Computerworld

Intel's Centrino may crash Windows when used with VPNs

Notebook and laptop computers based on Intel's new mobile and wireless Centrino chip architecture can experience a "blue screen" crash in Windows XP when running widely distributed virtual private network (VPN) security software from Nortel Networks, according to Mike Schexnaydre, a Nortel software engineer.

Schexnaydre said Nortel has determined that the blue-screen crash, in which the operating system stops functioning, stems from problems with the Network Driver Interface Specification within Intel's PROSet software.

The Centrino architecture, widely adopted by notebook and laptop PC manufacturers after its release in March, includes a Pentium M mobile processor and an 855 chip set, which helps manage power consumption, graphics and USB ports.

Schexnaydre said that the conflict between Centrino and Nortel's Contivity VPN client stems from an adapter-switching feature in PROSet that allows users to automatically switch from a wired to a wireless connection.

Nortel has developed a work-around to the problem, which requires IT departments to uninstall the PROSet drivers, according to a technical bulletin released by the company May 14. The bulletin said this work-around will allow the Contivity client to operate with Centrino, but at the expense of the functionality of the Intel PROSet software, which controls features such as wireless LAN setup profiles, roaming and a connection wizard.

Schexnaydre said the operating system freeze appears to occur only with Centrino-based models that use the 855GM version of the onboard graphics memory hub and power management controller. Centrino-based computers with the 855PM chip set do not appear to be affected.

"It would have been better" if Intel had built Contivity support into Centrino from start, since the company has already shipped about 50 million Contivity VPN clients since 1997, according to Pat Cooper, a Nortel spokesman.

Intel spokesman Daniel Francisco said the company "is looking into the problem" identified by Nortel, but he declined to provide any details. According to Intel's Web site, the problem extends to all VPN clients, something the company was aware of before it launched Centrino on March 12.

In an advisory authored on Feb. 26 and posted on its Web site, Intel said, "The Intel PROSet Adapter Switching feature must be disabled when VPN client software is in use." Francisco agreed that that language was inclusive and appeared to apply to all VPNs.

Jonathan Jordan, a LAN engineer at a large textile company in South Carolina, has experienced the incompatibility between Centrino and VPN software. Jordan said he had ordered "hundreds" of new Centrino-based laptops from Dell Computer only to find out how difficult it is to run the Nortel VPN client.

Jordan said he had planned to send Dell a "corporate image" of all the software his company wanted to load onto the new laptops, only to discover that "the Contivity VPN client causes the PC to blue screen upon reboot."

He said he has worked extensively with Dell and Nortel for more than a month, and Dell still doesn't have a solution. Jordan said the Nortel work-around disables functions in PROSet that he would like to use, and unless the problem is resolved, "we may have to move away from the Intel Centrino chip set."

Anne Camden, a Dell spokeswoman, referred all questions about the issue to Intel.

Other VPN vendors weren't even aware of possible conflicts between Centrino and their products. Sue Whitcomb, a spokeswoman for WatchGuard Technologies Inc. in Seattle, said her company wasn't aware of any potential problem until it was contacted by Computerworld. She said Watchguard intends to buy a Centrino-powered notebook and test its VPN clients to determine whether there's a problem.

Chris Kozup, an analyst at Meta Group, said that the Centrino/VPN problem illustrates the fact that vendors have done a "crappy job" in addressing the security requirements of enterprises, especially with wireless products. Kozup said he finds the fact that Intel didn't build plug-and-play VPN support into Centrino -- which Intel has backed with a $300 million advertising campaign -- "baffling."