Adventures in home networking

It's just a matter of time. Once you set up a home network to share your broadband connection, you'll want to add a wireless component so you can work from the living room couch, outside on the patio or upstairs in an air conditioned bedroom.

In response, several vendors have added 802.11b (a.k.a. Wi-Fi) connectivity to their home office routers. These "wireless routers" let you maintain your existing Cat-5 network while adding the ability to connect any number of wireless clients to the system.

But which one is best for the average teleworker? Note, we did not devise a series of hard tests - we reserve that right for our Test Alliance members. Instead, we took the role of the average teleworker who might be called upon to install the product unaided, and conducted anecdotal tests on a typical home office network with a cable modem Internet connection.

As such, our tests stressed the products' ease of installation and use, wireless functions, and VPN (virtual private network) IP (Internet Protocol) Security passthrough, or the ability to let our PC connect to our company's virtual private network.

We did not test firewalls, filters and other administrative features, as we assumed the average teleworker would typically deal with these only under the direction of a network manager. (See the chart for a full list of features for each device.) We tested five routers: the SMC four-port Wireless Broadband Router (SMC 7004AWBR); the NetGear Cable/DSL Router with 802.11b Access Point and four-port 10/100 Switch (MR314); the Linksys EtherFast Wireless AP plus Cable/DSL Router with four-port Switch (BEFW11S4); the D-Link Wireless Broadband Router (DI-713P); and 3Com's Wireless Home Gateway (3CRWE50194).

Overall, we found the Linksys EtherFast router was far and away the best choice for getting your wireless network up and running with minimal hassle.

Configurations run the gamut

Overall, we found router set up straightforward: Just plug your broadband connection (the Ethernet cable coming out of either your DSL or cable modem box) into the WAN (or Internet) port on the back of the router, then connect your Cat-5 cables to the numbered ports on the back of the router. Most of the routers look like cable set-top boxes with the exception of the Linksys, which is smaller and has a pleasing design. Most included at least one physical antenna for the wireless connection, with the exception of 3Com's, which was integrated into the box.

When it came time to configure the routers to access the Internet, things got interesting. All the routers accomplish the configuration via a Web browser, where you talk to the router's IP address (in the 192.168.x.x range) and change the settings of the router to match your needs.

Overall, the configuration routines could be a bit tricky for the less-technical teleworker. The D-Link and SMC configurations were variations of the same software. Linksys and NetGear had more technical configuration screens, which could cause confusion for network novices. One tip: Know whether your ISP gives you a dynamic IP address or a static one, and perhaps some other domain name or host name filenames. (Don't worry about information like port forwarding, dynamic routing or DMZ hosting.)Since they each use different protocols and naming conventions, your difficulty may depend on whether you're using a DSL or cable modem. For us, configuring the boxes with our cable modem, which uses dynamic IP addressing, was fairly easy.

A departure from the others, 3Com's router used a configuration wizard with lots of friendly icons to guide nontechnical teleworkers. Yet, the product provided very little useful technical information when we ran into trouble with our IP addressing.

My cable modem is quirky; there's no "reboot" or reset button. So to reset, I have to unplug the modem, wait a few seconds, then plug it back in and wait while the modem connects to the cable company and requests an IP address. Once I completed this task, most routers used their DHCP servers to distribute dynamic IP addresses to the PCs on the home network. In fact, it was easiest to do this with the Linksys configuration, which gave us the cleanest presentation of the WAN IP address it received from the cable modem, and the LAN IP addresses dealt out to our local PCs.

However, after much effort, we failed to get the 3Com gateway to release or renew the IP addresses. Each time we reset the cable modem, the gateway would tell us that the Internet was "not connected."

Of course, our situation may be unique, caused by our funky cable modem, and may not be evident when using a DSL modem. But if you're considering the 3Com gateway, make sure your teleworkers can reset their broadband connections easily.

