home networking

Network World: Linksys Velop boosts home network throughput

I take a look at the Linksys Velop Wi-Fi access points. This is the third in my series of reviews for Network World on smart home devices. If you are going to invest in smart home tech, you want a solidly performing wireless network throughout your house. While I had some minor issues, the Velop delivered solid performance and I recommend its use, particularly if you have existing radio dead spots in your home or have to use multiple networks to cover your entire property. You can read the review here. 

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Party like the Internet is 1994

BMW has this very funny ad where Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel discuss the makeup of an Internet email address back in 1994.

To say that the Internet wasn’t mainstream enough for the Today show hosts is an understatement. Back then, few people had any idea of what it was, how email was used, or what the punctuation in the email address signified. Looking at the Today show this morning, things certainly have changed: live Tweeting of the snowstorm, Carson Daly and his magic touch screen surfing social media, and even some of the hosts reading off their laptops on air. We have come a long way.

But let’s go back to what we were all doing 20-some years ago. Back then it was hard to get online. We had dial-up modems: no Wifi, no broadband, no iPhones. PCs had PCMCIA cards, the precursor to USB ports. Other than Unix, none of the other desktop operating systems came with any support for IP protocols built-in.

Now it is hard to find a computer with a dial-up modem included, and without any Wifi support. Even the desktop PC that I last bought came with a Wifi adapter.

The communications software was crude and finicky: it was hard to run connections that supported both Ethernet (or Token Ring, remember that?) on the local office network and then switch to remote IP connections when you went on the road. I was using Fetch for file transfer (I still like that program, it is so dirt simple to use) and Mosaic, the first Web browser that came out that Illinois campus where a young Marc Andreessen was studying before he made it rich at Netscape. Companies such as Netmanage and Spry were packaging all the various programs that you needed to get online with an “Internet in a Box.” This was a product that was a bit different from that described in “The IT Crowd” TV show a few years later:

Back in 1994, I had a column in Infoworld where I mentioned that configuring TCP/IP was “an exercise in learning Greek taught by an Italian.” My frustration was high after trying a series of products, each of which took several days worth of tech support calls and testing various configurations with software and OS drivers to make them work. Remember NDIS and the protocol.ini file? You had to be familiar with that if you did a lot of communicating, because that is where you had to debug your DOS and early Windows communications strings. When they did work it was only with particular modems.

Finding an Internet service provider wasn’t easy. There were a few hardy souls that tried to keep track of which providers offered service, through a combination of mailing lists and other online documents. Of course, the Web was just getting started. Getting a dot com domain name was free – you merely requested one and a few seconds later it was yours. Before I had strom.com, I was using Radiomail and MCIMail as two options for Internet-accessible email addresses.

Indeed, mobility meant often using different modems with different software tools. When I traveled, I took four of them with me: cc:Mail (to correspond with my readers and to file my columns with the editors), Smartcom (to pick up messages on MCI Mail and others that I connected to from time to time), Eudora (for reading my Internet mail), and Versaterm AdminSlip (for connecting to my Internet service provider). That was a lot of gear and software to keep track of.

With all of these modems, if you can imagine, the telephone network was our primary means of connection when we were on the road. Of course, back then we were paying for long distance phone calls, and we tried to minimize this by finding collections of “modem pools” to dial into that were a local call away. Back then I was paying $100 a month for dial up! Then ISDN came along and I was paying $100 for 128 kbps! Now I pay $40 a month for broadband access. I guess things have improved somewhat.

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Check your DNS, now!

Being the author of a mostly unknown home networking how-to book means that I have lots of insights into how people run their home networks. And even though the book is ten years old, things that I wrote about then that are still very much current, such as keeping your computers secure from infection.

I was reminded of this situation this week with the news that the FBI has taken down one of the largest botnets in history. The crime ring, based in Estonia, managed to steal somewhere north of $14 million by infecting millions of computers. I wrote the story this morning for ReadWriteWeb and you can click on the link at the end of this piece and read more details as well as navigate to links where you can find out whether your computers are infected.

While it is great that the bad guys were apprehended, it was somewhat bittersweet victory. Computer security vendors actually knew of their nefarious activities five years ago, when the DNSChanger exploit was first observed. And while you can fix a part of the problem, there is still no single simple method to disinfect your computers and routers from this scourge.

DNS refers to the Domain Name System, which was invented by Paul Mockapetris back in 1983, and he is still actively involved in selling DNS solutions today. (Paul and I served for several years together on the Interop conference advisory board, where I got to appreciate his rapier wit.) Every thing on the Internet, whether it is a computer, a mobile phone, a router, or some mundane embedded device, uses DNS to translate the alphabetical domain address, like strom.com into its numeric IP address, the collection of digits that we have run out of assigning earlier this year.

The nasty brilliance of the Estonian DNSChanger exploit was that it replaced the DNS settings of your computers – both Macs and Windows – along with common home routers. This meant that when you tried to go to certain Web destinations you would be directed instead to a phony one, or served up phony ads on legit sites. That is how they collected so much money, one click at a time.

If you bough a Linksys or Dlink or Netgear router and didn’t change its default password when you set it up, you should stop reading right now and rectify that situation.

Over 100 servers were located in data centers in New York and Chicago to handle the phony DNS queries. (So much for that shortage of IP addresses.) The FBI has published a list of these IP addresses, and you can check against that list (or use a Web form that they have set up) to see if your network has been compromised.

If you are mucking about with your network’s DNS, now would also be a good time to use a more secure DNS provider, such as OpenDNS.org. It is free and will also speed up your Web browsing too.

As I said, you can get more details, as well as the links to some of the stuff I mentioned, here.

Feel free to post comments on my RWW story too if you are so moved.

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Computerworld: Six annoying router problems

These days, having access to wireless broadband is an absolute necessity for home offices and small businesses. And after more than a decade of innovations, you would think that the standard wireless gateway/router would be a picture-perfect product by now. Alas, no. While many routers offer good features, most still come with flaws that can make life a lot harder, such as confounding setups or limited security.

What follows are six router problems that, quite frankly, I find the most annoying. I looked for possible solutions, and while I didn’t find one router that addressed all my concerns, I did discover features — and routers — that could make things a lot easier. Read my article in Computerworld here.

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Ten tips to secure your laptop

As more people use a laptop for their primary work PC, the chances for being compromised because of some wireless miscreant looms large. Here are ten how-to tips to protect yourself and make the best use of a wireless network, whether you are at home, at work, or in between.

Read the rest of the article posted today on Techweb/Information Week.com

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Lessons learned from a home networking odyssey

I first met Mike Azzara about 18 years ago when I began creating the concepts and overall editorial plan for a new networking magazine called Network Computing. Alas, the magazine has come and gone, and Mike’s career at CMP is also a fond memory, but we are still in touch. Over the years, I have served as his personal IT support guy, but when I moved out of state, he could no longer drag me over to his Long Island, N.Y., home and feed me in barter for networking chores. I still did some support for his home network, and it dawned on me that our correspondence would make for a dandy series of articles that details every step he made in going from four computers and two printers with no real connectivity among them to DADNET, a unified network where the computers can all “see” each other and share each other’s printers and hard drives (on a good day).

The result is the following series that is posted on DigitalLanding.com describing his plans, progress, and triumphs. And as Mike says, if he could figure out how to crimp and create his own Ethernet cables, so can you!
Here are seven lessons we distilled from the experience:

