The complexity of the ad-hoc network (and network research)

After months of intermittent attempts and research, I finally have a connection between two of my laptops, and an Internet connection to the one that is not physically connected to the wired LAN.

(Well, perhaps I might qualify that.  I appear to have a connection to the Internet, and I seem to have been successful at viewing a couple of Websites, and sending one piece of email.  It’s pig slow, and at the moment the mailer is trying to download some email.  It’s made enough of a connection to know that some email is there, but actually retrieving the email is taking enough time that I have been able to start to prep this posting in a browser window while I’m waiting.  I type very slowly, and, as of the end of this paragraph, it hasn’t yet successfully downloaded the second of seven messages.)

(The speed of the connection [although the computer says the connection is "Very Good"] may be due to the fact that I’m using  WEP with 104, rather than 40, bit key.  Don’t know how much difference it would make.  At the moment, having only just established the connection, I’m not about to mess with the settings to find out.)

However, as happy as I am to have the connection, the simple fact of it is not important enough to warrant a blog post.  No, the real point is all the trouble I encountered trying to find out how to make it work.  Following on from the complexity of any computing that I wrote about earlier.
As usual, I made my own life more difficult.  If all I wanted was a simple ad-hoc wireless network, that could be had for the asking.  Well, sort of.  A simple wireless network doesn’t do very much, unless you can share information from the drives, or share an Internet connection.  And that seems to be extra.

(Maybe.  At one point in the process, I had left one of the test wireless networks “on.”  And in one of my classes, one of my students managed to connect to it and get an Internet connection from the wired connection I had.  Random successes aren’t terribly useful, unless you can repeat them.)

Anyway, I have a wired network at home.  I have sharing enabled, so that I can copy materials from one machine to another.  At the moment, all of them run Windows XP.  (Yeah, I know.  I’ll get around to Linux sometime …)  I have (now) multiple laptops, and have to take at least one of them on the road for teaching.  And, of course, the mobile machines have to connect to all kinds of wired and wireless connections on the road.

Of course, the easy way would be to go to London Drugs and get a wireless router, connect it to the wired LAN, and fill in a few simple settings.  It’d probably take no more than a couple of hours, from beginning to end.  But I wouldn’t learn much about ad-hoc networking that way, and I’ve been getting more interested in it, particularly as a security concern, as I have been seeing that “computer-to-computer network” legend show up in more and more places.  (Especially with “Free Internet Connection!” as the network name.)

So, having a spare laptop (since, on a recent teaching trip, it decided to go spare on me), I figured it would be easy to set up a connection between that and the new one.

Actually, it was on the trip that I wanted to start the process.  There was nothing wrong with the old laptop (except that it was a Toshiba, and I’ve had two Toshibas in a row, and I will never again by anything made by Toshiba since they’ve given me nothing but grief for eight years) except that the power supply was becoming unreliable.  I bought a cheap (and non-Toshiba) netbook and asked for advice about connecting them via ad-hoc network in order to transfer the necessary files.

Well, lots of advice, but nothing actually worked, and I fell back on using the Passport external drive my wonderful daughters gave me that has been so useful in so many situations.  But it doesn’t do networking.

The friends gave me some starting points in terms of places to look for advice.  Microsoft, naturally.  There is a wonderful page at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/networking/expert/bowman_02april08.mspx which provides clear explanations.  Only a couple of problems: it was written in 2002, so the dialogue boxes have changed.  This piece does talk about sharing an Internet connection, but it doesn’t mention the need to modify the default IP addresses, since everything seems to want to use 192.168.0.1 as a base, and that leads to conflicts.  Bottom line: it doesn’t work.

Microsoft updated the information in 2006 at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/networking/setup/adhoc.mspx and the dialogue boxes are closer to what you’ll actually see these days.  After running through that one I tested it out, only to find that the network never does show up on “Available Wireless Networks.”  I’m not sure if this is because, if you choose WEP, and tell it not to broadcast the key, it keeps it hidden.  I did manage to connect to the network, and even seemed to be able to see other computers drives, and see something of the Internet, but all of the connections disappeared over time.  Again, this page says to use Internet Connection Sharing, but doesn’t provide the necessary detail to make it work.

All kinds of pages are out there, if you do a Web search, seemingly based on this same, limited, misinformation.  At http://www.home-network-help.com/ad-hoc-wireless-network.html the author seems to have given some thought to the issue of IP addresses, but not much.  http://www.home-network-help.com/ics-host-computer.html goes into a bit more detail on the IP addresses, but not enough, particularly in terms of the entries that have to be made in various places on various machines.

Finding all the places to make those entries is a trip in and of itself.  The Help and Support Center for XP Home Edition is no help.  At one point I was afraid that the multitude of entries for the various networks I’ve connected to in hotels, airports, and seminar hosting sites had something to do with it, so I went and deleted all of those “Preferred networks” I had accumulated over the years.  (Did you know that they were all still there?)

Lots of people are willing, and more than willing, to provide the benefit of their lack of experience.  I say this, since so many of the entries don’t actually work.  http://www.ehow.com/how_6108229_make-wirelss-internet-_ad_hoc-wireless_.html  Terse, doesn’t work.  http://www.ehow.com/how_5167281_create-ad-hoc-wifi-network.html  Slight tech detail, doesn’t cover sharing drive or Internet connection, doesn’t explain how to make new wireless network visible to “View available wireless networks.”  http://www.ehow.com/how_5154137_create-ad-hoc-network.html  A touch more detail than above (5167281), mentions need to share Internet connection, mentions a dialogue button that doesn’t exist in the XP explanation.  http://www.ehow.com/how_5946176_set-hoc-network-windows-xp.html  Some detail on setting up the network, doesn’t completely work, nothing on sharing.  http://www.ehow.com/way_5492555_ad-hoc-network-tutorial.html  Some detail on setting up the network, doesn’t completely work, nothing on sharing.  http://www.ehow.com/how_5670567_set-ad-hoc-wireless-network.html  Some detail on setting up the network, doesn’t completely work, nothing on sharing, does do XP and Vista.

Some of the advice is contradictory.  For example, I mentioned I was using WEP.  This is because some of the sites, such as http://www.hardwaresecrets.com/article/418 and http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/28615-42-networking-security-problem suggest that WPA and WPA2 can’t be used if the “host” for your ad-hoc network is running Windows XP (which mine is).  Of course, that might be old news, which might have been superceded by intervening upgrades.  But, with this level of information, how am I supposed to tell?

We are awash in a sea of information.  Except that some of the information is misinformative.  As John Lawton stated, the irony of the information Age is that it has given new respectability to uninformed opinion.  This can have rather significant consequences.  A recent CBC story notes that this may play into the May 6 stock market mini-meltdown.

So far, the best clue I received was from http://www.wi-fiplanet.com/tutorials/article.php/3822651  I had frequently seen the “Bridge connections” option, but I somehow never thought to have two networks “selected” when I tried it.  Even then, I might have missed the opportunity.  I got the usual error message, but it suddenly dawned on me that ICS might conflict with it.  (Given that everybody else had been telling me to turn ICS on.)  So, I turned ICS off, and, sure enough, Bridge connections was happy to do just that.

I still have no clue what has been set, and where …

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  • Mark C

    wow. Everything I just read here is an encapsulation of what I have been experiencing over the last 4 hours.. All I am trying to do is get my itouch to the internet through my netbook which is wired up, and has unused wifi built in. Every time I get the ad hoc connection working, the netbook loses it’s internet connection. It doesn’t help that the hardware connection doesn’t seem to have the option anywhere to enable ICS. This is xp home edition.