VPN passthrough stops us cold

Next, we tested the routers' ability to handle IPSec passthrough. Clearly, the Linksys shined here. On the router's configuration screen, there was an area clearly marked "IPSec passthrough" with two buttons - enable or disable. Selecting "enable" let us use the VPN client software to get authenticated into the network.

The others were another story. The SMC, NetGear and D-Link configuration software made no mention of IPSec passthrough ability, although NetGear said its router supported the function right on the box.

After researching the issue on the Internet, we surmised that allowing ISAKMP traffic through (Port 500) would be the next best thing to an "allow IPSec passthrough" button. (Don't bother checking the router's documentation or their Web sites.) After configuring the SMC and the NetGear routers to allow traffic through Port 500, we were able to get authenticated. However, the SMC router slowed the PC's performance considerably, and we found we could no longer access two of the drives on my headquarters' network.

Beware, if your plans include having your teleworkers set up VPN support on these routers, prepare your IT department for some support calls.

Wireless whatnot

All the routers let us set up an ESSID name (Extended Service Set ID, a long way of giving the wireless network a name) and a channel number for the network. This sets the box up as an infrastructure device, as opposed to a peer-to-peer network.

Once we selected the name and the channel, it was easy to configure my laptop's cards to connect to the router and get Internet abilities for my laptop.

In addition, the routers all let you use the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) standard to secure traffic. However, the WEP encryption feature comes disabled by default, so make sure your teleworkers know how to input their encryption keys.

In the end...

For the purposes of this test, the Linksys router was the easiest to install and get the VPN connection up and running. We were also impressed by the SMC and NetGear offerings, but the issues with the IPSec configuration were a minus. Finally, we appreciate 3Com's efforts to ease setup for the nontechnical user, but wish it would layer more technical features behind an "advanced" button rather than removing them altogether.

Sidebar: Wireless routers compared

Priced in the $200 to $250 range, these products offer a host of features and functionality.

Linksys (BEFW11S4)

- Compatible with the 10/100 Fast Ethernet standard and 802.11b- wireless standard - Roaming, best access point selection, load balancing and network traffic filtering - Range of 91 meters indoors and 457 meters outdoors - Up to 128-bit WEP encryption - MAC address filtering - Connects to a broadband modem, a 10/100 Ethernet backbone or existing wireless network - Web browser configuration - IPSec passthrough and PPTP tunneling for VPNs- DHCP - Administrators can block specific internal users' Internet access through filtering- Free technical support for North America, 1-year limited warranty SMC (7004AWBR)- 3-port 10/100M bit/sec switch, plus one for WAN connection, with 802.11b wireless antennas.

- Wireless range of up to 1,000 feet

- Simultaneous Internet access for up to 253 PCs on the LAN using one IP address - Internet sharing for cable, DSL, ISDN, and 56K bit/sec analog connections - Built-in print server - Works with PCs or Macs - DHCP server, VPN, NAT firewall protection - Limited lifetime warranty D-Link (DI-713P)- 3-port switch, 802.11b- and 802.3-compliant - Print server to connect and share printer - Built-in wireless access point - DMZ support for a single client - Share DSL/cable modem Internet connection - Web-based configuration - 64-bit and 128-bit WEP encryption.

- Connects up to 100 meters indoors and 300 meters outdoors - PPPoE and VPN support NetGear (MR314)- Built-in 802.11b wireless access point - High-speed cable / DSL modem connection sharing via integrated 4-port 10/100 switch - Roaming for notebook PC users- NAT routing for added security - Administrator defined Web content filtering or time-of-day use - VPN pass-through support (IPSec and PPTP) - DHCP and PPPoE protocols 3Com Home Wireless Gateway - 802.11b wireless and 10/100M bit/sec Ethernet - NAT, DHCP and DNS - Firewall: hacker pattern inspection and blocking - PPPoE client - VPN pass-through support: L2TP, PPTP, IPSec, IOSEC - Client filtering function support

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