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If you’ve been delaying upgrading your network, keep delaying

If you’ve been procrastinating about deploying 450-megabit (802.11n) wi-fi to your house, I have a reason for you to procrastinate a while longer: Gigabit wireless (802.11ac).

It’s only about twice as fast as its predecessor, which pales next to the 8x improvement 802.11n provided over 802.11g, but if you’re wanting to stream HD media through your house, you’ll notice the difference.
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Flaky networking? Suspect cheap NICs

It was 1998. I was getting ready to network my two PCs, so I asked my friendly neighborhood networking professional what to buy. He didn’t hesitate. “Intel or 3Com,” he said. “Cheap NICs will talk, but they’ll start acting flaky after a while, dropping packets in the middle of transfers, stuff like that.”

I couldn’t afford 3Com or Intel at the time, so I bought a cheap “SOHOware” brand bundle that included two 10/100 NICs, a hub, and cables for around $150. A comparable first-tier setup would have run me twice that. The hub died after a couple of years. The cards fared better. “After a while” took 11 years or so to come, and I finally got sick enough of it to retire my last one.

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How to secure your wi-fi router

It’s not enough to know what to look for in a router. I wanted to get some solid advice on wi-fi network security. Who better to give that advice than someone who built an airplane that hacks wi-fi? So I talked to WhiteQueen at http://rabbit-hole.org, the co-builder of a wi-fi hacking airplane that made waves at Defcon.

Hacker stereotypes aside, WhiteQueen was very forthcoming. He’s a white hat, and I found him eager to share what he knows.

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What to look for in a router

I revisit the topic of what to look for in a router every six or seven years. As important as it always was, I think it’s even more important today, as there are a number of underpowered routers on the market and it’s best to avoid them.

This post originated in 2010. I revised it for 2017 needs, and by the time I was done, I’m not sure much of my 2010 text was left. But that’s OK.

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Modem madness

Well, the 2wire modem experiment is officially over. I broke down and ordered a D-Link combo router/modem/WAP today. I rely heavily enough on my Internet connection to justify having something with a warranty and at the beginning of his lifecycle.After a bad experience with a D-Link switch a few years ago I would have preferred a Netgear unit, but the Netgear equivalent is getting hard to find. There’s a draft-N version of the Netgear out there, but I don’t need that capability, and prefer to buy mature technology anyway.

So we’ll see how the D-Link goes. I’ll post a full review after a few days with it. Decent reviews of that kind of equipment are very hard to come by.

Microsoft getting into the backup business?

I take issue with this Register story, which says Veritas has a better name in the storage arena than Microsoft.

Enron has a better name in the storage arena than Veritas. Ditto BALCO and FEMA and Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart.

So Microsoft wants to get into the backup business? Good.I gave three of the best years of my life to the shrink-wrapped stool sample that is Backup Exec. I believed, wrongly, that the Constitution protects sysadmins like me from that piece of software in the clause that mentions cruel and unusual punishment.

After that last job put me out with Thursday night’s garbage, one question I always asked on job interviews was what they used for tape backups. Had anyone said Backup Exec, I would have walked out of the room immediately.

Nobody did. That was good. There are still some smart people in the world. My confidence in humanity was somewhat restored.

Microsoft’s offering will no doubt have problems, but when batch files and Zip drives are more reliable than your competition, who cares? Backup software is one area that desperately needs some competition. Microsoft entering with its usual less-than-mediocre offering will force everyone else with their less-than-mediocre offerings to either improve or die, because Microsoft’s offering will be cheaper, and there will be people who will assume that Microsoft’s offering will work better with Windows because nobody knows Windows better than Microsoft. (In this case, that assumption might actually be true.)

What’s wrong with Backup Exec? Ask your friendly neighborhood Veritas sales rep what they’ve done about these issues:

If a Backup Exec job backing up to disk contains both disk and system state data and it’s the second job to run on a given night, it will fail just as certainly as the sun coming up the next morning. Unless they finally managed to fix that bug, but I doubt it. I sure reported it enough times.

