On the nature of wireless, and choosing the right tool for the right job.
As I get closer to turning forty, I keep a wary eye on my opinions for signs of Grumpy Old Gitness. This can occur to anyone as they get older, and usually manifests as an increasing tendency to curse and forswear all new developments; this is often acompanied by muttered assertions that things were “better in the old days”. Thus it’s taken me a while to get around to writing this, because I wanted to be sure. And I am.
Wireless data is undoubtedly an excellent development in many ways. “Look”, one can cry, “no wires!” as you carry your laptop freely from room to room, continuously connected (or on occasion, continually reconnecting). Certainly it’s convenient, certainly it’s clever, certainly it’s a major development. But I’ve spent a good while over the last couple of weeks talking people through annoying, irritating problems with wireless networks and it came to me that there’s still an awful lot to be said for plain old simple wires. Let’s review…
- Wires are secure. Tempest-style attacks apart, wires don’t broadcast your data all over the place. Neither do wires allow someone sitting outside your house to poke about at your LAN without physically crossing the threshold. And we all know how tremendously secure WEP and WPA are (not).
- Wires are reliable. It doesn’t matter how many wires there are in the neighbouring apartments. It doesn’t matter if someone else one room away wants to run video at ten megabits on her wire whilst you do the same on yours. It doesn’t make any difference if there are microwave ovens or fluorescent lights in abuncance around. Wires keep working.
- Wires are cheap. A length of CAT5 is cheaper than an access point and a 802.11-something card; scarily cheap in fact, if you buy the cable in reels and grab a handful of press-fit plugs.
- Wired networks are easy to install. I’m talking here about installing on your average PC or Mac. No need to furtle around with SSIDs and long, complex WEP keys. Shove the Ethernet cable into the Ethernet port. You’re done.
- Wires are standard and compatible. Ever tried getting a Netgear wireless product to talk to D-Link kit? Both manufacturers allow memorable ASCII keyphrases – and they each use a different algorithm to derive the key from the text. Thus you (or even worse, your users) are back to entering long hex strings. Then, if you’re lucky, you get a connection – until it drops… and keeps reconnecting every few minutes. All right for web surfing, perhaps, but for VPNs or ssh sessions, forget it.
Naturally, I’m exaggerating for effect, but look at it this way. Wireless networking has one (and only one) advantage over wired; the fact that there are no, er, wires. In almost every other way, it’s inferior. It’s slower, less secure, more complex, more expensive, and more likely to go wrong. All it lets you do is walk around with your laptop. And is that really such a big deal? This Sony Vaio I use will do maybe an hour of serious work on its batteries, then it’s time to play hunt-the-socket. For 99% of the time, it sits connected to the mains power, so having one more wire plugged into the back is really not a problem. And what about desktop PCs? They never go anywhere (well, not very often) and given the amount of cabling around the back anyway, why save one more?
My biggest gripe, though, is how amazingly overcomplex and deeply unfriendly it all is. I liked this report, in which four ZDNet editors attempt to get 3G wireless connectivity whilst travelling from London to Reading and back. But it wasn’t the technology that amused me, but the failures. It took four very well-experienced technical guys to get it all working, and then to make excuses for why it might fail. Wireless networking is not easy to set up and use, unless you’re happy to have a very insecure installation.
So sure, when it makes sense, use it. But when it doesn’t, pick up your CAT5 and find your Ethernet socket. You’ll never look back.