone and multi-channel television service through the same pipe, all thanks to the magic of IP-based packet networks. The classic circuit-based signalling methods used by these alarm devices are becoming less relevant in the packet-based signalling. Similarly, most users will want to benefit from the infrastructure that is laid down in a home network, such as the establishment of a multi-access-point WiFi network with a HomePlug-based backbone to cover a difficult house.

The Ekahau setup could be scaled back to allow an alarm installer or broadband Internet provider to sell a similar system in to the home. Any moveable sensor like a medical-alert pendant could make use of the existing WiFi network for transferring its data to the monitoring facility. It could then lead to e-mail and / or text (SMS) messaging if the device is triggered. Similarly, the unit could be used to deal with “wandering” behaviour that can be part of dementia-related illnesses by alerting if the person goes out of range of the WiFi network. As well, such systems could support local monitoring through the use of a local server device, thus providing their output through a Web page, platform-specific “widget” or desktop application.

This setup may appeal to broadband providers who want to gain more “average revenue per unit” by reselling basic security services as part of their package. It could also be a way of achieving a legitimate upgrade path for currently-deployed building security systems, especially in the context of the “switched-on” Internet-enabled home.

21 May 2009 Posted by | Home automation and security, Wireless Networking | , , | Leave a comment

Bluetooth 3.0 with High Speed Transfer – What does this mean?

Bluetooth Special Interest Group press release

WiFi Planet article on Bluetooth 3.0

My Comments

Bluetooth has hit the “big 3” by introducing a high-throughput version of its wireless personal network specification. This same technology used for sending pictures or phone-number data between mobile phones in the same space or streaming sound between mobile phones and car handsfree kits can do such things as wirelessly transferring one’s music library between a laptop computer and an MP3 player or “dumping” the contents of a digital camera to a computer.

It primarily allows data streams conforming to the Bluetooth protocols to be transmitted over the 802.11b/g WiFi network just by using the media-transfer levels of that specification. This takes advantage of the fact that a lot of the smartphones and the laptop computers have Bluetooth and WiFi wireless technology built in to them; and that premium MP3 players like the Apple iPod Touch will offer WiFi and Bluetooth on the same device. This is a situation that will become more common as chip manufacturers develop “all-in-one” WiFi / Bluetooth radio chipsets. For applications requiring a small data stream, the device just engages a single Bluetooth transceiver with the regular Bluetooth stack, which can save on battery power.

Intel had developed “My WiFi” which is a competing standard for a personal area network based on the WiFi technology with the devices using the full list of protocols and standards applicable to regular LAN applications. The idea was to have the laptop “split” its wireless-network ability into a client for a WiFi LAN and a very-low-power access point for a WiFi LAN which is the personal area network. At the moment, this technology is limited to laptops based on the Centrino 2 platform and requires that the laptop, being a general-purpose computer, becomes a “hub” device for the personal area network. But what could happen could be that other WiFi chipset vendors would license this technology and implement it into their designs, which could extend it towards other applications.

This would lead to a highly-competitive space for technologies that connect the wireless personal area network together, especially if the primary device of the network is a laptop computer. It could also incite manufacturers of devices like digital still and video cameras to include WiFi and Bluetooth in to these devices.

Who knows what the future will hold for the wireless personal area network.

23 April 2009 Posted by | Mobile Computing, Wireless Networking | , , | Leave a comment

Keeping the WiFi public hotspot industry safe

There are an increasing number of WiFi wireless hotspots being set up, mainly as a customer-service extra by cafe and bar operators. But there have been a few security issues that are likely to put users, especially business users off benefiting from these hotspots.

This is becoming more real due to netbooks, mobile Internet devices, WiFi-capable smartphones and other easily-portable computing devices becoming more common. The hotspots will become increasingly important as people take these devices with them everywhere they go and manage their personal or business data on them.