Remote backups happening over second-tier switches (D-Link, Linksys, Netgear, and other brands you find in consumer electronics stores) usually fail. Not every time. But more than half the time.

Those are just the problems I remember clearly. There were others. I remember the Oracle agent liked to die a horrible death for weeks at a time. I’d do everything Veritas support told me to do and it’d make no difference. Eventually it’d right itself and inexplicably run fine for a few months.

Maybe competition will fix what support contracts wouldn’t. And if it doesn’t, maybe Backup Exec will die.

And if Backup Exec must die, I want to be part of that execution squad. Remember that scene in Office Space with the laser printer and the baseball bat?

I never thought I’d say this, but now I’m saying it.

Welcome, Microsoft.

Freesco still works as a router/firewall in a pinch

I set up a Freesco box over the weekend. It makes less sense now that router/switch/firewall combos from the likes of Linksys sell for $50 than it did when they sold for $200, but if you’re long on unused PCs and short on cash, it still works.

My old walkthrough no longer applies directly to the current version 33, but if you’re reasonably technically competent it should get you on your way.As far as what hardware to use, I had a Kingston 10 megabit (NE2000 clone) PCI card and a D-Link card based on a Realtek 8139 chipset. They worked fabulously. The 8139 is a workhorse; networking guru Donald Becker blasted it in print–it’s the only chipset I think he’s ever said anything bad about–but until you start routing between a 100-megabit network and a gigabit network you probably won’t notice, especially if you’re using a 200+ MHz machine as your router, which in these days of $30 Pentium II PCs, is likely.

All you need is a computer with 8 megs of RAM, two NICs, and a floppy drive. To make it easier on yourself, make sure it has PCI slots, use two PCI NICs, and and 16 megs of RAM or more. Since 32-meg sticks are useless to most people these days, they’re cheap.

I suspect that if you have a pile of unused hardware that you’re looking to turn into a router, chances are decent you have a pile of network cards in that stash. Try a few different PCI cards. Life sometimes goes a bit easier if the two cards have different chipsets on them, but it’s not usually necessary to mix it up.

Give yourself a time limit. Mess around with it for an hour. If you get frustrated after an hour, go out and buy a Linksys or a D-Link or a Netgear. If you don’t have it working after an hour but you’re fascinated and you’re learning a lot, then keep plugging away at it. The knowledge you’re gaining is worth more than 50 bucks.

Advice for setting up a computer lab

Two weekends ago, I headed back up to Bethlehem Lutheran Church to rebuild the computer lab I had set up for them a few years ago. Built on P3-based Compaq Deskpros and Windows 98, it had held up, but was desperately in need of repair.

The vision of this project was to set up a lab in a declining neighborhood, where kids could come to do their homework and adults could come to learn computer skills. The lab is run under adult supervision, and outsiders with teaching and/or training experience come in occasionally to teach computer literacy classes.

Ultimately, I want this project to produce some sysadmins in North St. Louis. Years ago, when this was in the planning stage, I told Pastor John Schmidtke that I wanted to see some Mercedeses and BMWs in that neighborhood, purchased with salaries earned from skills picked up in that lab.

Well, that hasn’t happened yet. But there’s still time. In the meantime, how about if I talk about what I’ve learned from three years of operation?Fancy computers not necessary

These were midrange machines when they were new. The lab cost some $10,000 to build, including materials to renovate the room. A contractor who attends my church renovated the room to my specifications. For what it’s worth, I told him there would be about 10 computers there, and the keyboards needed to sit so that a five-foot person’s elbows would make a right angle while seated. He built an around-the-room desk to hold the computers and bored out a couple of holes at each station for the keyboards.

Back to the computers. Today those computers would be worth about $100 apiece. That’s OK–they’re fine for word processing and e-mail, casual web browsing, and educational games, which was the goal. They were fine then and they’re fine now.

