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Network: the sequel

There’s nothing quite so annoying as a local-area network, especially if it’s one you have to look after. But there are ways to tame the wily beasts.

Here’s a little experiment for you. Ask your average movie buff to say the first thing that comes into his head when you say the word Network. The odds are good that he’ll do his best impersonation of Peter Finch portraying newscaster Howard Beale in the 1976 movie of that name: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Now try the same thing with your office’s LAN administrator: Ask him what the word network makes him want to say. The chances are you’ll get the same response–but he may not know he’s quoting from a movie.

There’s nothing quite so annoying as a local-area network, especially if it’s one you have to look after. The litany of networking headaches is all but endless: There are log-ins that don’t, throughput that isn’t, and users that can’t. But one of the most annoying things about networks is when they aren’t there. And it’s staggering to find how many offices–both home and away–lack the Category 5 Ethernet jacks you need to hook up to your LAN. Worse yet are rooms that do have a jack, but one that’s so poorly placed that trailing a wire from it to a computer causes a tripping hazard.

Lately, I’ve worked with a few products that bring bytes to the masses huddled in far outposts of offices not wired for Ethernet. Using a combination of powerline networking and wireless access points, it’s possible to hook up desktop and laptop users to your network with a minimum of fuss.

Wireless G

I recently deployed a wireless network that’s about three times faster than the one it replaced. The hot spot has the same name (SSID, to the network cognoscenti) and it’s protected by the same 128-bit wired equivalency protocol (WEP). Most of the users who hook up to it are using the same old Orinoco cards. But folks using newer 802.11g cards can get faster service by far–and the range is extended, too.

This network hot spot is based around the new Wi-Fi standard, 802.11g, and it uses Actiontec’s 54Mbps wireless access point. This new $130 box certainly cranks out the network traffic when it’s used with Wireless G cards. At relatively close quarters (where it was extending the reach of a network to corners without convenient Ethernet jacks), I clocked data throughput of around 20Mbps. And even when the satellite computers used 802.11b wireless PC cards, I found Actiontec’s access point working a little faster than its predecessor, Microsoft’s Wireless Base Station.

So far, so good. However, there are a few downsides to Actiontec’s access point. It’s not the easiest device to set up, especially if you intend to turn on WEP encryption. Configuring the access point requires you to run a Windows program called Actiontec 802.11g Access Point Locator on a computer that’s wired to the access point, either directly or through a router. The program scans around for a likely access point, and provides a list that includes the name, IP address, and MAC name of the device. To turn on security or change the name of the hot spot from its default (Actiontec), you must click on a less-than-intuitive menu option, Web. This launches a Web browser that opens the configuration pages embedded in the access point (after you enter an administrator name and password, of course).

The product supports two levels of WEP security (64- and 128-bit), using your choice of four WEP encryption keys. But unlike friendlier devices like Microsoft’s Wireless Base Station, you have to generate your keys by hand–which involves entering your random selection of hex digits (numbers between 0 and 9 and letters between A and F)–either 10 or 26 digits, depending on your level of security. Oddly enough, Actiontec’s companion Wireless PC Cards come with a program that will generate hex codes from a passphrase of your choice, but the resulting code appears as asterisks, so there’s no way to share that with the base station.

Another little annoyance: The base station ships with an Ethernet cable that didn’t work when I plugged it into a test router. There is no switching for upstream connections, so you need to provide a cross-over cable when attaching it to a hub or router.

Both the wireless base station and the wireless PC Cards are covered with an adequate one-year warranty and toll-free support–which I found myself leaning on rather more than I usually like to. So Actiontec’s products currently come with a “proceed with caution” recommendation–they’ve got the goods under the hood, but they take a little more effort to tinker with than I usually enjoy.

Hub hubba

Wireless networking isn’t a panacea. For hooking desktop computers, printers, and laptops with docking stations to the network, a nice, thick Ethernet cable is almost de rigueur. So what do you do if there’s not a handy network port? Well, you can start by looking into the Maverick Powerline 4-port bridge. I tested a prerelease version of this little hub that, like all prerelease devices, ran a little slow, but unlike a lot of hardware, ran reliably and without fuss.

The generic black box plugs into a wall power socket and, assuming there’s another box plugged into another power socket somewhere in the building, establishes a network over the powerline. Unlike many of its sister HomePlug powerline devices, the Maverick bridge has four CAT-5 sockets to support multiple network connections. You can connect one to a router, for example, to share Internet access or other access to another Ethernet network over the power lines.

Setting up a powerline network with the Maverick bridge couldn’t be easier. It’s literally a plug-and-play device, and you don’t even need to use a crossover cable to connect it to another hub or router. However, if you want to, you can use a Windows program called the Cogency Connection Manager to change passwords on the 56-bit DES encryption that’s built into all HomePlug 1.0 devices. The software also provides a breakdown of all the HomePlug devices on your circuit, complete with MAC addresses and a throughput monitor for each device–a brave move on Maverick’s part, since an extended evaluation of two Maverick bridges showed them to be pretty slow overallÑbetween 5 and 7Mbps.

The generic metal box that houses the Maverick bridge we tested had all the hallmarks of a prototype. There was no mounting kit and few distinguishing features. But it works reliably, and it comes with a year’s warranty. At press time, the Maverick Powerline 4-port Bridge’s retail price had not yet been made public.

Staying mad

There are bound to be a few annoyances with any product that tries to bridge the gap between standalone computers and a wired Ethernet network. Over the course of more than a year working with powerline and wireless networks, I’ve found mysterious drop-outs in both types of network. This hasn’t been a problem with the Actiontec and Maverick products yet, but only time will tell.

When powerline and wireless networks drop out, the only solution is a time-tested generic one–pull the plug on the offending adapter, wait, then plug it back in. By the time you walk back to your computer, it’s synched up with the rebooted hot spot or powerline network. This is a pretty crude method of troubleshooting, though it works with pretty much every piece of electronics I’ve ever encountered.

Maybe if Howard Beale had known about such simple solutions, he wouldn’t have been driven to exhort his viewers to shout out their windows.

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