The primary risk to hotspot security

The main risk is the “fake hotspot” or “evil twin:. These are computers or smart routers that are set up in a cafe or bar frequented by travellers, business people or others who expect Internet access. They can be set up in competition to an existing hotspot that offers paid-for or limited-access service or on the fringes of an existing hotspot or hotzone. They offer the promise of free Internet access but exist for catching users’ private information and/or sending users to malware-laden fake Websites hosted on the computers.

Standard customer-education practices

The common rhetoric that is given for wireless-hotspot security is for the customer to put most of their effort into protecting their own data without the business owner realising that their hotspot service could be turning in to a liability. This can then lead to the hotspot service gathering dust due to disuse by the customers it was intended to serve.

The typical advice given to users is to check whether the premises is running a wireless hotspot or if there is a hotzone operating in the neighbourhood before switching on the wireless network ability in your laptop computer. Then make sure that you log on to a network identified by a legitimate ESSID when you switch on the wireless network ability.

Other suggestions include use of VPNs for all Web activity, which can become difficult for most personal Web users such as those with limited computer experience. Some people even advise against using public Internet facilities like Internet cafes and wireless hotspots for any computing activity that is confidential on a personal or business level.

But everyone involved in providing the free or paid-for hotspot service will need to put effort into assuring a secure yet accessible hotspot which provides a high service quality for all users. This encompasses the equipment vendors, wireless Internet service providers and the premises owners.

Signage and operating practices

When Intel promoted the Centrino chipset for laptop computers, they promoted wireless hotspot areas that were trusted by having a sticker with the Centrino butterfly logo at eye level on the door and the premises being scattered with table tent cards with that same logo. Similarly hotspot service providers and wireless Internet service providers used similar signage to promote their hotspots.

But most business operators, especially small independently-run cafes and bars, tend to deploy “hotspot-in-a-box” solutions where they connect a special wireless router that they have bought to their Internet service and do their own promotion of the service. This may simply be in the form of a home-printed sign on the door or window or a home-printed display sign near the cash register advising of WiFi hotspot service.

An improvement on this could be in the form of the ESSID matching the business’s name and listed on the signage, which should have the business’s official logo. Similarly, the network could be set up with WPA-PSK security at least with the passphrase given to the customers by the business’s staff members when they order hotspot service. Most “hotspot in a box” setups that list the customer’s username and password on a paper docket list the ESSID and WPA-PSK passphrase on these dockets. As well, I would modify the login page to have the business’s look with the business’s logo. A complimentary-use hotspot could be secured with a WPA-PSK passphrase and the customer having to ask the staff member about the passphrase. This could allow the facility to know who is using the hotspot and the organisation who runs that hotspot can have better control over it.

It may be worth the industry investigating the feasibility of using WPA-Enterprise security which is associated with different usernames and passwords for access to the wireless network. Most portable computers and handheld devices in current use can support WPA-Enterprise networks. This can be implemented with the typical “paper-docket” model used by most “hotspot-in-a-box” setups if the authentication system used in these units works as a RADIUS server and the built-in wireless access point supports WPA-Enterprise with the unit’s built-in RADIUS server. The same setup could work well with a membership-based hotspot service like a public library with the RADIUS server linked to the membership database. But it may not work easily with hotspot setups that work on a “self-service” model such as paid-service hotspots that require the user to key in their credit-card number through a Webpage or free-service hotspots that use a “click-wrap” arrangement for honouring their usage terms and conditions.

The organisation who runs the hotspot should also be aware of other public-access wireless networks operating in their vicinity, such as an outdoor hotzone or municipal wireless network that covers their neighbourhood; and regularly monitor the quality of service provided by their hotspot. Also, they need to pay attention to any customer issues regarding the hotspot’s operation such as “dead zones” or unexpected disconnections.

People who own private-access wireless networks should also keep these networks secure through setting up WPA-secured wireless networks. They should also check the quality of their network’s service and keep an eye on sudden changes in their network’s behaviour.