Any business with a philanthropic mindset could duplicate what we did here with a dozen outmoded office computers. A Pentium II with 64 MB of RAM can run Windows 95 or 98 adequately. There’s no point in messing with anything lower than that, since P2s sell for 50 bucks a pop these days. One thing I will say: The quality of the keyboards, mice, and monitors is much more important than the computers themselves. If people are going to be typing, they need decent monitors, a good mouse, and a keyboard that doesn’t feel like oatmeal. So if you’re working with a budget, plan on spending the most on monitors and optical mice.

Adequate power outlets completely necessary

There was only one hardware failure in this lab’s three years. One computer wouldn’t run, no matter what I did. It wouldn’t even power up.

Well, speaking as someone with a decade of professional experience in sales and service of computers, I’m embarrassed to say the computer that failed wasn’t plugged in. It looked like it was plugged in. But with the electrical outlets in a mismash and the cables all over the place, it wasn’t. Why didn’t I try another power cable and discover the problem? I have no excuse.

I suspect someone needed an outlet for something–be it speakers or a hair dryer, you never know–unplugged something at random, then didn’t plug it back in when finished. Worse yet, the business end of the cable ended up in a box under the desk, so everything looked fine. The result was a computer that didn’t run for about two years. I didn’t even find the stray end of the cable until I traced several other cables.

So provide as many outlets as your breaker box can handle. Provide extras. People will bring in other things they want to plug in. Three outlets per seat (computer, monitor, and speakers) is inadequate. To be safe, plan on four.

Create system images

You’ll have to reload the system no matter what you do. Lockdown software can be counted on to break things for the innocent and at best only slow down the people who are going to circumvent it. When the goal is for people to learn how things work, they need to be at least somewhat free to experiment. So make images of a working system with all software installed. Train someone to re-image the system. Then don’t be shy about re-imaging. Do it once a week or any time something goes wrong with a computer. If you can’t afford Norton Ghost or PowerQuest DriveImage, a freeware alternative called Savepart exists. Use it. Come to think of it, use that, and spend the money you’d spend on Ghost or DriveImage on better keyboards or mice.

Use identical hardware

System images don’t save you much trouble if your hardware is all different. Your image probably won’t work. Use systems that are as similar as possible: same motherboard, same video card, same sound card (if not on the motherboard), same network card. Put the cards in the same slots on each machine.

Frequently you can get away with not being that careful, but trust me, you don’t want the one time in a thousand that it matters to come and bite you.

Match your hardware and operating system

Sometimes it’s not possible to use completely identical hardware. In those instances, make sure any dissimilar hardware is recognized by the OS without loading any drivers. For example, this lab has a mix of Netgear and Intel network cards. The Netgear isn’t recognized by Windows but the Intel is. So I made the image for a Netgear, and when the system comes up with an Intel, it handles the situation gracefully.

Do the same thing for the sound cards and video cards.

Don’t ask too much of your systems

Yes, Windows XP will install and boot on a Pentium II with 64 MB of RAM. But there is absolutely no benefit to it. XP wants lots of memory and CPU power, and when it doesn’t get it, it’s a slow pig. Realistically, a P2 with 64 megs ought to be running Windows 98. Don’t even try 2000 or XP unless you have P3s faster than 500 MHz with 256 MB of RAM.

While there are subtle differences between versions, for the most part Windows is Windows. If someone can use Windows 98 and Office 97, it’s easy to adjust to the current versions. Don’t be afraid of running back-level versions.

Get discounted charity/educational software

You don’t have to pay $200 for Windows and $500 for Office to build a computer lab for a charity. I don’t know what charity or educational prices are right now, but it’s a fraction of that. The rule of thumb is this: If you don’t pay sales tax, you don’t have to pay full price for software either.

Most computer stores can get you information on charity pricing. Support your local computer store. You might need it someday. Who knows–the owner may be able to get you a line on some things you need.

