Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 3 March 2001 

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FEATURE  
Look Ma, No Wires! or The 10 Steps of Wireless Networking
by James L. "Larry" Glover

Installing a wireless LAN can be as easy as plugging a phone into a jack. You never have to pull wire or drill a hole through a wall again!
Almost 2 years ago I was presented with a challenge. At the time I didn't see it as a challenge, but more as a major obstacle to my continued employment in the library world. My director at the William F. Laman Public Library in North Little Rock, Arkansas, wanted us to get more computers. Sounds easy, huh? What he didn't want was more electrical wiring, more metal tracking for the cable, or more computer furniture.
 

Wanted: Network Miracle!
OK, so I have money for the computers, but not for the assorted junk that goes with them to make them work! No electrical wiring, no new hubs, and no new tracking along the walls and ceiling supports. Sure, I'd heard of this new thing called wireless, but why would we want more cell phones in our library? Running to my trusty workstation (No running in the library, young man!), I went to my favorite search engine and keyed in "wireless + networking." I soon found more information than I had bargained for. I learned that Hedy Lamarr (the late actress) holds the patent for wireless! Though best known for her acting career, she was also an inventor. Lamarr should also be recognized as the co-inventor (along with George Antheil) of "spread spectrum" technology. Spread spectrum or "frequency hopping" was designed (but never used) for Allied World War II ships as a guidance system for armed torpedoes. By quickly shifting radio signals of the control device, the torpedo's course is invulnerable to radio interference by the enemy. But it's the advent of digital technology that has put this invention to work.

Today, Hedy's invention enables wireless computer modems to be mobile and virtually un-locatable and cell phone calls to be more secure from eavesdroppers. In 1942 Lamarr and Antheil were granted U.S. Patent number 2,292,387. They never received any financial rewards for their invention, even though it's used in over 40 commercial products today.
 

Where to Start on Wireless
So, it's not really a "new" technology, but it is far removed from its original purpose. Armed with this information, I started shopping for a supplier of wireless products with the goal of creating a WLAN (wireless local area network) in my library. I sent e-mails and made phone calls, and by pure chance I ran into a local company that was just starting up and was looking for business as a supplier of network products. I didn't need what he was selling, so, being my usual flippant self, I said, "If you sell wireless products, then maybe we can do business." Within 2 hours he was on the phone with an engineer and then called me back to ask me how much hardware and what kind I needed. Since both of us were novices to wireless, we started fumbling our way through the initial design process. But the network gods smiled upon us.

So now I have an idea and a supplier. What more could a nerd ask for? How about a plan? It's always good to have a plan ahead of time so you can know just how much stuff to buy. The right way to do this is to have a site survey done by a qualified wireless technician/consultant. When I first started this project, there were no such wireless technician/consultants in my area, and my budget did not allow me to fly one in for $1,000 a day plus expenses. Nor was there an online course to be had. Again the College of Hard Knocks taught me a few things. Please learn from my mistakes, and accept these 10 Steps of Wireless Networking as my gift to you.

So here's how I should have gone about this:

Step 1. Measure the building.

Step 2. Map out your stationary computer stations (i.e., four-top tables and such).

Step 3. Compute your distances vs. bandwidth needs (and remember to find out what's in your wall construction).

Step 4. Check with your software vendors for any known "issues" regarding wireless transmission of their data. (This is not really a problem with anything in the last 3 years.)

Step 5. Order hardware and assorted supplies. (Remember the assorted part.)

Step 6. Pray to the gods of nerds and paychecks.

Step 7. Install.

Step 8. See step 6 again.

Step 9. Turn it on.

Step 10. Accept the praise of your colleagues and patrons and that nice big new pay raise.

Now, here's how it really happened ...
 

Getting It to Work for Us
I looked at about five or six different wireless companies' Web sites. All the companies had about the same network speed, so that was not a factor. I chose BreezeCOM (http://www.breezecom.com) because they offered the longest range. I thought I'd test the wireless network on the computers we were getting from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I was also going to try it out on a couple of laptops we had. We already had a "loose" 10-base-T network in place that provided our staff and patrons with access to our OPAC (Gaylord's Galaxy) and to the Internet. The OPAC was an open VMS running on DEC servers with DEC hubs scattered around the building. Our Internet connection was running through a Protean router, an Asanti hub, and part of the DEC hubs. It was a real mess!

