8 free, cheap, and hands-on ways to learn about network administration

Step-by-step instructions to walk you through network-administration projects that can hone skills in IP addressing, Wi-Fi monitoring, documenting asset configuration, setting up DNS, and more.

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Whatever VPN method you utilize, consider IP-address conflicts if you are serving VPN connections to users on remote networks. For the network with the VPN server, consider using an uncommon IP subnet such as so if they are at home with a typical IP subnet of or it won’t conflict with the VPN’s subnet.

Your IP address is another consideration, whether utilizing software or a network appliance for the VPN server. VPN clients connect to the server with your public internet IP address. If you don’t have a static IP, then your IP might change, and that will complicate the connection process. In that case, you can sign up for a free service, such as from No-IP, that will give you a domain or hostname that will always point to your current IP.

Project 8: Create Wi-Fi heatmaps

Wi-Fi can be tricky. Ethernet makes for a much more stable and reliable network, but wireless access has become a must-have. A Wi-Fi stumbler or analyzer app is a great tool when setting up or troubleshooting Wi-Fi. They can scan the airwaves and list the basic details about nearby wireless routers and access points (APs), including: the service set identifier (SSID), also known as the network name; the MAC address of the router/AP; the wireless channel; the signal (and sometimes noise) level; and the security status.

Some Wi-Fi apps also give you a visualization of the 2.4GHz  and 5GHz bands and even location-detection tools. These tools are great for spot checking coverage and interference issues. However, sometimes you need more than a simple Wi-Fi app to get a good idea of the Wi-Fi coverage or performance, especially for surveying larger networks. In these cases, there are applications that can help you generate a complete visual heatmap of the coverage and performance.

Since Wi-Fi heatmapping is much more sophisticated than a stumbler, there aren’t as many free or low-cost options. However, Acrylic Wi-Fi Heatmaps offers a 15-day free trial and NetSpot sells for as low as $49.  

Whatever Wi-Fi heatmapping software you utilize, you should be able to add and calibrate a floor plan or map. Then you can start the Wi-Fi capturing and click your location on the map (or utilize GPS for outdoor survey) as you move, so the software knows where the data is being captured. Since it’s not possible to walk or drive every square foot, the software uses simulation to estimate the signal and noise in areas where an actual measurement wasn’t taken, filling in the gaps to give you a complete heatmap view.

All Wi-Fi survey tools should generate signal heatmaps of the APs, but the other types of data that the heatmap shows depends upon the software, Wi-Fi adapter, and survey mode you use during the capturing. Some will also let you visualize the noise as well as the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). Some analyze the signals and generate an interference visualization. Plus, some will give you throughput or data rate numbers.

Once you generate the Wi-Fi heatmap, take a look at what data is provided. Try to understand all the data and visualizations. Maybe you’ll find lacking coverage or some other issue that you can try to solve and then perform another survey to check the differences.

Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer. He’s also the founder of NoWiresSecurity providing a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service, Wi-Fi Surveyors providing RF site surveying, and On Spot Techs providing general IT services.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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