  1. You can do it: I may be guilty of beating the proverbial dead horse, but if Strom had told me a year ago that I’d be stripping and terminating cat5 Ethernet cable, I’d have told him to quit the crack. But doing so, while daunting at first, became easy after some study and practice. (Here’s a link to the page that made it possible for me to wire my home network.)
  2. Plan, plan, plan: Planning ahead and thinking through each change, especially in terms of how it will affect everything else in a home network, is crucial to disaster avoidance. I spent the first half of the summer just thinking through various network scenarios.
  3. Check/verify each change: Plan in advance how to verify that a change has worked or had the intended effect. If you make multiple changes before verification, you’ll have a harder time pinpointing a problem. For instance, when I had problems with video chat, I changed just one item–the cable modem. Then I retested the video chat and it worked, so I knew it was the old cable modem that was the bottleneck.
  4. Persevere: Getting network software settings right is essentially voodoo. But any relatively intelligent person will eventually make sense out of the gibberish that passes for instructions in this industry and get most anything to work—as long as you stick it out.
  5. Google is your friend: Whatever you’re up to, you’re not the first. Google the words you imagine in the solution to your problem, or just ask Google your question and hit return. Sometimes you have to read several articles or forum posts before you can make sense of the solution, but you’ll get there eventually. I did. (See “Persevere.”)
  6. When all else fails, check the firewall: Yes, Norton keeps us safe–by preventing communications. Some firewall settings need fiddling before your computers can get intimate over your network, particularly the “Trust” settings in your firewall.
  7. Listen to your users, I mean your family: I saved a ton of time and trouble by not rigidly adhering to the model I originally planned, and instead left things the way my kids preferred. They’re perfectly happy with their printer being a whole floor away, something my wife and I can’t fathom.

You can read the first chapter of Mike’s home networking odyssey starting here.

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Don’t try to get your laptop repaired in St Louis!

A local TV station had a consultant intentionally sabotage  their Dell laptop by removing its hard drive and putting a small jumper on the pins of the drive to keep it from booting. They took it to a series of local computer chains to see if they could diagnose and repair it, and only one, an independent shop, bothered to remove the drive and see that the jumper was there. Most charged for a test that wasn’t helpful and said to return it to Dell. Those of us that go into Best Buy and Circuit City and get their usual lousy support aren’t surprised by this, but it makes for some great viewing.

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Microsoft Home Server review

Here is a question for you:  when was the last time you backed up your home’s digital files? Maybe never? Bad answer.

Microsoft has been working on a solution, and it went into its final production throes this past week. The product is called Windows Home Server, and it is a stripped-down version of its Windows Server 2003 that normally costs a thousand bucks or so. For the time being, you can download a timed-version (it will work until December) freely from this link. You do need to sign up and answer a few questions to join the Connect service, which also has other pre-release software from Microsoft.

You need to install the software on a new machine: it will wipe your disk clean and boot up automatically with the Home Server running. The software is designed to run “headless” which means that you don’t need to attach a monitor or a keyboard, once you get beyond certain basics that I will talk about in a moment. It will install the operating system, split your hard disk into two partitions (one for system files, one for data), and set up a bunch of shared drives for pictures, videos, files, and so forth. Think of this as layering a simple set of controls on top of the standard Windows server platform.

To access these shares, you will need to run another piece of software called Home Server Connector Software from each computer to set up the network connection. There are basically two different levels of access – “remote control” for the administrators that gives them access to the server control console, and ordinary file and printer shares for everyone else.

I tried it out on my home office network to mixed results. I liked a few things:

First, getting to the reason for this column, it is very easy to backup your PCs with this product, provided you have a big enough disk on the server’s PC. You can choose what you want to backup, and it automagically does it in the middle of the night, when traffic is lightest (and presumably your PC that is to be backed up is still powered on). You can set up a different schedule if you are pickier.

Second, Home Server can also automatically synchronize its shared folders with ones on your local PC – that is a neat trick and something you might consider for say sharing your pictures or videos across the network, and something that has been standard with the Windows server line for some time.

Finally, you can control the server from outside your home, if it can figure out how to open up your home gateway ports.  It uses UPnP to do this. Sadly, my 2Wire DSL gateway doesn’t support this (it doesn’t support a lot of other things, but that discussion will have to wait for another day). It would be nice if there were another alternative to UPnP, but there isn’t.

Here are some things that I didn’t like about the software.

First, you initially need complex passwords to set the darn thing up, meaning something with seven characters, upper and lower case and numbers too. That seems a bit onerous for the average home network. This can be loosened up once you get the first user going.

Second, when the install was done, it didn’t recognize the Intel network adapter that was in a fairly recent Dell. Once I installed the right driver, I was good to go. Third, despite its headless installation, you will still need to be sitting in front of the server to set up a shared printer. Next, the only clients for this server are Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or Vista – if you have got anything older on your home network, and chances are good you do – then don’t even bother with the product.