I started off by buying three four-port hubs, two PCMCIA cards, and a single access point unit from BreezeCOM. The access point unit plugs into a spare port on a hub. As I later learned, the closer to the router the better (remember distance vs. bandwidth) because all the other wireless units get their signal from this one access point. The access point unit itself is about the size of a very small telephone answering machine. I placed the four-port wireless hubs under the computer tables in the trays provided to hide the wires. One table was 185 feet in a straight line from the access point while the other hub was only about 40 feet away. I placed the third hub on a desktop in our adult circulation department, which is about 135 feet from the access point.

When our library was first wired 6 years ago, they messed up the wiring that goes to one of the computers in adult circulation. When I tried to fix this problem, I discovered that when the new air conditioning system and new drop ceiling were put in, the workers tied the old cat cable to the steel supports of the ceiling. There was no way to pull the old cable out, nor was there enough room for me to run new cable to the locations I needed to reach. Due to the cables being tied and in some places almost cut through, the system would start giving you UNIX code for no reason. It didn't bother me, but it did bother our head of adult circulation. (Go figure that she didn't want to learn to read UNIX code.) It's kind of hard to read a patron's record in code anyway. We have four desktop computers in our adult circulation office, so I just ran cat 5 cables from each computer's network interface card (NIC) to a single four-port wireless hub located on the middle desk. I was also able to remove the tracking running up a 20-foot-high support beam, cut the old cat 4 cable, and stuff the ends back up in the ceiling. The only complaint I have received from the ladies working in that department is that the OPAC is too fast now. That's a complaint I can live with!

We placed all six computers we received from the Gates Foundation on the wireless network. Four of those were on the table that was 185 feet from the access point. The manufacturer had told me that even though the network was rated at 11 Mbps, the most I would be able to get was a speed of 3 Mbps. Guess what? They were wrong! I have clocked speeds of 17.5 Mbps when there isn't much traffic on our network, and when it's loaded down our speeds drop all the way down to 4.6 Mbps. I can certainly learn to live with these speeds for now. I'm looking at the new 40-Mbps systems so that in the future we can transmit video, voice, and data.

I put all of the initial wireless networking into place in May of 1999. In the last 2 years, our WLAN has grown to include 12 laptops that our patrons can check out to use anywhere within our library. The laptops offer the Internet, MS Office 2000, and printing to a centralized laser printer located in our reference department. Our patrons have come to enjoy the freedom of sitting anywhere in the building and doing their work. We have also added 12 more desktops to our WLAN, so at this point we have 26 computers that are wireless.
 

Next Up for Our Network
As I'm writing this, we are gearing up to totally revamp our network. We're changing our OPAC from Gaylord's Galaxy (a very outdated system for us) to a native NT designed OPAC (yippee!). We are also in the first stages of adding two more floors to our library and taking everything except the servers on our network totally wireless.

The city of North Little Rock has also decided to go wireless for some of its departments around the city that are not on its fiber optic backbone. The jump-off point for the city's wireless network is, of course, from the library. That way I got the city to pay for the external antenna and associated hardware. We have put up a small 4-foot omni stick, so at this point our range is only about 4 miles. In the near future we will be adding repeaters to some existing towers the city owns so we can cover a 25-mile radius with the 40-Mbps systems. This of course means free broadband Internet at my house.
 

The Benefits of a WLAN
OK, you like the wireless network idea but you're thinking to yourself, "What about security?" Remember the story about Hedy Lamarr? With the spread spectrum technology, it makes it extremely hard to get a fix on your data. And even if someone does intercept your data, he won't be able to decode it. Wireless even meets and exceeds law enforcement's requirements for data transmission. Ask yourself this question: If a patron comes into my library now with his own computer and plugs into my network, will it work for him? Of course not. This same rule applies to wireless networks. If you have not assigned him an IP address, permissions, and whatever else you have for security checks now, he cannot join your network.
The only complaint I have received from the ladies working in that department is that the OPAC is too fast now. That's a complaint I can live with!

