Networks Unplugged

Article - I've got no strings, to hold me down, to make me fret, or make me frown

Wireless networking is a bit of a dream for me. Ever since the various creatures that infest my home demanded I share my MP3s, broadband Internet connection and other bits and bobs with them, I've had to fight my way through a jungle of cables just to get from my study to the lounge. It's a mess, frankly, and given that none of us have an ounce of DIY in us, the best we've managed is to tack the really dangerous bits to the skirting board.

My idea of Utopia is a house without wires

Thanks to the collective bods at ELSA who supplied my latest toys though, that vision is now reality, at least until the courier man comes and grabs the boxes back from my reluctant paws once this article is over. In the meantime there have been no wires but 100% coverage for our LAN throughout the house, and various extravagant so-and-sos like myself have been wandering around with wireless laptops playing Counter-Strike on the kitchen sideboard while cooking my chops and so on. The key to this convenience? IEEE 802.11b. If you thought IEEE 802.11b was an odd name for a wireless networking standard, you'd be right. The 802.11 standard was originally ratified by the networking genii at The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). If IEEE reminds you of the word "Firewire", that's because they ratified that standard as well. 802.11 became the standard for wireless LANs (WLANs) in 1997, with the original version providing for 1Mbps and 2Mbps data rates and a set of fundamental signalling methods and other services. The slow adoption of WLANs was down to the low level of throughput. Even 2Mbps simply isn't enough to sustain a busy corporate network, and if you limit its use to only a couple of PCs you might as well just use a wire to get the data from A to B fifty times faster. With 802.11b WLANs became comparable to normal LANs though, with performance of either 5.5 or 11Mbps.

Security Risk?

Fundamentally, Wireless LANs aren't very different to wired LANs. You have a central base station taking the place of the common hub, and like other hubs it has an uplink facility (capable of uplinking to other wireless LANs or a physical hub or switch) and supports a number of clients. The clients all have 802.11b network cards, which can be bought in various flavours depending on manufacturer. The most popular tends to be the portable PCMCIA card for networking your laptop, while PCI cards for desktop machines are also available, and even USB adapters can be bought for a little premium if you're scared of delving under the bonnet. Clients can be connected to the LAN as long as they are within a 400m radius of the access point base station in open ground, and at least 30m in built up areas. In our testing the access point sat on a window sill overlooking a nearby park, and we rolled a large tape measure along the ground from the access point to the client. After about 400m things petered out and the icon in the system tray indicated that we were losing packets. This seems like a fair distance though, and there was also no trouble accessing the network from within the house. If you don't need to stray quite that far, ELSA's LANCOM Wireless L-11 is a mite cheaper with a radius of 150m. As far as corporate consumers are concerned, 802.11b-based Wireless LANs are a godsend, as long as they are configured correctly. One of the biggest problems with WLANs is security, as highlighted by American "War Drivers" who ride around big cities with wireless-equipped laptops hooking themselves up to insecure WLANs left in their default configuration. When first initiated a WLAN base station is set to accept connections from clients with the workgroup set to "Any", and with no qualms about transferring unencrypted data around to any client with the correct workgroup designation. What some administrators were forgetting to do was turn on the various security protocols.

Access Denied, time for a moan

03b
Setting up an Airlancer client card so its transfers are encrypted

Once correctly configured though, a Wireless LAN is perfectly secure for all practical purposes. The access point software allowed me to set my workgroup name, which protocols to accept, and even to specify the MAC address of network cards allowed to talk to my network - an excellent way of preventing outsiders accessing my files, because I control which network cards can actually talk to me. As a last precaution I encrypted the data using a custom key which I designated myself. Nobody outside my WLAN can get in without the correct workgroup name, the right encryption key, and an authorized MAC address; which can be spoofed, but they would have to know the address of an authorized client in the first place. Of course, this being EuroGamer, what you are really interested in is whether you can play games over it. And the answer is .. yes! The throughput and general quality of the connection is equivalent to that of a normal wired network. File transfers steam along at just over one megabyte every second, and with that much bandwidth hundreds of game clients can happily blast one another way without so much as a lost packet. Obviously there are gripes. For starters, there's the slight issue of configuration. As I roared through the initial setup steps of the base station, it was a little unhelpful to save the changes and immediately lose the connection because I hadn't been juggling my local and remote configuration details simultaneously. On saving, it would have been nice to be asked whether I wanted to apply them locally. I also felt that the setup wizard was a little ambiguous on a couple of points. The MAC address filter and protocol filter pages were very similar to one another, and neither had a sensible explanation, nor a quick "How to find your MAC address" button. On the whole ELSA's documentation is first class though. Each separate product came with a half-inch thick manual full of information on the vagaries of setting up my network. I was suitably impressed.

Wallet-busting

There's only one other problem, and that's the price tag. Going wireless is a very enviable option, even for most small LANs. Network cables are big, clunky wires that don't conceal all that easily, and indeed my staircase skirting board looks like a dartboard if you prise away the huge number of tacks. The desire to get rid of all that detritus for one simply plastic box plugged into the wall is quite overwhelming. But that single plastic access point costs nearly £400 at its cheapest. Factor in the cost of a single PCMCIA card for your laptop, and you've spent £515. Even if you leave it at that, uplinking the base station to a conventional LAN just to give your laptop roaming capability, was the extra hassle of a few wires worth £515 to do away with? In total, I have two ELSA Airlancer PCI cards, one Airlancer PCMCIA card, one LANCOM Wireless IL-11 access point and an Airlancer USB adapter here. That's enough to network my desktop computer, my DSL gateway, my laptop and my sister's desktop PC. That still leaves three computers in my house which are hooked up to the old LAN, and yet the above equipment costs a grand total of £955.

Conclusion

When all is said and done, if you ever get your hands on 802.11b networking kit you'll be in seventh heaven. Plenty of roaming capability and enough throughput to support any number of clients, gamers or not. I've had four machines running on the access point here uplinking to my wired network for an Internet connection without a problem. Transferring a big file from one machine to another can slow things down, but the same can be said of wired LANs. Unfortunately, there's no way the average gamer will be able to justify the extraordinary expense though; an equivalent wired network with four clients and a hub could be set up for under £100. Until 802.11b-based WLANs dip in price, they will remain a plaything for the rich corporate consumer. Ironically this could hurt sales and drive the price down, because none of said corporations seem to know how to secure them, leading to a lot of bad press for the standard. Either that or it will help drive network consultants' bank balances up.

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About the author

Tom Bramwell

Tom Bramwell

Contributor  |  tombramwell

Tom worked at Eurogamer from early 2000 to late 2014, including seven years as Editor-in-Chief.

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