Is this a good deal? It is hard to tell until Microsoft sets pricing. There is still talk that it will be available both as a bundled piece of hardware from the usual suspects and as a software download, but we’ll see.

If it does come as low-cost software and you have an older PC and can upgrade the storage, it might be worth it. But if you have older Windows and Macs, then no: you are better off buying either a Mac mini or a network-attached storage box and saving yourself the trouble.

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MediaGate MG-350HD: An inexpensive networked video server

The growing antagonism between Google/You Tube and the creators who “involuntarily supply” their video content has shown that the PC is becoming the place to go to watch videos. So wouldn’t it be nice if you could stash all of your huge video and music files someplace other than your own computer’s hard drive? And if such a place could be easily connected to your living room TV and stereo system, so you could view the videos and listen to music without having to integrate a PC into your living room stack of gear? And wouldn’t it be nice if could you use a wireless connection to move these files from your PCs too, since you can’t or won’t wire your living room with Ethernet?

These aren’t empty questions, but the idea behind the $275 MediaGate MG-350HD. It is the size of a hardback book with lots of cables and connectors to hook up to your TV and hifi. It sorta works.
http://www.Mediagateusa.com

The box has your choice of component, composite, S-Video or DVI video connectors and coax, optical or twin RCA audio connectors. Among that selection should be some combination that can hook it up to what you have in your living room. Unlike having a Media Center PC, it is quiet and doesn’t generate much heat.

You can connect it to your PC via either a regular USB connector, or use either the wired Ethernet or wireless networking ports. It doesn’t come with any hard disk – you’ll need to buy an older model 3.5 inch IDE drive. (It would have been nicer if they included a SATA interface, especially since those drives are pretty cheap now.) After taking off four cover screws, you can quickly connect the IDE drive inside the box and then close it back up, power up and format the drive. There are instructions that are written in badly translated English for various versions of Windows on how to do this.

The good news is that the box has just enough intelligence to handle all sorts of video files that I stored on it. I asked my 20-something stepson to give me a sample of video downloads to try out. One came with German subtitles, one was a version of Babel without any subtitles (which is tough because a lot of dialogs isn’t in English), and one came more or less like the theatrical version. None of these files could immediately play on an ordinary Windows PC without installing further audio or video encoders, such as Divx. They all ran as is just fine on the MediaGate.

The bad news is that the wireless and networking support will take some effort to get working. To use the MediaGate as a network storage device, you need to install a special driver on your Windows PC. It was easier to plug in the USB cable and move the files over to its hard drive, which somewhat defeats the idea behind a network storage box. I have WEP configured on my home network, and I couldn’t get the appropriate key to work with the MediaGate, despite its supposed support for this encryption level.

The unit comes with a small remote control that is used mainly for setup tasks, and for scrolling through the various files to play them. And scroll you will do – the interface is similar to Windows Media Center, showing you folders and file names on screen in large fonts that mean just a few listings per screen. If you have hundreds of files, it will take some effort to find them. Another cool feature is that you can store video and audio files on ordinary USB key drives and then plug them into the unit and play them.

Both audio and video quality seemed acceptable. You have your choice of 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios of the video. Overall, the device does a decent job. If you aren’t a fan of Windows Media Center, this might be a good alternative. Apple’s iTV is comparably priced when you factor into the fact that it includes the hard drive but not the cables. But iTV doesn’t do 4:3 and you need to use iTunes to manage how the content gets moved over to the box.

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New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year everyone, and hope your holidays were relaxing, fun, or at least a break from your working world. I am not a big fan of making resolutions for the new year but one that I made last fall bears repeating: I hope that the coming year you won’t lose any data on the computers that you care about.

I thought I would take some time and describe my own process here at Strom World HQ, in the hopes that this will encourage you to do something similar. You’ll see it isn’t a simple process, and it will take some time to figure out your own strategy. Anyone that claims that making backups is a one-step process isn’t worth listening to.

One up-front caveat, I use a Macintosh as my main business computer, so those of you that use Windows will have to find something similar.

