Going Nomad


Since I'm anticipating a need for better mobility, I decided to take a look at what the market offered in terms of travel routers. Which, in Portugal, is pretty sad - besides the WRT54GC (a compact, silvery, square variant of the Linksys WRT54 family), there was nothing but the AirPort Express - and even then, I could only find a single one after visiting three different retailers (yes, it's the same sad we-don't-have-Apple-Stores story, I'll spare you my whining).

Little Choice, Extreme Pricing

The WRT54GC sells at Eur. 89, and the Express at Eur. 159. Seems like a no-brainer, right?

Well, it could never be that simple.

I had my eye on the Apple box a long time ago due to its USB port (which will enable me to banish the printer crowding my desk to some nether closet), and that was the one thing that prevailed against visions of loading the Linksys box with custom firmware and using it as a VPN endpoint, SSH box and whatnot. The fact that the Linksys, despite having four Ethernet ports, comes with a bulky, external power brick also weighed in my decision - literally.

After all, I have a WRT54GS for precisely that purpose, and one of the original objectives behind getting rid of all my PCs and changing to appliances was stopping me from spending endless hours tinkering with things (which I still do, but at least only when I really have to).

And boy, am I glad I spent the extra Eur. 70. First off, setting up the little gadget was painless - I just double-clicked the AirPort Admin Utility and instantly got prompted to do a firmware upgrade (which, of course, worked first time). Configuring it is, well, trivial, and the defaults are sensible ones.

How Good Is It, Then?

Other networking folk used to the vagaries of setting up, say, a Linksys box (and I do that every time we need a test setup) will be amazed at how utterly painless it is: No funky web interfaces with HTML typos, no fiddly menus, no problems.

Of course, instead of a (tentative) dB transmitter power setting I get a percentage slider, but, as a user, I couldn't care less. I do cringe at the way Apple liberally uses the term "bridging" (since NAT has nothing to do with Layer 2 bridging), but then some of the engineers I know have trouble distinguishing bridging and routing (no kidding).

I have yet to explore the NAT and port mapping settings, but I expect they'll work as intended - although, for some puzzling reason, there seems to be no way to specify if I'm mapping a TCP or UDP port, one of the usual Apple "simplifications" that irks me. They probably mean TCP (which is what most people want to map anyway), but I'll check how stuff like SIP works across this any day now.

Security-Wise

I have no immediate use for the AirTunes stuff, but while tinkering through the configuration options, I noticed WPA2 support in the usual two flavors (Personal - password-based - and Enterprise - RADIUS-based).

The thing also supports both a primary and a secondary RADIUS server (for both WPA and MAC-based authentication), and has defaults for both typical authorization ports (1812 and 1645). No idea if it supports RADIUS accounting, but I will eventually find out (as the architecture responsible for our public Wi-Fi service, this is the sort of thing I used to deal with every day, and I always have a RADIUS server handy...).

How Do You Want To Unwire Today?

There are the usual nice touches (a password reminder, whether or not you want the built-in LED to flash on activity, a very good MAC address list editor and very clear descriptions of how MAC addresses can be sent to the RADIUS server), but another user-level thing that is clearly worth the cash with relation to the Linksys box is the ability to save (and switch between) multiple configuration profiles - something that I would nearly kill for on some of the devices I have to test.

But, as with all Apple gear, the real beauty is that I can just use it and not care about the details - it sure feels good to be "just a user" on occasion...