So let's look at the benefits of WLANs:

1. Mobility improves productivity and service: You have real-time access to whatever you offer on your network, and you can get your information anywhere within the range of your WLAN.

2. Installation speed and simplicity: Installing a wireless LAN can be as easy as plugging a phone into a jack. You never have to pull wire or drill a hole through a wall again!

3. Installation flexibility: Wireless technology allows the network to go where no wire has gone before (and will never have to go).

4. Scalability: WLANs can be configuredto a small group to meet specific needs or they can be configured to the needs of thousands.

5. Reduced cost of ownership: This is the best part, kids! A WLAN may seem to cost a bit more for the hardware on the front end, but when you figure in the labor costs of stringing wire or fiber, plus the materials and payroll hours saved, it comes out to be cheaper!
 

Make Sense of the Myths
Myths and urban legends about wireless local area networking abound, so let's take a look at them so that we can put them to rest:

1. It won't work. Sure it will; it will work just like your wired LAN does.

2. It costs too much. It will cost a little more for your NIC right now, but the cost has been falling for the past couple of years, and today a wireless NIC costs the same as a wired NIC did 2 years ago.

3. I don't know how to hook up a wireless network. Sure you do! Can you plug a phone into a wall jack? If you have mastered this "extremely hard" trick, you can hook up a wireless LAN. (Just don't let your boss or mine see this part!) Hooking up a wide area wireless network is a little more difficult since you have to decide what types of antennas to use. If you are going to connect only two buildings, I recommend using directional dishes. If you're going to be connecting more than three sites you might want to use an omni stick at your main location and use directional dishes pointed back at your base source. It is still a fairly easy thing to do.
I'm looking at the new 40-Mbps systems so that in the future we can transmit video, voice, and data.

4. Anybody can read my data or hook into my network. Most WLANs encrypt their signals to keep out unwanted lurkers or spies. Every company I've checked into does encrypt their signals, so if you buy from one of the big boys in the field you won't have to worry.

5. Planes, trains, truckers on their CBs, and storms will cause my network signal to break up. Wrong! Our library is about 100 yards from a freeway, and it's in the flight paths of two different airports. Plus we have the city police station across the street, and the county sheriff is behind us. With all the radio signals bombarding us we have never had a problem, nor have they had any trouble with our network affecting them. As to storms affecting the WLAN, Arkansas is well known for its severe weather (tornados, lightning, and, lately, ice storms) and so far we have had no problems. Well we did have a problem during the ice storms, but no network will work when you lose electricity.
 

Downsides? Hmm? Anyone?
What's the downside to having a wireless LAN? Let's see, I will never have to go into the crawl space between our ceilings again. Nope, that's not a downside. I'll never have to drill a hole in a wall again or pull cable. No, that's not a downside either. I have more time now to do other things. And that's bad? I really can't think of a single example to give you for a downside. There just isn't one.

If you're coming to the Computers in Libraries Conference in March, be sure to attend the wireless track on Thursday, March 15. It's time to make your life a little easier and go wireless. It must be a good thing if Microsoft is taking its campus wireless. They only have about 3,000 nodes on their network. (And please, no nasty e-mails to me about Microsoft, though I will accept good jokes.) 
 

If you're still not convinced that wireless LANs are the best thing to happen since Ben Franklin went kite flying in a storm, I'll give you some links so you can go see for yourself. And these are just a few of the many companies out there with wireless products.

BreezeCOM
http://www.breezecom.com

3Com Corp.
http://www.3com.com/mobile/wireless/index.html

C-SPEC Corp.'s OverLAN
http://www.overlan.com

Cisco Systems
http://www.cisco.com/warp/public/44/jump/wireless.shtml
 

James L. "Larry" Glover is a systems manager and Webmaster at the William F. Laman Public Library in North Little Rock, Arkansas. He also teaches beginner computer classes to the patrons and advanced computer classes to the staff. He received his master's in computer science from Washington University in St. Louis, and he is also a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. His e-mail address is lglover@laman.lib.ar.us.
 
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