The key to my data backup is to understand how I use my data, and identify the weak points in terms of what happens during what kinds of catastrophes and what particular data is missing as a result.

I had a disk go south on my Mac last fall, and this prompted me to develop my current system. And years ago a nearby office had a fire that didn’t do any damage to my office, other than the firemen breaking down my office door to see that nothing was burning. At the time, I dutifully did backups — on tapes — and had them lying right next to my PC. So I learned the importance of having offsite backups.

The first law of backups according to Strom:

[Backup law #1]: Make the routines simple and not time-consuming, otherwise you won’t do them.

My first line of defense is having two hard disks in my Mac. They are independent disks – meaning that I don’t RAID them or do anything more complex than have them operate side-by-side. I use a piece of software called SuperDuper that costs less than $30.

In the time it took me to write about it, it makes a complete copy of the 300,000 or so files on my main Mac hard drive over to the second hard drive. And it also makes the second hard drive bootable, so if something really goes wrong on the boot drive, I can swap them and be up and running in minutes. (I have tested this too, something that brings us to Strom’s second law:

[Backup law #2]: Make sure to do a few dry test runs, just so you know what to do in case of emergency.

There are numerous stories of people doing backups for years, only to find out that there is nothing on the tapes or disks or whatever media they eventually try to use to restore their data. In the high drama when something goes wrong with your machine, you want to have a clear plan of attack to restore your data. I also check the second hard disk from time to time to make sure that the newest files have been copied over. Doesn’t hurt to check!

If you run with a laptop or if you are tight for space and can’t install twin drives, you can make use of one of the many external hard drives and use SuperDuper to make copies that way – although it will take about twice as long.

I do the SuperDuper backup maybe twice a week, or more if I am doing a lot of writing. That seems to be working well. It is a really nice of piece of software. Those of you that run Windows might want to post some suggestions on my blog at strominator.com for your own recommendations.

But the SuperDuper backups don’t cover the office fire situation. This brings up the next law:

[Backup law #3]: Make sure you have your data stored somewhere offsite.

For this situation I burn CDs and DVDs, and take them offsite. It doesn’t really matter where, just as long as it isn’t near your computer. A year’s worth of my data fits comfortably on a single CD, and these CDs go in a secure place that isn’t in my office. A bank safe deposit box is a good alternative. You just have to remember to bring the new CDs over to it periodically.

How often I burn and what I burn depends on the situation. I try to do them at least once a month. A key part of this strategy is identifying all of your applications data and keeping it in one overall directory to make these backups easier. Some applications, particularly Microsoft Office and Outlook, make this more difficult and squirrel away their data files in some obscure directory, or worse yet, include some configuration information in their program files directory. And the information that you have stored as part of your browser (cookies, passwords, and the like) is also hard to duplicate with a files-based archive.

At the end of the year I burn a DVD with all of my data archive that goes back ten years or so worth of documents. It took me some time to collect all of this information, and I don’t want to lose it. This brings up my final edict:

[Backup law #4]: For information that changes very often, save it somewhere online.

It doesn’t really matter where and how, just as long as it is off your desktop and easily accessible. There are a number of online storage sites, and they all pretty much do the same thing, using a Web browser or Web DAV connection to transfer your files.

Part of the off-site storage that I use is having my main email and contacts information stored with Google’s Gmail. This has been working well for me over the past year, and I love the tagging system that Gmail offers and that they never delete anything and make it relatively easy to find a message. Of course, when I heard about how Google lost a few dozen people’s email information that sent me into a panic.

So if you do use Gmail, you can at least export all of your contacts to a CSV file that you can store on your desktop, in case they loose your data. As to your email archives, you are out of luck here.

Some writers that I know take things a step further and archive their online stories to PDFs. This is helpful, particularly in cases where Web sites go out of business, or suffer link rot, or some other problem. I haven’t gotten this far but could see myself doing this one day. But at least I have my original manuscripts covered.

As you can see, making backups isn’t simple. Take some time to develop the system that will work for you, and then don’t get lazy or lax. When something goes wrong, you’ll thank me for starting off your new year on the right foot.

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