Tuesday 20 October 2009

Time v. Money v. Risk v. Frustration

I just spent three hours beating my head against The Joys of Wi-Fi Networking. No doubt because it saved $50 or so, the HDB public-housing flat I live in here in Singapore (which are "affectionately" known as 'chicken coops' for their quality and structural integrity) didn't put telephone jacks in every room. Nor did they run conduit between rooms so that suchlike could be added later. The upshot of this is that my DSL modem, in the living/dining room, is 15 meters and two concrete-slab walls away from my study/office, in a bedroom (with no phone jack and two power outlets).

Up to now, this hasn't been an insurmountable problem, because the DSL modem/802.11g router the government-linked telco sells you when you open a DSL subscription could punch a (barely) usable signal through those two concrete walls; desktop and laptop computers strewn around the study were on the LAN, with quite serviceable WPA2 encryption to keep private bits private. The router (in the living room) claimed to have a 14 Mbps connection to The Net; the aggregate total bandwidth available in the study ranged from 3 to 5 Mbps; not fantastic but usable. The world was in a survivable state of chaotic flux.

Then, yesterday morning, FedEx delivered a bright, shiny (actually used, in a Target bag rather than original box, no longer in the Polycom US catalog but still serviceable) Polycom SoundPoint 501 SIP phone, courtesy of my newest client (thanks, Nathan, Matt and Margaret - I'm not kvetching, honest!). An hour of work with jackhammer and flamethrower cleared sufficient space on the desk for the new trophy. Now to plug it in and fire it up.

Plug it in? To what? My ear?

Just to make sure I had my head straight, I looked at what it would take to run line from point P to R. Two solid concrete/rebar walls, routing around various doors/windows, across the span of the living room.... no, that wasn't going to happen, certainly not by Thursday. Put the phone in the living room? Not a chance. Wait a minute - they have these things called wireless Ethernet bridges; I should be able to get one of those, stick it in the study, connect the phone to it and it to the existing wireless LAN, and I'm good to go.

I went out to the local "IT super-mall", Funan. It's the best place in Singapore to buy electronic gear of whatever variety from reasonably reputable dealers. After visiting some 25 different shops, large and small, I was firmly reacquainted with one of the basic facts of Singapore life.

This is a firmly Stalinist economy in the areas that matter. All imports (which is to say, anything of value) are brought in through a small number of generally well-connected exclusive distributors. When one shop says "finished, already!" (the de facto motto of the city), everybody is going to say the same thing. That is, if you're fortunate enough to even run into some salesperson who actually understands what you're looking for. I could find things easier (and often cheaper!) in Vietnam.

Then I happened to pop into one hole-in-the-wall one-man shop, Crystal Systems. The "one man" said "say, I understand what you're trying to do; I did exactly that for a firm here recently; all you need are two routers." The archetypal light-bulb moment. (Remember, I'm a software craftsman, not a hardware/network engineer.) This is where the "time v. money v. ..." of the title comes in. What I should have done was to buy two identical brand-new 802.11n routers. That would have cost me about S$190 (~US$136 or so), and would have given me a perfect excuse to replace my aging 2Wire 2700HGV-2, But this has already been a bit of an expensive month - new hard drive, various software - so after some consideration I decided to try to salvage the existing router (apparent POS though it may be) and just spend the minimum necessary. So I went home with one S$69 TP-LINK TL-WR340G router.

It features the now-customary browser-based setup - just remember to use a hard-wired link rather than wireless (d'oh!), and it's almost as easy as falling off your seat. Bridging mode is pretty obvious; the TP-LINK wants to know the MAC address of the router you're connecting to, along with its encryption setup.

In bridge mode, the TL-WR340G only supports the obsolescent WEP encryption, not the current and generally superior WPA2. The 2Wire - along with every device currently connected to it, obviously - uses WPA2, and does not support a mixed WPA2/WEP environment.

Back to the store I go tomorrow; the only question now is: one new Netgear N router (which can fall back to 802.11g) or two?

No comments: