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WiFi on a netBook - Part 5 - Extending the network

I suppose that when I set up my first WiFi Access Point (AP) at home, I never really thought about it in terms of being a 'network'. A single point of wireless connectivity was just a means of 'plugging in' to the internet - simply the logical extension of trailing the phone line through the house (pre-broadband!). Yes, it meant that I could now connect almost anywhere in the house and yes, if I had wired the entire house up so that I could've plugged in a wired connection then I would have almost certainly thought of that as a network - but somehow a single wireless connection wasn't the same...

However, when I added a second AP that perception changed. Not in any sense because of the extension of the wireless footprint but because of the way the two were connected. As I described earlier in this set of articles, I'd used a ‘Homeplug’ type solution - i.e. ethernet over mains power. That was the clincher - it was essentially a clever ethernet technology. Not that WiFi isn't (of course, it actually is pretty clever stuff!) - but this was the real thing - with wires! Yes, I have to admit it, my brain was locked into the simple, 10 year old perception: wires = network... A sad reflection on my age perhaps but there you go. ;¬) Anyway, here's a pretty picture of how it was all working:-

My original wireless/wired network

The one slight concession to artistic license here is that I've shown the Firewall as being a separate element - when of course it's built into the Wireless ADSL Gateway. It's just really for clarity.

Fate lends a hand...

So that was all fine and dandy and everything was working well with my two laptops, desktop PC, and netBook connecting wirelessly to the web. Until that is, fate took a hand. My desktop machine has been built and re-built many times over the years as the motherboard, processor, memory, disk drives, etc. have all been upgraded and is frequently used as a general store for many things; music, photos, letters, etc. Unfortunately, just before we were about to go on a weeks vacation in March 2006, the main hard disk crashed fairly impressively and the machine would no longer boot up.

Fortunately the disk was still capable of spinning and so, when we got back from vacation, I spent a good 10 days worth of evenings fitting a replacement and recovering otherwise irreplaceable data from the old one - and thank goodness just to be able to do that! It made us realise that of course we had too many eggs in the one basket and I started thinking about backup solutions. As is always the case of course, you only fit the burglar alarm after you've been burgled!

Whilst a simple solution might've been to buy just a USB drive to be used purely for backup purposes, the problem with this is the same as for any auxiliary solution that requires manual intervention. I would've had to remember to backup each of the machines and then of course to actually physically move the drive around to actually do this. And of course it would have offered no direct way of backing up content from my netBook (although of course I could backup a backup (!) from one of the other PCs). In fact after giving it some thought and surfing around a bit, I realised that a Network Access Storage (NAS) solution could be a fairly cheap and much more practical solution.

So what's a NAS then exactly? Basically it's just a hard disk drive that attaches directly to a network and gets accessed as a network drive - only without a separate server running it. The price for these gizmos has fallen significantly in recent years so that they can now fairly comfortably fall into the home user type of budget.

After a fair bit of surfing around, reading reviews, etc. I plumped for one from Buffalo (the company not the place!) called the HD-H250LAN Linkstation. A bit of a mouthful but basically a 250GB network drive with a few 'tick boxes' that made it a good choice for me.

Buffallo HD-H250LAN Linkstation NAS

The plus points that swung this particular device for me were the following:
  • FTP access to files (as well as Windows file access on a PC). Hence I can use nFTP on my netBook to send files to and from the drive.

  • Setup access via browser interface (although I think this is the norm for NAS devices).

  • Price. I got this for under £140 inc. VAT (approx. US$245) which seemed like a reasonable price for the storage + the extra features and functionality offered.

  • Ability to add additional storage via a USB drive and/or act as a network print server by adding a USB printer.

  • Unit can be set to power up and power down at specific times of day (and you can manually override this using the power button on the front of the box as well).

Buffalo produce a pretty diagram on their website which captures the functionality and some of these features:

Buffalo's diagram showing possible HD-H250LAN usage

Ease of use:

Setting the device up didn't prove to be very difficult. I had some problems getting access to it via my 2nd AP (the Apple Airport) but that transpired to be due to the way I'd set the Airport up in the first place and was duly fixed. I also had problems getting one of my Windows XP laptops to 'see' it and that boiled down to me not having all the wireless connection properties tick boxes 'ticked' (the QoS Packet Scheduler if I recall correctly). Actually getting the FTP access working on my nB was one of the first and easiest things that was done.

I've now been using the unit for a couple of weeks and I'm pretty happy with it. Basically it does what it says on the box. It's not particularly sexy - but it's not incredibly ugly either. It just sits there next to my ADSL Gateway whirring away to itself (when it's powered up anyway). Having now backed up most of the critical files, data, photos, etc. on my various machines, I've found that I've still only used about 5% of its capacity (i.e. just over 10MB). However, I've got plenty less critical stuff which would be useful to backup such as music (mostly ripped from my own CDs so replaceable - albeit slowly) which I'm sure will use up quite a bit more space.

My 'new' wireless/wired network with added NAS

Conclusion / Closing thoughts:

It's not incredibly fast at copying data over my WiFi network. Typically it will report sustained transfer speeds of 4-5Mb/s. Generally this would equate to 1GB per 45-60 minutes or so. For me this wasn't a problem as I'd just leave whichever PC was copying files switched on doing its thing whilst I go do something else. This may be a function of the fact that it was 802.11b (i.e. a max of 11Mb/s anyway) to my Apple Airport, a HomePlug connection (typically reporting 6-9Mb/s) to my Netgear Gateway and then ethernet into the NAS. However, I don't really think that the network was the bottleneck because I was still able to use the PC in question to surf the internet using the same network connectivity without any obvious additional delay - hence I suspect that it was probably a limit of the NAS itself.

Another thing to mention in respect of the speed of the transfer is that technically I wasn't backing-up at all but rather just copying files. Buffalo provide Windows software for backing up and cleverly this zips all the files before copying. Not only does this save space on the NAS of course but it also - I imagine - improves the transfer speeds since it's now copying smaller zipped files instead of the originals.

The other big advantage of using a NAS is that - as well as letting you back up important information - it's also an excellent temporary storage location. For example it's very handy for transferring files between machines without having to use portable storage media (e.g. USB keys). Even more so with the Psion with which you can only easily use CF cards. The other advantage from my point of view is that previously I used to have all my Psion archives held on the Desktop PC - which had to be booted up every time I wanted to look for something. Now I can just FTP to the NAS to track down the file I happen to need!

To be continued...

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Saturday, 6 May 2006