Expanding and Protecting Your Wireless LAN

There was a great article over at ComputerWorld about making sure that you get the most from your wireless setup. Besides just being able to get reception in that far bedroom, isn’t it also nice to know you have knowledge that you can utilize in your workplace?

Most of the stuff is rather straightforward and perhaps evident to you already: but this article puts it all in one place, and shows you some ways to improve your recieption that you may not have thought of (such as Flatwire!).

If you go ahead and enhance your wireless signal range, you’ll have to deal with the possibility that nefarious people don’t find your network and go for a ride at your expense. Rob Flickenger has a short piece on the O’Reilly Network about how easy it is to break into a wireless network that isn’t properly secured. George Ou wrote over at ZDNet clear back in 2005 about the Six Dumbest Ways to Secure a Wireless LAN – and followed it up two years later with Wireless LAN Security Myths that Won’t Die. He also collected some of the best wireless LAN security articles into a free ebook called the Ultimate Guide to Enterprise Wireless LAN Security.

It may have been now three (almost four!) years since that article George wrote came out, but I still hear some of these myths even today.

Putting Linux on a Compaq nc4010

The HP/Compaq nc4010 is a business-class laptop with no CDROM, no DVD, and no floppy – but with network, modem, USB ports, SD slot, and PCMCIA slot. The system has a 1.7GHz Pentium M – snappier than a Pentium II for sure. It will also boot from the network with PXE or from the USB ports.

Booting this platform is the most difficult part. I didn’t try using PXE, because although I was once set up for PXE on my home network, I don’t have the distributions (Kubuntu and Fedora) set up for installing from PXE and it seemed like a bigger headache than try to make it boot through USB. USB booting is not (apparently) enabled by default; it requires setting USB to use Legacy in the BIOS settings – and in my case, it also required playing with the setting for Quickboot: I had turned it off, but upon re-enabling it the system booted from a USB key.

I tried using Fedora 9, but the Live USB version come up in a lower resolution and crashed upon exiting. I tried also Kubuntu Hardy (8.04.1) and it worked beautifully.

Loading Kubuntu was a breeze – and recognized all of the capabilities of the laptop (amazing!). USB works, network works (albeit with proprietary drivers), PCMCIA works – it just works. Even hibernate works (although suspend may not).

I’ve never quite liked Ubuntu, and I mostly chalked that up to its standard themes (brown and orange) and its use of Gnome and so on – never fully experiencing Ubuntu and always wanting to get a better feel for it. I’ve tried running Kubuntu (which uses KDE) before, but never as an “active” desktop.

Kubuntu made a believer out of me. Everything works in the laptop. Even MP3s, Adobe Flash, Java – it all installed cleanly (upon demand) and works out of the box. Installation was extremely simple. The available packages are quite extensive, and include Debian’s packages.

I attribute some of this ease of support (specifically, MP3 support, Flash, Java, proprietary drivers) to the fact that the company behind Ubuntu (Canonical) is not an American company, but a South African company – which has different laws. So they can make it easy to get proprietary “parts” that they could not sell or support otherwise.

I’m switching from my FreeBSD laptop to this one for the most part: this system is smaller, lighter, faster, and has more memory. It was good to build a FreeBSD desktop though – and took more doing than I thought. I wonder what PC-BSD would be like….. Hmm….

Living in the Internet Cloud

When we are on-the-go professionals, and are potentially required to work from home or from other locations on the road, isn’t it good to be able to reach your data no matter where you are?

Thus is the interest in being able to “live in the cloud”, keeping data and information on Internet computers out there somewhere.  Unfortunately, it also means that instead of making our own backups, we must rely on someone else’s backups.  Suppose the company goes out of business?  This has already happened for several photo sites – and in one case, it took the customer’s photos with them.

There are many sites that can provide a safe harbour for data or for information of various kinds.  My favorites are these:

The online desktops Goowy and eyeOS deserve special mention.  Not only do they provide a desktop, but also all the standard applications you might need.  It is possible to run within one of these desktops and save your data entirely with one of these setups.  This makes for a fantastic central location for everything – and a larger-than-normal risk.

EyeOS has one more feature that most of these do not: it is open source.  If you want to run your own version of EyeOS, there’s no problem doing so.  This is incredibly useful if you have your own server to run this on.  Then you can centralize your information and retain control at the same time.

I also find the mail clients in Goowy and eyeOS to be quite useful for sending mail from anywhere with a browser.

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FreeBSD 6.3 running on the Armada E500

Things are working well with the combination of the new FreeBSD 6.3 and the Compaq Armada E500. The machine has a great feel to it, and despite the huge applications of today, 128M can still be used for a KDE environment.

