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Wireless wonkery

I've been stealing moments at work over the past couple of weeks to fiddle with some new wireless gear. The specific gear has something of a long story behind it, which I will summarize by saying that it's Airespace's wireless gear and we'll just ignore the color of the paint job and the copyright on the software.

Using gear that's destined for a couple of schools, I now have the office fully covered (using five Access Points (APs) on two floors). All are carrying three wireless networks -- an open WLAN for public access, a secure staff network, and a secure network for VoIP. The Cisco 802.11b wireless IP phone is pretty neat -- I can easily see where it would be handy for a building-based but mobile person (like a Principal or custodian) to have in lieu of a cell phone. If/when the city-wide wireless network gets built we could conceivably give non-emergency workers wireless IP phones and take back their cell phones. That's probably $50K+ right there that could go into defraying network operating costs.

One of the features of these APs is that, when you plug one in for the first time, it searches out and finds its central controller. If it's on the same subnet as the 'mothership' it can find it that way; if it can see any other connected APs, its peers will give it the controller's IP address over the air. Once found, the AP stores that information. You can then move the AP anywhere you want in the network and it will find it's way back to 'mama'.

I had tried this in the office, but I wanted a real test. So, I brought one home. Of course, we didn't order any power supplies or in-line power injectors, so I had to lug a 24-port power-over-Ethernet switch home too, but hey, this is an experiment!

I chose the AP that had been running in my office. After setting up the switch at the house, I plugged in the AP, and after the usual startup light-show it went straight to work. The AP connected with its controller in Hartford over the high-speed line that runs from work to the house and bada-bing wireless! It was a little strange seeing the HartfordOpenWiFi SSID at home ... and even stranger to think that when I accessed one of the servers at home the traffic went from my laptop, to the AP, over the Frame Relay circuit to Hartford, through the network to the controller, all the way back to my house to the server, then back to Hartford to the controller and back to the house, to the AP, to my laptop. Whew.

Of course, this is nothing compared to how the Internet is plumbed. To get from my house to the two servers I maintain in my sister's basement three miles away, the traffic goes Glastonbury > Hartford > East Hartford > New York > Herndon Virginia > Washington D.C. > New York > Hartford > Glastonbury. Washington D.C. is where the ISP-that-connects-the-ISP-that-connects-work and the ISP-that-connects-the-ISP-that-connects-my servers meet. But I digress (which is half the fun).

On the whole, this AireSpace gear lives up to its billing. It is so much easier to configure one thing (the controller) and let it deal with the APs instead of the old way of having to configure each and every AP by hand. Yay progress!

After noodling around with my wireless I decided to poke around in my wireless neighborhood. ashacat and I had noticed an SSID out there called catdog2, but it was too weak to connect to inside. I was already outside with my laptop (seeing how far from the house the signal from the AireSpace AP would go)... As expected, the signal strength for catdog2 was higher outside, and I picked up another SSID McKee (NetStumbler is a glorious tool). From the front lawn I was able to connect to both open networks, get an IP address, and start freeloading on their Cox cable Internet services.

It makes me wonder what is so hard about turning on WEP or WPA? I know WEP sucks, but everything supports it, and even though a determined hacker can crack it in twenty minutes or less, it's at least the electronic equivalent of sticking a "NO TRESPASSING" sign on your lawn. WPA actually is secure (as long as your 'secret' is seven or more characters and not something cutesy like "Gandalf"), and it's even easier to configure than WEP. But no. If you fire up NetStumbler, many of the wireless networks you find will be wide open. Tomorrow I may lug the laptop back out onto the lawn and see if these folks have left the default passwords on their crappy Linksys APs.

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