• United States

Wrapping up the WLAN

Jul 14, 20034 mins

* Gearhead columnist Mark Gibbs gets his WLAN up and running

Wrapping up the wireless LAN

So last week ( we talked about getting the wireless LAN infrastructure ready for our friend’s conference, and the next step was to look at what services needed to be provided.

We could have linked our network to the Wi-Fi service in the hotel we were staying at, but the conference management decided that if the attendees could send and receive mail it would distract them. We had to agree. When you can handle your e-mail it is hard not to do so.

So we set up our 802.11a/b/g network as a stand-alone open net. We didn’t enable Wireless Equivalent Privacy because we wanted to make it easy for attendees to get connected.

It would have been nice to implement something like Active Portal (details at but time was against us. Active Portal is a set of services that provide network identification, an acceptable use policy (AUP), reverse intrusion detection, traffic shaping, logging functions, and optionally a caching DNS server and Web proxy caching for a WLAN setup.

Active Portal redirects HTTP traffic from unauthorized users to an AUP page. After the user agrees to the AUP, he is directed to the Universal Firewall Toolkit interface, which controls access to the Internet. Active Portal also supports permanent or privileged users who do not have their Web access redirected upon initial requests.

The list of features is impressive, not to say downright ambitious. If any of you have tried this or any similar subsystem, please let us know your experiences.

Open for business

Anyway, even though an open WLAN is generally a bad idea, we figured it was unlikely that there would be many hackers around and the content was managed easily. If we had needed to, we could have rebuilt all the data that users had read/write access to in a few seconds.

We set up our Linksys wireless access point to hand out network addresses via DHCP and on our Linux server we used Apache to provide access to the conference content. This consisted of a home page that pointed to a detailed agenda, a page to download the sponsor’s and speaker’s handouts and presentations, and a page of links to the areas where discussion groups could store content if they wished.

We considered running News Manager or Document Manager from (details at so results of the group discussions could be posted, but we felt that would be too distracting. If you haven’t seen these products they are terrific and an incredible value ( even includes free installation).

We also ran Samba on the server to provide Windows shares so that attendees could download presentations and handouts. Setting up Samba is tricky, and the Red Hat Samba configuration utility is not the most comprehensive tool. Note that you can directly edit the Samba configuration files but you will never be able to run the configuration utility without the risk of wiping out your manually created edits (this is a common problem with many Red Hat graphical configuration tools).

If you haven’t taken a look at Samba, do so right now – it is very impressive but pretty complicated (we plan to write a couple of Gearheads on Samba soon).

So we provided all attendees with instructions on how to access the wireless network and fired it up. How did it go? Pretty well. Out of 74 attendees, 33% used the wireless network to access the Web server. The attendees list was downloaded by 11 people, and six attendees downloaded everything.

User experience

What we found particularly interesting was that not everyone with a wireless-equipped computer knew how to connect to our network. The biggest problem was the wireless access software they used didn’t make it easy. It seems that the process of identifying and selecting access points and then connecting to them is too geeky for the average non-technical user. If we repeat this exercise we’ll run something such as Active Portal and send attendees connection instructions before the event.

On the whole the exercise was fun and quite instructive. As end users and wireless network management tools get better, this kind of infrastructure will become de rigueur at conferences.

Get connected to and send along your early WLAN experiences.


Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

More from this author