adventures in wireless networking

Ever since we moved into our new house, I’ve had dreams about setting up a killer network. Every room in the building wired with gigabit ethernet, etc… but… we have no practical application for it, and the budget is insufficient to allow me to do that kind of stuff just for fun.

Our current situation has computers in 3 rooms of the house: my office, wife’s computer in our bedroom, and the PS3 in the living room. Oh, and the laptop, whenever it’s turned on.

Well, we’ve been using wireless for maybe two years now – and through two wireless routers. We initially got an old D-Link router to go with our first cable modem, but it got fried during a power outage in our apartment (I’d neglected to put it on any sort of power conditioner). Much of the networking hardware died in that. Actually, that was my second wholesale networking hardware failure – the first one happened at our first apartment when (I am guessing) a spike came over the phone line of all things (fried dsl router and the switch it was plugged into).

Anyhow.

The cheap old D-Link 802.11g router was replaced by a Linksys model, since it matched my new modem. They stacked together, which I thought was neat… but it turned out to be a terrible problem. We’ve been suffering with the easily overheated router and modem for a while now without many problems, but then we moved into the new house.

Heat no longer was a problem, my office is huge. I have plenty of room to put the modem and router on opposite ends of their little shelf and not feel bad about it.

The problem in the new place is the relative position of my bedroom with respect to the office. Or, more appropriately, the position of the master bathroom and all of its glorious plumbing (2-head shower, hot tub :P) in between the two 😉

Tarma, my wife’s machine, was using a little usb Linksys wifi adaptor, but it just couldn’t get strong enough of a signal through all of the plumbing to be useful. So we bought her a new PCI card and plugged a ginormous antenna into it. And that worked, for a while, until the strain of a heavy antenna combined with an extended period of moving the machine around and fiddling with things broke the connector loose. It still works fine, but you have to jam it in there. I can probably just solder it in place, but I’ve been kind of lazy – and don’t remember where my soldering stuff is packed anyway 😛

And, we could have lived with that. The computer was stable and wasn’t being moved around any more. Even with the connector loose, the big antenna meant that it could get 40-60% signal through all of the plumbing, except when water was running. Then she gets booted.

No, the last straw was our wireless router (the one that liked to overheat) finally giving up on talking to the modem. It… just refused to acquire an IP address any more. Modem’s fine. ISP is fine. All of the computers in the house are fine. The LAN ports and wireless on the router are fine… but it simply ceased to be useful at actually talking to the internet. And that’s no good.

So, thusly convinced that something needed to be done to feed her addiction, my wife approved the acquisition of some new networking hardware.

And when I arrived at the local emporium of all things expensive and electronic, I decided that 802.11n didn’t sound like all that bad of an idea. It’s backwards compatible with G (and B, for whatever that matters any more), and promises something like 6x the throughput and substantially higher signal range. Better signal means better chance of blasting through the hot tub…

So I bought a D-Link DIR-655 router and DWA-552 nic for Penny’s machine. Set the router up, it worked flawlessly. It’s got a decent admin interface, and all of my old 802.11g devices talk to it wonderfully. It also doesn’t hurt that the wired ports are gigabit, which means the machines in my office are now talking to each other at the speed their ethernet adaptors intended 😉

One thing I do like about the router is that it is capable of running a network in both WPA and WPA2 modes at once. This means that most of my machines are WPA2 encrypted, but those devices that don’t quite support it (like the Playstation…) are at least able to fall back and use WPA. Say what you will about possibly questionable security practices, but I think that this is a fabulous solution – it gives me the highest security realistically available on every device on my network w/o having to spend gobs of money.

So, network upgraded, and all legacy clients confirmed to be operating with better signal quality and security options, it was time to tackle Penny’s machine. This computer has been nothing but trouble since the day we got it. It has heat issues, it has power supply issues, it has WinXP MCE issues, etc… but, it’s still a generally functional system and it still works like a TV+TiVo in our bedroom.

I popped the new NIC into the box and fired it up. Drivers were installed from the disk and networks were identified. Signal strength meter comes up – full bars. Connection speed identified itself at 300Mbit. Penny was filling the tub for Alanna at the time. I considered that a success at the time and called it a night.

Well, the following day, Penny started having stability problems with the machine. Nothing unusual about that. I look at Tarma funny and the audio decides to start stuttering for a month w/o any explanation and then go back to normal. The box is certainly near the top of my list of problem children over the years.

When I got a chance, I fiddled with the box a bit more, streamlined a few things, ran the obligatory spyware/av/adware battery of scans. Nothing came up, machine was clean. It… just lagged beyond reason. I took a look at the task manager and the cpu load was reported to never really drop below 90%, yet the box wasn’t actually doing anything. ‘System idle processes’ were reported to be reliably occupying >80% of the processor’s time.

My first thought was that it was the new wireless card, but it worked fine… it never lost signal, file transfers and net access worked fine. The machine itself was just so slow that we couldn’t ever see anything like a decent transfer rate (so no streaming video from the file server). It couldn’t even play the videos off of the hard drive any more. Heaven forbid you tried to watch television.

After a bit more pondering and discussing the problem with my father and with Danny, I decided to disable to network card and see if it was just the drivers pegging the cpu.

I finally did that tonight.

The instant the interface was disabled, the system load dropped to nil. I turned the device on, and load skyrocketed back to well over 90%.

A bit of very lazy searching didn’t turn up anyone else reporting this problem. And I’d sat on the problem for too long to expect a return on the device from the store… so I decided to check if there were any new drivers.

Sure enough, D-Link had released a new driver last week. (Actually, the version number was several up from what came on the disc with my card, so I’ll assume they’d released a few versions in the interim as well). I installed the new driver, and not only did it upgrade things to 802.11n draft 2.0 (from the draft 1 advertised on the box), it fixed the system load problem. I successfully streamed a 1.3gb video w/o a hitch.

I also upgraded the router’s firmware at the same time, and haven’t noticed any changes in its behavior, but the firmware upgrade process was painless and upgraded it to using draft 2 as well.

I’m happy. Penny’s happy. Alanna’d prolly be happy too if she knew what the whole fuss had been about 😉

I’m kind of annoyed at myself that I didn’t check for new drivers and firmware the minute I installed the devices, but oh well. It works now, and I’m not out $100 for an unusable network card after all. (The Linksys card with the loose antenna connector will probably be put into service elsewhere, I’m just not sure where yet).

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