Thursday, December 11, 2008

Network refugee

Due to the shutdown of the ventilation in the lab, the other grad students and I have been forced to move into the lounge. Although there are network ports at each desk and lab bench, there are none in the lounge. Fortunately, the IT people finally got around to fixing the wireless network in the building.

Unfortunately, my PowerMac G5 (PCIx) didn't come with the optional 802.11g/BlueTooth wireless card installed (the antennas are there, but the actual daughter board is missing). Apple stopped making these some time ago and there are only a few for sale through third-parties for ~$300 each! Sonnet sells a PCI card specifically for PowerPC Macs, but it's pricey at ~$100. Fortunately, the people working on the OS x86 project have a list of PCI wireless cards that are compatible with OS X. Some require patches or driver updates, but most BroadCom based cards work correctly out of the box. I snagged a Linksys WMP54GS from NewEgg for ~$40 and it was detected as a "Third Party Wireless Card" by OS X 10.5.5. The only differences from a real AirPort card are that there is an external antenna (the G5 actually included a tiny external antenna if you bought the wireless option) and there is no 802.1x support.

Connecting to the wireless network was another matter entirely. The department has a wireless network, but it requires 802.1x authentication. The University's wireless network runs in parallel and requires a VPN connection. Until very recently, connecting required the Cisco VPN client, which, in my experience, has been nothing but terrible. It has a wretched user interface that sticks out like a sore thumb for Mac users and constantly drops connections. I was able to make it automatically connect by tweaking the University's .pcf config file, but that was a workaround at best. To add insult to injury, the client installs a kernel extension that hijacks any connection attempts by Apple's VPN client (it can be removed using an uninstall script buried in /usr/bin/). Fortunately, and much to my surprise, the recent deluge of iPhone users on campus has apparently persuaded the ITS people to configure their VPN servers to accept standard connections (although their knowledge base says otherwise). Now I'm using Apple's integrated VPN client and I'm all webbed up to netpages, but I'll never get those hours of my life back. Thanks, Cisco.