I frequently find myself attached to some public wifi hotspot trying to get work done, and while I try to make most of my connections via secure methods (e.g., all my email takes place over encrypted connections), most of my web surfing takes place in cleartext. Occasionally, I’ll read some weblog post about the various hosted VPN services and think that I should just use one of them, but never really get around to it. This week, I finally bit the bullet… but rather than subscribing to one of the services, I just set up my own VPN server at home to use.

I have a Linux machine in my home network, and I flirted with the idea of installing OpenVPN on it and using that as my server, but due to a few weird complexities in where that machine sits on my network, that wasn’t the most appetizing idea to me. It was then that I wondered whether someone had built a VMware virtual appliance with OpenVPN support, and it turns out that PhoneHome was just the ticket I was looking for. On my home Windows 2003 Server box, I started that puppy up in VMware Player; it took about a half-hour’s worth of tweaking to get it set up just perfectly for me, and another half-hour to get my home firewall (well, really a Cisco router with a detailed set of access rules) set up to play nicely with the server. Now, I have an easy-to-run, easy-to-connect-to VPN server that allows me to have a secure connection no matter where I am, and that just rocks.

One of the things I was worried about was that the VPN would massively slow down my network connection; between the bottleneck of encrypting all the tunneled traffic and the bottleneck of my home internet connection, I was pretty sure I’d be less than impressed with the speed of an always-on VPN. Surprisingly, the connection is pretty damn fast, though — I appear to have the full speed of my home T1 available to me.

speed test over VPN

If anyone’s interested, I’m happy to share details of the changes I made to the PhoneHome VMware appliance, and any other info you might want.

eye-fi card and adapter

In part inspired by Anil’s recent series of unsolicited testimonials, and in part as a result of receiving some really interesting gifts this holiday season, I’ve decided to try to get my shit together enough to post a few short unsolicited reviews over the next few days. (Note that these are reviews, and not necessarily testimonials, since at least one of them ain’t gonna be all that glowing.) And that leads to part one, my review of the Eye-Fi wireless memory card.

First, I should explain what the Eye-Fi is (since telling my family about it over the past few days taught me that this puppy is amazing enough to defy belief for some people). Simply put, the Eye-Fi is a 2 gigabyte memory card for your camera that has a wireless network adapter built into it. (Specifically, it’s a Secure Digital, or SD, card.) You use the card the same way you’d use any memory card in your camera; when you shoot your photos, they’re stored on the card, nothing special there. What is special is that after you take your photos, the card uses its built-in wireless capabilities to send the photos you take to your computer and any of a number of online photo sharing services, all automatically. Seriously, people — it’s like magic, all for the paltry price of $99 at Amazon.

So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the user experience from the moment of unwrapping. The Eye-Fi box itself is pretty clever, with a little pull-tab on the right that causes the left side of the box to slide open and reveal the card and its USB adapter. Starting to use the Eye-Fi involves plugging the card into the USB adapter, plugging the adapter into any USB port on your computer (PC and Mac are both natively supported), and then installing the Eye-Fi Manager software that’s preloaded on the card. (Of course, the versions of the software on my card were older than the current versions available on the company’s website, but the software was smart enough to update itself without any hassle.) From there, the Eye-Fi Manager software launched a clever web-based configuration utility that had me select my wireless network and then select whichever of the supported online services I wanted to use. All in all, it took under five minutes to have the card ready to use.

Since the Eye-Fi is an SD card, I anticipated that I’d have one issue with it up front: our preferred digital camera, the Canon Digital Rebel XT, uses CompactFlash cards. I had read online that CompactFlash-to-SD adapters work fine with the Eye-Fi, though, so this was an easily-surmountable issue. After plugging the card in, our camera wanted me to format the card before it would write photos to it — but the Eye-Fi doesn’t mind being formatted at all, so this too wasn’t really an issue so much as an additional step I needed to take before being able to take pictures. Finally, the folks at Eye-Fi recommend making a change to your camera’s auto-power-off settings — because after all, the card draws power from your camera, and if your camera goes to sleep pretty quickly after you shoot a photo, the card won’t have the power it needs to wirelessly send your photos into the ether. The instructions for our camera weren’t on the Eye-Fi site, but finding the right setting was pretty easy, and under ten minutes from opening the box, my first photo was uploaded and available to me on Flickr. (Note that I set the Eye-Fi to upload all its photos to Flickr as private images, an available feature that I think is pretty much mandatory for a device that automatically uploads every image I take!)