And if worse comes to worse, run Linux. That was my original plan, but Pastor Schmidtke wanted to use what local businesses were using. That’s a better plan, but if you can’t afford software, Linux works nicely and is more than adequate for things like word processing and web browsing.

Just do it. That’s about all else I can say. The lab in your head isn’t doing anyone a bit of good. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. If you’ve got a vision for this, get what you can to get the lab up and running. You can always come back and add newer or more computers later.

Sneaking up on you: Affordable Gigabit

Gatermann sent me a link to something today, something whose existence shocked me.

Affordable gigabit Ethernet, from a mainstream, second-tier manufacturer.That manufacturer is D-Link. Their 8-port gigabit switch costs $130 at Newegg.com. It wasn’t even five years ago that I paid that much for a Netgear 8-port 10/100 autosensing hub. And it’s a real, honest-to-goodness gigabit switch, not one of those 8-port switches with 7 10/100 ports and just one 10/100/1000 port.

Meanwhile, Netgear is weighing in with gigabit NICs at $31 a pop.

Gigabit’s a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. Yes, it’s nice for your network drives to be about the same speed as your local drives. No, it’s not necessary sharing an Internet connection and it won’t make the network printers any faster. But if you shuttle large files around your network…

If you get the feeling I really wish I didn’t know this information, you’re right. So I’m sharing my pain.

I can see this becoming very common in households, however. Gigabit means no one has to fight over who gets the monster hard drive. Buy that $250 300-gig drive, then put it somewhere, share it out, and map it on all the computers in the household. Then everyone gets the upgrade.

Replacing wall warts with PC power supplies

I wrote a long, long time ago about my adventures trying to find a wall wart for my old 8-port Netgear dual-speed hub. The other day I stumbled across a novel idea for a replacement.
I won’t rehash how you determine whether a unit is a suitable replacement–read the above link if you’re curious–but suffice it to say a $5 universal adapter from Kmart is fine for my answering machine or my cordless phone and can probably provide the 5 volts my Netgear needs, but my Netgear also needs 3 amps and the universal adapter I keep around can only deliver 20% of that. The beefiest 5v unit I could find at Radio Shack could only deliver 1.5 amps.

A PC power supply delivers 5V and 12V on its hard drive connectors. And PC power supplies deliver plenty of amperage: one of mine will deliver 25 amps on its 5V line, and 10 amps on its 12V line.

In a pinch, I could just obtain a suitable plug barrel that fits my Netgear from Radio Shack, clip the power connector off a dead CPU fan, and solder the plug to the red wire (5 volts) and a black wire (ground), put it in a PC, and use that to run my Netgear hub. The increased power draw would be equivalent to putting three typical PCI cards in the system. Just be sure to wire things right–reverse polarity can kill some devices.

Rather than using one of the PCs I actually use, it would be better to obtain a cheap microATX case, short the green and one of the black wires on the 20-pin motherboard connector with a paper clip, insulate the paper clip with electrical tape, and then wire things up to the drive connectors. Or, for that matter, you could use some of the other leads available on the 20-pin connector if you have a device that needs 3.3 volts (pinout here.) You could also just use a bare ATX power supply with a paper clip connecting the green wire and one of the black wires on the 20-pin motherboard connector, if you’re into the ghetto look.

An AT power supply would also work and it offers the advantage of being really cheap and common (here’s a nice writeup about an AT power supply’s capabilities), but most AT boxes require you to hook up enough 5-volt devices to chew up about 20% of its rating on that power rail before they’ll power up. I have a 200-watt AT power supply that delivers 20 amps on its 5-volt rail, so my 3-watt Netgear hub probably wouldn’t be quite enough on its own. So it might be necessary to either connect an obsolete motherboard to the power supply or connect a 1-ohm resistor between a +5 lead and ground, if you don’t have a plethora of power-hungry 5-volt devices to plug in.

But PC power supplies provide a cheap and commonly available way to replace odd wall warts, or at the very least, to reduce the clutter around the computer room.