There are a number of nice features, including a ton of connectors (10BaseT, WinModem, USB, serial, parallel, PS/2, PCMCIA). The machine just keeps going, though I have had a few (few!) lockups (normally with Amarok and something else running). With the appropriate tweaks, the KDE desktop can be as polished as any from Red Hat or Novell.

Some of the things I did:

  • Replace the shutdown picture with something else; the picture of the dragon was too smarmy.
  • Replace the background (of course!) – personalization to the max.
  • Switch to the “Macintosh” version of menu layout; it’s the most user-friendly.
  • Load KDM from ports, then activate and theme it.
  • Load a splash screen for the boot loader
  • Switch the boot loader to grub then use a splash screen to start it off.
  • Configure the special buttons to work.
  • Change the KDE menu for something easier to use (such as TastyMenu or KBFX).

When all of these are combined, the environment is very slick and professional. It still wants more than 128M though.

One pet peeve of mine I might mention with regards to menus (such as KMenu or KBFX): menus should respond instantly!! I absolutely despise hiccups and watch cursors because the menu is loading its stuff. It should just pop! into place, not thrash the hard disk. Maybe one day…

What was the best part of this? I learned a ton about themes, X keys, configuring KDM, configuring the boot loader, and using grub. And learning is the best part, right?

FreeBSD 6.3 DesktopFreeBSD 6.3 Desktop

Hardware Hacking on the EeePC

This is an amazing piece on hacking the Asus EeePC (be patient for the link; not only is it image heavy, it suffered the Slashdot effect…. need I say more?).

If you’ve soldered before, this will be fairly easy; if you don’t know what solder is, you may not want to do this.

The amount of new capabilities that this user added are insane. He added the following:

  • A USB hub
  • GPS with antenna
  • Bluetooth
  • Card reader
  • Flash drive
  • Power switch
  • Wifi (with 802.11N draft support)
  • FM transmitter
  • Modem

This is a truly amazing list of things to add to a small environment such as the EeePC. Each addition is accompanied by a screenshot of a Windows XP hardware listing of the particular item. The user stated that they wanted to be able to dual-boot into Linux as well; too bad they didn’t show the Linux support for these items.

Another thing: this article also includes a handsome list of links on the EeePC at the end; so go take a look!

Update: I just found this detailed review; it shows a lot about what the EeePC can do and is well-written.

FreeBSD on the fitPC and on the EeePC

FreeBSD is a nice environment, and I tend to gravitate to it (though I love Linux and Solaris as well). It does tend to work better in smaller environments than either Linux or Solaris.

There was recently a discussion of FreeBSD on the EeePC; it appears that while some items do not work (to be expected) it runs nicely and works nicely (including wireless). There was recently posted a simple introductory article which also refers to a comprehensive article on FreeBSD on the EeePC.

There was also an article (with followup) about running FreeBSD on the fitPC; in contrast to the EeePC, this sounds like it is not as good. However, the fitPC has less memory and a slower processor; it is unclear as to whether the processor is “fast enough” (I still use Pentium IIIs for my use!) or if it really is slow. It is, however, very surprising that the default Ubuntu install would be a graphical installation that swaps badly and comes without SSH.

The fitPC forums have a nice Linux on fitPC section, which also includes the BSDs as well. The biggest problem with FreeBSD seems to be its lack of a USB CDROM driver in the base kernel; however, apparently OpenBSD loads fine. Since the system has only 256M of memory, it perhaps should not be swamped with heavy desktop applications.

OpenSolaris has a Marvell Libertas Driver! (and ZyDAS too!)

I previously discussed FreeBSD support for the Marvell Libertas chipset, and also some of the details of industry reception of this chipset.

I noticed recently that on OpenSolariswireless support page, the malo driver (from OpenBSD) for the Marvell 8335 chipset is now available (though at version 0.1). If you are using OpenSolaris on a laptop, this may be the way to go.

Also listed is a driver for the ZyDAS 1211 chipset (a USB wireless chipset), another that I’ve mentioned in the past. The driver is the zyd driver and is also at version 0.1.

There is a fabulous list of all the OpenSolaris drivers and the devices they support. With a printout of this list, you can be sure of getting a card which is well supported by OpenSolaris – and perhaps by other UNIX variants and by Linux as well.

Notebook Replacements

Over at the Web Worker Daily blog, there is an article titled “Who Needs a Notebook?”  While this is a very good article and a good look at three alternatives, for our purposes there is one serious drawback: none run UNIX or Linux.

One notable thing about the Windows environment, especially in the embedded environment, is that its requirements are still much higher than any UNIX (especially BSD and Linux).