Overall, my assessment of the Eye-Fi is that it’s an amazing and groundbreaking product that belongs in the arsenal of anyone who takes more than a handful of digital photos a week. And for people like us — people who frequently let dozens of photos sit on the camera’s memory card because we’re slightly too busy or lazy to find the card adapter, plug it into our computers, and do the dance of uploading the images online — this thing is a total dream. I’m impressed with the entire user experience, from the packaging to the setup to the nearly invisible functionality (and for those who know me well, you’ll know how rare it is for me to have nothing to fault in the user experience of a new gadget!).

But of course Apple would release a new Airport Extreme model with gigabit ethernet networking today, three weeks after I bought two of them. I hate that, but if you were waiting for them to correct the glaring gigabit omission, you can grab one at the Apple Store as of today.

A few weekend short takes:

What a smart idea! If you live within WiFi range of any Starbucks, the folks at FON want to give you a free wireless router so that you can share your connection with the customers at Starbucks. The bonus feature of the offer is that while the coffee chain’s own WiFi service costs $10 a day to use, using the FON connection would only cost people $2 a day, half of which goes to the user providing the wireless connection. Seems like a great way for FON to increase the reach of their social WiFi network, and for Starbucks customers to get access to the net for a hell of a lot cheaper — a win-win any way you look at it.

If you don’t live near a Starbucks but still want in on the free FON router action, don’t fear; it also looks like every registered FON user has three invitations to send which entitle the recipient to a freebie. So go find yourself a Fonero and ask for an invite!

(One caveat: while I have a FON router which works fine, I’ve heard a few horror stories about the setting the routers up, killing them dead with things as simple as a firmware upgrade, and wanting to throw them out of windows. The configuration interface also leaves quite a bit to be desired — it’s this totally weird mix where part of the config is done via a local interface to the router, and the other half is done via FON’s reasonably slow website which then sends it back to your router. I’m hopeful that it’s this sort of stuff that’s more indicative of them being new to the business and growing quickly…)

Lately, a little bit of press has been given to people who claim to be sensitive to wireless network or cellphone signals, some of whom have convinced school systems to remove wireless networking from entire buildings in order to protect themselves and their children. This has always been a little fishy to me (I posted about an Oak Park, Illinois debate back in October of 2003); these signals are pretty much omnipresent at this point (for example, microwaves put out quite a bit of energy at the same frequency as WiFi), so getting rid of a single WiFi access point or cellphone isn’t really making that big a dent in the total sum of non-ionizing radiation that surrounds any one person. Well, thankfully, there’s now some science to support that position: the British Medical Journal performed a double-blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled study and found that those who claimed to be sensitive to GSM cellphones were unable to identify the presence or absence of a phone with any reliability. Better still, when individuals with ostensible symptoms of sensitivity were told that the wireless signal had been discontinued, their symptoms improved whether or not a signal had been discontinued. The same study hasn’t been done with WiFi yet, but it’s just a matter of time. (Thanks to Glenn for the pointer.)

I’m in Orlando this weekend for a conference, and the trip has already provided two interesting WiFi-related stories, one awesome and one pathetic.

First: after landing at the Orlando Airport and collecting our bags, a colleague and I headed out to the taxi line and found ourselves waiting with nearly a hundred other people. When not a single taxi had come for about five minutes, I called my hotel to ask if they had an airport shuttle, and they referred me to a local company which has a shuttle that stops at the hotel. We walked over to the company’s desk and saw a line of a few dozen people waiting to book a ride; at the end of the desk was a touchscreen kiosk that allows people to pick up their pre-paid tickets for reservations they made on the web. I had a vague recollection that Orlando Airport has a free wireless network, so I opened up my laptop, and in under five minutes we had reservations on the next shuttle and our kiosk-printed tickets in hand.

Insane WiFi prices at the Orange County Convention Center

Second: the conference is at the Orange County Convention Center, and knowing I’d be spending about twelve hours a day for four days in the place, I was hopeful that there’d be a wireless network I’d be able to hop onto here and there. And a wireless network there is — but the cost is a staggering $25 a day, which is expensive enough to be hysterical.

Seriously, they expect someone to pay the equivalent of $750 a month for a network connection? Are the convention center folks clinically insane? For my four days at the conference, that’d be $100 — twice the cost of a reasonable cable modem (which provides 50 times the bandwidth!) — just to be able to check email and whatnot. I wonder how many people take them up on the service; based on how few people I see with their laptops out in the hallways, I can’t imagine there are very many.

Waiting for a flight Thursday evening, I opened up my Powerbook to see if the Gods of Wireless Networking had yet talked some sense into the folks who run Washington’s National Airport. Alas, there weren’t any legit wifi signals available — I specify “legit”, though, because there were quite a few ad-hoc networks set up that looked to be trying to phish and scam their way into information from unsuspecting or naive flyers.