When wireless-network operators keep regular tabs on the network’s quality of service, they can be in a better position to identify rogue “evil-twin” hotspots

Improved standards for authenticating wireless networks

There needs to be some technical improvement on various WiFi standards to permit authentication of WiFi networks in a manner similar to how SSL-secured Web sites are authenticated. This could be based around a “digital certificate” which has information about the hotspot, especially:

  • the ESSID of the network ,
  • the BSSID (wireless network MAC) of each of the access points,
  • the LAN IP address and MAC number of the Internet gateway
  • the venue name and address and
  • the business’s official name and address.

The certificate, which would be signed by public-key / private-key method could be part of the “beacon” which announces the network. It would work with the software which manages the wireless network client so it can identify a wireless network as being secure or trusted if the signature is intact and the network client is attached to the network from the listed BSSIDs and is linking to the gateway LAN IP.

The user experience would be very similar to most Internet-based banking or shopping Websites where there is a “padlock” symbol to denote that the user is using an SSL-secured Website with an intact certificate. It will also be like Internet Explorer 7 and 8 where the address bar turns green for a “High-Assurance” certificate which requires higher standards. In this case, the user interface could use colour-coding and / or a distinctive icon for indicating a verified public network.

The provision of cost-effective wireless-network management software

There are some programs that can turn a laptop computer in to a wireless-network survey tool, but most of them don’t show much useful information, are hard to operate for anyone other than a network technician or are too costly. They miss the needs of people who run home or small-business wireless networks or wireless hotspots.

What needs to exist is low-cost wireless-network management software that can work with the common Microsoft or Apple platforms on computers that have common wireless . The software should be able to use commonly-available wireless network adaptors such as the Intel Centrino platform to perform site surveys on the WiFi bands and display the activity on these bands in an easy-to-view but comprehensive manner. The software should be easy to use for most people so they can spot interference to their wireless network easily and can “tune” their wireless network for best performance.

Similarly the popular smartphone and PDA platforms like Applie iPhone, Symbian S60 / UIQ, Blackberry and Microsoft Windows Mobile could have low-cost wireless-network management software written for them so they can make a handheld PDA or mobile phone work as a site-survey tool for assessing quality of service

Once this kind of software is available for small business and home users, it empowers them to assure proper coverage of their network and check for any “evil twin” or other rogue hotspots being set up to catch customers.

Summary

There needs to be more effort put in to setting up secure public-access wireless networks so that people can benefit from portable computing anywhere without forfeiting the confidentiality of their personal or corporate data.

It also will encourage people to gain the maximum value out of their WiFi-enabled portable information devices whether for their business life or their personal life.

12 March 2009 Posted by | Home computer setups, Internet Access And Service, Network Security, SOHO / Small business computer setups | , | Leave a comment

Wi-Fi for your Car, Truck, or MPV

 

Wi-Fi for your Car, Truck, or MPV

My Comments

One factor that is often missed when WiFi in the car is mentioned is the idea of network-hosted media in the car. This should cover access to Internet-hosted media like Internet radio through the car stereo, the ability to sync to the master media library at home whether the vehicle is at home or away and DLNA functionality at home or away.

The last function would cover DLNA media play through the car audio system whenever there is a DLNA media server in or near the car. A situation that would be covered in this setup would be to play music files held on a DLNA-enabled laptop or mobile phone or a home network’s DLNA server through the car speakers. Similarly, music could be downloaded to a hard disk installed in the car from these sources for later playback. In a similar vein, the car stereo could be a DLNA media server for RV (caravan) and holiday-home setups where the media library could be available through a UPnP AV-compliant media client device in the RV or holiday-home. This same setup can also please tradesmen who don’t want to hear the usual radio content on the job.

Another issue that needs to be raised is to have wireless broadband service at a cost-effective rate so that more people can think of benefiting from the technology.

8 January 2009 Posted by | Mobile Computing, UPnP AV / DLNA | , | Leave a comment

WiFi tops poll for best technological innovation of last decade – Telegraph

 

WiFi tops poll for best technological innovation of last decade – Telegraph

What has WiFi been about especially for the home IT environment?

