Monday, April 21, 2008

Connect to the Internet with authority!
Recently at my place of employment we have been handing out more laptops with built in wireless capabilities to more and more field people. These workers have traditionally not had computers of any kind. They basically operated using Nextel phones. My mother who is in her 70s started using a laptop a couple of years ago. My wife, who by her own admission has zero ability to configure or use computers now has to use a laptop since she went back to school. Connecting Computers, and especially Laptops to the Internet sometimes can be a challenge. What are all the methods? Before you use a method to connect, you need a service that allows you access. This is usually your cable or phone company, or a "place" that you can go to that gives you access like a coffee shop or the library, etc.

Methods
Wired
You usually plug a cable with a jack that looks slighter bigger than a phone jack. This is usually the fastest and most reliable way to connect to the Internet.

Modem

This is the old and slow way to connect to the Internet. Now I say old because of the advent of broadband or fast Internet. There are still a number of people using a modem. When using a modem you need a phone number to call, and usually when you are connected to the Internet your phone is not usable unless your modem and the software allows you to "Pause" while you receive a call.

Wireless (Wifi)
Usually when you hear the term wireless, it is referring to Wireless Access to the Internet through Radio transmission. This type of access is now built into almost every laptop along with the Ethernet and Modem jacks. This is also the type of access you see at Internet Cafes and other "Hot Spots" as they are called. You can also set up your own wireless access at home. All you need is to have the Internet already set up at home using the above mentioned Broadband. One word of caution here. When people start using wireless they might be surprised that when they get home turn on their laptop they are all of a sudden on the Internet. This is even though they do not have any Internet access at home. I have seen this happen and some just think that it is normal because after all the laptop has "wireless". What they don't realise is that they are actually on their neighbor's wireless. So in a sense they are on someone else's Internet. While this may seem to be cool, I do not recommend it. Because some don't understand this, when they take the laptop somewhere else, and it does not work, they think something is wrong.

Wireless Air Cards
(Broadband via Cell Network)
This kind of connection is the "one true" mobile wireless. This type of connection can be provided either as another built in capability with the laptop, or via a "card" or "USB" plug-in device. What you need for this, is to pay for the service from your cell service provider like Verizon or Sprint for example. If you live in an area where you cannot get any sort of "high speed" Internet access and are relegated to using only a modem, you might be able to get faster access with this type. You need to test it, but I have found that frequently that those who cannot get cable or DSL, have had good luck with this. It is not guaranteed, but this type of connection is continually expanding. It is my belief that this is the future for Mobile Wireless Networking.

VPN
(Virtual Private Network)
This is the thorniest of the hurdles for some people to get over. Now, unless you have need for this you might not know what this is. In our situation at work, we need to connect to our network when we are far away from it. A VPN is like running a cable from our office to where ever you are not matter how far away; but we do it through the Internet - i.e., it is created virtually. Therefore the name "Virtual Private Network". We do this by creating a tunnel through the Internet. For this to work there there is a need for special equipment back at the office. On your laptop you need to be on the Internet. You then create the connection using the Network Connection Wizard. This is can be done on any modern computer. Windows provides it as part of the system. Some VPN equipment also come with their own special VPN software that you install on your laptop. The biggest problem with VPNs, is that there are numerous reasons it might not work. It hard to tell why. I can tell you with a great degree of certainty that if you are in a hotel and you are on the Internet OK, but cannot get your VPN to work, or it only works once in a while, it is that the Hotel's access is not configured for it; or it only allows one connection out at a time. This is very frustrating.

All the pieces need to fit
A puzzle with a missing piece, is not going to work. When using the Internet, and it is not working-what is actually not working sometimes is hard to define. It could be that "email" is not working or the "VPN" is not working. You might really not even be able to make a connections at all. Above I made a mentioned of why a VPN connection might not work in a hotel. This might happen in any place: maybe you are at a customer's site, or a vendors, or whatever. All the pieces you need to work on the Internet. Let's count them:
  1. There has to be some kind of access provider.
  2. You need one of the "methods" listed above: Wired (Ethernet cable), Modem (dial up), Wireless (Wifi), or Wireless Card via Cell provider
  3. After that you need an address, usually called an "IP" address (usually provided via the network access by provider or/and a router)
  4. Along with that address you need a "Gateway" - this is the "first on ramp" to the Internet.
  5. Once you have that, there are "ports". Think of ports as doors, or different openings. While you have the Internet, and your gateway, there are different doors that you go through based on what or where you want to go. For example the Web uses port 80. This door is usually not visible to you because the "Browsers" know the door so you don't have to type it in. If you did have to type it in, it would look something like this: http://www.microsoft.com:80 - Notice the :80 at the end. That is the door. Because every application has a "port", if this port is closed, you might be able to get on the Internet, but for example you might not be able to get on a VPN because that "port" might be closed. Quite frustrating if not known (or if known and still it does not work).
  6. Let's look at some common Ports (doors). Notice that you use probably use some of these services but maybe were not aware that you were using these ports. I highlighted the more popular ones:
  • Port Service
    20,21 FTP (File transfer)
    22 SSH (Remote login secure)
    25 SMTP (Internet mail)
    53 DNS (Host naming)
    80 HTTP (Web)
    88 Kerberos (computer authentication protocol)
    110 POP3 (Client access)
    119 NNTP (Usenet newsgroups)
    123 NTP (Network time)
    137-139 NetBIOS (DOS/Windows naming)
    143 IMAP (Client access)
    161,162 SNMP (Network management)
    163,164 CMIP (Network management)
    443 HTTPS (Web secure)
    514 Syslog (Event logging)
    563 NNTPS (Usenet newsgroups secure)
    993/tcp IMAP4 over SSL, Internet Message Access Protocol
    995/tcp POP3 over SSL, Post Office Protocol
    989,990 FTPS (File transfer secure)
    1723 Virtual private network (V
So as you can see, there are a quite a few parts to make it all work. There are also some other things to be aware on your laptop. Make sure that whatever method being used, that you know the visible indications of the connection status. Most laptops will have light or some kind of LED display showing that the Radio is on for Wifi. If you are using a Ethernet Cable look for one green light (link or connection) and an amber light (for actual activity). If you are using a modem you can't miss the sounds. If you do not hear the sound, it might you turned the sound off on your computer. Although annoying, I always liked to have it on because the sounds were a tell tale sign of positive or negative connection. If you are using an Air Card from a cell provider, they will provide software that will tell you whether you are connected or not. Also your Computer/laptop can be configured to show you the connections status of any method so you can see if it is connected or not. To understand why something is not connecting I it is better to understand how it looks like when it is working. With that knowledge, it will be much easier to understand when something fails to connect. In a following article I will show what it looks like when it is working. Then when it is not. In that way we will be able to troubleshoot Internet connections better. Delco (read part2)

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