Lookie there at all those scammers!

If you look at that list, what you’ll notice is that all of those networks are running in “ad-hoc” (or peer-to-peer) mode, which almost certainly means that rather than them being bona-fide wireless access points serving up connections to the internet, someone’s computer is advertising its own wireless network as available for sharing, and that person is trying to get you to connect to it. That network named “tmobile” is very unlikely to be run by T-Mobile; that network named “Starbucks” is similarly illegitimate. Instead of T-Mobile providing access to the internet, some schmuck is probably trying to entice you to connect your laptop to his, which means that he can then listen in on all your network traffic (sniffing passwords and other data) with relative ease.

Almost without exception, all trustworthy wireless access points run in what’s called “infrastructure” mode. The list of networks in that screenshot is generated by an awesome Mac app named iStumbler, but the built-in networking stuff in any Windows or Mac computer similarly makes a distinction between ad-hoc and infrastructure networks — the Mac separates ad-hoc networks into their own list (“Computer-to-Computer networks”), and if I remember correctly, Windows shows ad-hoc networks with different icons than infrastructure ones. So if you find yourself looking to use wireless access in an airport, make sure you know how to tell the difference between reasonably legitimate networks and scammers; your credit cards, bank accounts, personal files, and email systems will thank you!

Remember my issues with the Linksys wireless range extender? By the looks of the discount table inside my local computer store, I’m not alone — there were easily between one and two dozen of them arrayed in a stack, all with labels saying that they were returns that were being sold at a discount. Not too shocking…

In an effort to perhaps save people the seven hours I wasted this weekend, I share these two secrets with you:

Let’s back up a little bit. Shannon and I went down to New York City this weekend, to watch Alaina (and Dave and Meg!) run the Marathon, and to help my brother and sister-in-law get settled into their new apartment. One of my jobs was to get their wireless network set up, and since they needed to extend the range of the network a little bit, to figure out the best way to do this. While I’m comfortable enough hacking my way around Linksys access points and getting them to serve as repeaters, I figured that I shouldn’t subject them to alternative firmwares and dodgy power boosting, so I read a little bit about the options and settled on the WRE54G as an extender for their Linksys 802.11g access point.

Now, to set up a WRE54G, you have to run a proprietary application on a Windows machine that is connected (wirelessly) to the access point you want to extend. This seemed simple enough, so I powered up one of their laptops, verified that the Linksys PC card could talk to and use the access point, and then ran the setup app. It immediately complained that it couldn’t find the wireless card; oddly, I could then open up Internet Explorer and surf the net with reckless abandon, so I knew that there wasn’t really a problem with the wireless card. As a result, I figured that the issue had to be related to running an older version of the PC card drivers, and headed over to the Linksys website for the latest version. After installing them, though, the computer wouldn’t use the wireless card at all, and kept throwing up weird error messages (some new application, ODHOST, could not stop bitching and moaning). They also wouldn’t uninstall, crashing during the uninstallation process.

I spent a LOT of time trying to debug this, including spending 45 minutes on the phone with two Linksys tech support agents who couldn’t grasp that their uninstaller was crashing. (Them: “But why don’t you just uninstall them?” Me: *whacks head against marble countertop repeatedly*) The agents ended up concluding that there was nothing they could do to help, and that the best they could do was have someone else call me back at a later, unknown date. (*whack whack whack*) I finally tracked down this Broadband Reports thread in which someone else wasn’t ever able to get them working on Windows ME, and a lightbulb went off; I asked my brother if he had held onto the original CD that came with the card, and when he dug it out of a box, I reinstalled the drivers on it and everything went back to working fine. Of course, I was still unable to run the WRE54G setup application, the problem that got everything rolling in the first place.

I decided to try their other laptop, which runs on Windows XP. This time, the setup application ran fine through the first few steps, but when it got to the place where it scanned to see if it could find the WRE54G, it crashed every time and left me without a wireless connection at all. The connection came back when I rebooted, but the crash was reproducible every time. I again decided to give a driver update a chance, and made some progress — after that, the setup application was able to scan all visible wireless networks to try to find the WRE54G, but it claimed that it was unable to find it. I reset the device, to no avail, and then just gave up.

The whole time I was working on the equipment, my brother kept asking how Linksys expects normal customers to be able to set this stuff up. And after my experience, I can honestly say that I haven’t a clue — between their drivers and setup applications being incompatible, their drivers plain not working, and their buggy setup and uninstallation utilities, it’s impossible for even a seasoned network professional to get everything working, much less a casual home user. It’s a shame; Linksys is owned by one of the best networking companies in the world, and I’d expect better of them.