Public IP's ZoneCD

By Sean Michael Kerner

June 15, 2004

Planning a free hotspot, but don't want to pay through the nose for equipment? Why pay at all if you've got an old PC that can run this bootable CD, Linux-based alternative.

Creating a freely obtainable and easily deployed hotspot is a bit more involved than getting a coat hanger and putting some tin foil around it -- though it hardly needs to be more expensive.

In my overview of open source hotspot tools, I briefly touched on Public IP's ZoneCD. The two paragraphs that I had in that article could hardly do the project much justice. ZoneCD is essentially a Wi-Fi gateway/ Hotspot on a bootable CD-ROM solution. No mess, no fuss.

A live Linux CD like ZoneCD runs entirely from the CD, utilizing system memory and does not require any invasive installation on the user's hard drive. This makes it risk free to try without messing up an existing computer. The CD, with the help of some Linux tricks, automatically detects and configures itself to run on your hardware.

You can get the ZoneCD by ordering it from Public IP for $10 or you can simply download it for free from the one of the project's SourceForge mirrors. The current full GUI version comes in at just under 300 MB. The ZoneCD project is licensed under the GPL and is a re-mastered version of the Morphix Linux Distribution, which is based on the Knoppix Live Linux CD distribution (itself based on the Debian Linux distribution. Whew.)

To run ZoneCD, Public IP recommends any Intel compatible CPU (I'd say a Pentium 166MHz is the minimum) with a minimum of 128 MB of RAM, CD-ROM, network interface cards (NIC's, Public IP recommend two of them, though it's possible to get by with just one if you really wanted to) and of course some manner of Wi-Fi access point (AP) or wireless router.

You'll also need to sign up for a free ZoneID from Public IP which is what identifies the gateway to something called the virtual Authserver that handles user privileges and tracks usage. As a CD-ROM, by definition it's read-only. Thus it can't save or modify that data, hence the need for the virtual Authserver. You can store and load your ID from a floppy, which is something that I highly recommend.

The GUI version of the bootable CD contains Linux Kernel 2.4.x, the XFce GUI, and a few other non-Wi-Fi tools that are part of the core Morphix distribution along with Gimp (image manipulation), GAIM (instant messenger), ABIWord (word processor) and Mozilla Firebird (Web browser). So if you wanted to, you could use your gateway machine as reasonably equipped Linux workstation as well. But, that's not why you're reading this article is it?

The whole reason to download ZoneCD is for the Wi-Fi tools, which include NoCat, a tool that has been covered in here before. In a nutshell, it is a gateway authentication server.

Authentication is of course only a small part of the wireless hotspot battle. That's where the included DansGuardian tool comes into play. Dansguardian is a content filtering tool that makes sure inappropriate content isn't served via your hotspot. Of course, access to frequently requested sites is of great importance for any type of Internet access and to that end ZoneCD includes the Squid Web proxy . Last, but not least, is the Public IP Virtual Authserver that is what really sets this apart.

The Authserver is what allows you to run the ZoneCD and fully 'brand' your hotspot by creating a custom login screen with your own logo, layout design and terms of use. From a user point of view you have granular control over user setup and associated permissions.

ZoneCD user permissions break down between into different categories:

  • Public Users will have firewall, content filtering and file size restrictions in place (default is 2 MB)
  • Trusted Users -- for whom there is a higher level of trust and fewer restrictions (file size downloads, for example)
  • Super Users have no restrictions. Only use this setting in a local WLAN type environment where there is zero risk of someone sniffing your master password.

User can also be identified and restricted based on MAC as well.

As a hotspot administrator, merely granting access is not enough. That's why the project includes some powerful statistical tools to help in usage analysis. Admins can select to view live usage statistics and access to the end user data stream. A daily log mailing is also available.

ZoneCD is limited to 100 concurrent users by default, as a function of the DHCP server that's included. I suspect if you really wanted to, you could hack the source and re-master the CD to up that default number to whatever you wanted. At a certain point your AP's capacity -- as well as your upstream providers bandwidth -- will provide a real physical limit.

Public IP has a number of backers including the Detroit Wireless Project. Public IP is clearly intended for the 'free' usage crowd and it doesn't connect with a commercial network like Boingo Wireless or other aggregators. Public IP Site does encourages users to sign up their 'free' hotspots through the free Freshspot hotspot directory submission service, which among other sites submits to Wi-Fi HotspotList which is part of the same network as this Wi-Fi Planet.

In general, it's pretty easy to download ZoneCD, pop in into a machine and get a hotspot running very quickly. The project's documentation doesn't have the step-by step, screenshot Windows-style of course. The docs are duplicated on the main site as well as a project Wiki that can be confusing for a newbie. Though to be honest, the setup is so simple that trial and error will suffice to get everything running, as it should.



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