"At some point you've probably heard of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and their standards. A common one you've probably heard of is IEEE 1394, known to the rest of us as FireWire, or the very high speed data link that we use to connect our digital cameras to our computers, and the apparent successor to IEEE 1284, the universal serial bus (USB). The standard we're going to be dealing with is called IEEE 802.11, which is the wireless cousin to IEEE 802.3, wired ethernet." DHW Writing Contest winner, Quantum Skyline, takes us through setting up a wireless network from hardware components to software security.
At some point you've probably heard of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and their standards. A common one you've probably heard of is IEEE 1394, known to the rest of us as FireWire, or the very high speed data link that we use to connect our digital cameras to our computers, and the apparent successor to IEEE 1284, the universal serial bus (USB). The standard we're going to be dealing with is called IEEE 802.11, which is the wireless cousin to IEEE 802.3, wired ethernet.
802.11 is currently available in three forms: 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g. 802.11a is a protocol that transmits over a frequency of 5 GHz, but only allows a maximum transfer rate of 2 megabits per second (Mbps).
802.11b, an improvement over 802.11a, allows a transfer rate of 11 Mbps, but was completely incompatible with 802.11a products because it runs on a frequency of 2.4 GHz. Some didn't like that and saw it as a forced upgrade, but it does offer good transfer speeds up to 300 feet away from the wireless access point or the wireless router. Some companies, like D-Link, optimize their products to allow it to run at speeds up to 22 Mbps. The downside to this is that in order to truly get the extra speed benefits out of the product, all wireless equipment have to be bought from one manufacturer, and a network that has devices capable of running at different speeds will revert to the slowest maximum transfer rate. As a result, a network with a 22 Mbps router and a 11Mbps network card runs at 11 Mbps.
Draft specifications of 802.11g, the new kid on the block, start at 54 Mbps, causing Linksys and D-Link to release products compatible with the draft spec. They were disappointed when the spec was toned down to say '20+ Mbps' instead of 54Mbps. 802.11g is completely backward compatible with 802.11b, so you can mix and match hardware of both types, but the network will only run at 802.11b speeds. 802.11g also offered some security improvements. Like in the 802.11b case, Atheros, a wireless chipset maker, is cheating the specification to create 104 Mbps networks.
What do I need?
Depending on your budget and what you are using the network for, an 802.11b based network will do fine. If you have a significant need for speed, want bleeding edge technology, or have extra cash on hand and feel like spending, go for 802.11g. I'm not saying that 802.11g equipment is very expensive, but it may not be necessary.
You also need to figure out what kind of network you are going to build. Most of the time, a network is a method of splitting an internet connection, so you will need some wireless network interface cards (NICs) and an access point or a router. Wireless routers do the exact same thing as the wired version - they split an incoming connection and allow computers to connect to it in order to get online. Access points are like wired hubs. They're great for extending the range of an existing wired network into a small area. Most routers available in stores combine wired and wireless into one, and are really good if this is the first time you are creating a network.
If security is a concern, make sure your hardware supports 256-bit wired equivalency protocol, or WEP. I'll go more into detail about that and some security features later.
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