One major way WiFi has benefited the home IT environment is the increased sale of laptop computers (http://www.australianit.news.com.au/story/0,24897,24851973-15306,00.html?referrer=email) over desktop computers. This typically would manifest in a home computing environment consisting of one or more laptop computers that have built-in WiFi wireless ability. The network – Internet “edge” device in this environment would be a wireless router that brings the Internet to these laptops via WiFi wireless. In some countries, the standard provider-supplied “customer premises equipment” for Internet service would be equipped with WiFi wireless capability.

Increasingly, nearly every printer manufacturer is running at least one residential-tier multi-function printer equipped with network ability, typically with WiFi network access. This means that the printer can be located in one position wherever the user desires and print documents from their laptop. There also is the increasing number of “Internet radios” or “i-Radios” that use WiFi to bring Internet radio streams to the speakers in these sets.

This may not be strictly a home-IT environment issue but the number of “hotspots” and “hotzones” that are part of public places is now increasing. These WiFi-based public networks are allowing for anywhere computing.

This has also caused most current-model mobile phones and PDA devices to be equipped with WiFi wireless thus allowing for cost-effective portable Web browsing and, increasingly, DLNA-driven music management and playback. These phones will eventually lead to WiFi being another mobile-telephone network usually in the form of fixed-mobile communications for example.

There have been attempts to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg” by limiting WiFi or making it unpopular. It has mainly been based on the “electromagnetic waves being dangerous to people” theory being propagated as part of junk science, but real scientific tests have proven that the RF emissions yielded by typical WiFi and Bluetooth setups none or very little detrimental effect on people.

Even without this article, I would certainly agree that WiFi has become an important computer technology for all IT scenarios.

29 December 2008 Posted by | Internet Access And Service, Mobile Computing, Wireless Networking | | Leave a comment

Broadcom’s New 802.11n Chip Includes Bluetooth and FM | WiFi Planet

 

Broadcom’s New 802.11n Chip Includes Bluetooth and FM

My Comments

I see this design as being increasingly relevant because of the way major electronics manufacturers are building “best of class” personal-electronics devices in all of the device classes (mobile phone, personal digital assistant, personal media player, etc) that they offer such devices in. The main issue that has plagued people who use these devices is the increased likelihood of the device’s battery dying on them when they want to get the best out of the device.

I see this design as a step in the right direction regarding long battery run-time for these devices because, as the article has said,  of integrating the WiFi N, Bluetooth and FM radio circuitry in to the one circuit with improved power consumption. This is certainly important if the device is to be used in a wireless network and with a Bluetooth headset for example.

It also encourages device builders to consider not just Internet-hosted services but network-based services like DLNA-based media server / control / play functionality. Now that this version of the chip integrates low-power FM transmission, this could appeal to the idea of a “music phone” or personal media player with DLNA media play functionality playing music from its own collection or a DLNA network media server through an ordinary FM radio.

At least this chipset will be a step in the right direction for “raising the bar” in personal-electronics design.

18 December 2008 Posted by | Mobile Computing, UPnP AV / DLNA | , , | 1 Comment

Vista SP2 to land in April 2009-ish? – The Register

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/12/01/vista_sp2_april_rtm/

My comments

At least there is some accurate information regarding the arrival of Vista Service Pack 2 and what it will contain. This service pack could draw more people towards Windows Vista and offer something that can avoid the idea of going “back to XP”.

At least there are a few options that may benefit the laptop user and the modern WiFi-driven home computing environment. One would be to work hand in glove with WPS configuration as more routers come with “over-the-air” WPS configuration. As well, the Bluetooth Feature Pack which will offer what is expected of a Bluetooth setup will be available for people who buy Bluetooth functionality independent of the operationg system. This would encompass system builders; and those of us who provide Bluetooth functionality via an aftermarket device such as a USB dongle or move to Vista by buying it through the retail channel. The other desireable feature would be for the operating system to “natively” burn data to Blu-Ray discs; which would definitely come in handy with backing up hard disks or archiving old data.

In my honest opinion, this service pack can “tide us over” until Windows 7 comes on the scene as the next operating system.

Come on “I’m A PC”!

2 December 2008 Posted by | Operating system issues | , , | Leave a comment