There are several PDAs and small devices that come with Linux pre-installed (for purposes of discussion, being able to install Linux or BSD is not considered). My current favorite is the Nokia 770 (now superceded by the Nokia N800).  These are sold as “Internet Tablets” but run a Debian-like embedded environment with their own window manager.  The tablets are quite expandable software-wise; available software (from the community) includes OpenSSH, xterm, minimo, xournal, and more.

A classic Linux-based PDA (which is legendary in the Linux community) is the Sharp Zaurus.  While not initially a Linux-based PDA, the CL-5000D was the first of many that would Linux-based. Currently, the Linux-based Zaurus line is only available in Japan. The demand is such that there are many exporters that will sell the Zaurus to non-Japanese audiences anywhere in the world.

However, be aware that buying a Zaurus from an exporter/reseller necessarily means that there is no warranty from Sharp.  It also pays to be wary about power requirements: many such Zauruses will ship without a power supply for the country being shipped to – so if the local power plugs and power output are not compatible with Japan, then you are stuck.

The current Sharp Zaurus page (in Japanese) is here.

The kind people at TuxMobil have an entire list of PDAs that run Linux, including notations denoting those that come with Linux preloaded. If getting a PDA with Linux preloaded isn’t enough, you can put Linux or NetBSD (“Of course it runs NetBSD!”) onto a PDA yourself if you are technically inclined.

Connecting to the Internet with Bluetooth: After One Month Plus

Having used my Bluetooth-enabled phone (now the Nokia 6165i) to connect to the Internet using my Mac Mini and MacOS X 10.4, I want to relate my experiences.

As a dialup user, I found the cell-phone connection to be pleasantly faster, but not overly faster. Having been used to dialup speeds (and expecting nothing outstanding) I was pleased with the speed of the connection. Someone used to broadband speeds would be dramatically disappointed, but the ability to use cell-phone-based Internet connectivity anywhere can be a real asset.

I also found that the “modem” inside the mobile phone would react in strange ways at times, sometimes not responding at all, other times responding but refusing to make any connections, other times accepting input but not responding to input. Part of this may be due to bugs in the modem software – after all, the modem is not nearly as heavily used by the users as the mobile phone portion of the software. Part of this may also be due to lack of a strong data signal.

This brings me to what may be the worst drawback – the data signal is quite separate from the cell signal – so there is no indication of how strong it is or even if it exists in the current location. Thus it may be that when the data signal is weak, the modem will refuse to dial (the equivalent of not receiving a dialtone).

Much of this is hypothesis on my part about how the modem works – but I’ve found that MacOS X seems to be largely sound in its handling of the connection.

I’ve also seen the system go through a sequence (on the menu bar, starting in a connected state): “Disconnecting…” followed by “Authenticating…” followed by a continuation of the time spent online. I’ve attributed this to a possible loss of signal or a weak signal. It remains, however, rather disconcerting – but nothing bad comes of it.

The other bluetooth-based connections I use – one from the phone itself, and one from a Nokia 770 Internet tablet – are nowhere near this informative, so can’t say much about those, except the speed is the same (at least, it should be, eh?).

Also, my experiences with spontaneous loss of connection – for instance, when the phone goes dead! – have not been pleasant. Complete loss of bluetooth signal seems to be well-handled, but when the phone dies, there may be something else going on. Thankfully, this has not happened to me for some time, but I recommend not trying it :-)

The decTop $100 Computer!

Lifehacker has an article on a product called the decTop. It is billed as a Internet-browsing appliance, but is apparently a complete (and upgradable) computer as well. Sounds like the perfect hacker computer.

It does seem to be slowish by modern standards, and if my experience with 128M is any indication, it won’t run the most current distributions. There are some excellent discussions on how to install Ubuntu 6.06 onto it: one from Jonathon Scott and one from Ray over at Librenix. Juan Romero Pardines from the NetBSD Project has put NetBSD onto the decTop. Someone else put AstLinux onto a decTop – and added great pictures of the internals as well.

Over at Docunext there is a great series on the decTop, including pictures of the guts and of the locked drive (apparently no longer locked in current versions). There is also a set of tips on getting Debian to work on the decTop, as well as the author’s experiences in running the decTop on solar power.

The system advertises an ethernet connection, but it is, in fact, an USB-ethernet dongle. This fact combined with the USB-1.1 means that the ethernet connection is very, very slow. Everything hooks into the USB ports, including keyboard and mouse as well as the Ethernet connection. These two facts appear to be some of the worst drawbacks of the device.

There also appears to be no wireless support at all – the Internet browsing devices I’ve seen all use wireless connectivity as their main connection method – so this appears to be more of a desktop device, rather than a portable device. It is fanless, which means near absolute quiet. Who knows, maybe they’d make a good cluster (heh).

I must admit, when I first heard the name, I thought it might be a minature of one of these instead. Silly me.


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