Wireless Firmware Updating - Page 2

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

April 01, 2003

Before the Upgrade

First things first. Is your Wi-Fi network working perfectly fine? Doing everything you want it to do? Then, don't upgrade. There is a small, but real, chance you can foul up your Wi-Fi equipment to the point where you'll need to replace it. Unless the reward--higher bandwidth, more stability, support for a new security feature--is worth the risk, don't upgrade.

Unfortunately, wireless firmware is usually in a state of flux so you are more likely to run into a situation where upgrading is a good idea than, say, someone is with a CD-ROM burner, DVD-player or other equipment that can sometimes put a firmware update to good use. That's because the 802.11 standards and their implementations are constantly being changed and improved. For example, no 802.11g equipment you buy today is using the final, official 802.11g standard because it's not out yet. Chances are excellent that to get any 802.11g equipment you buy today to work with 802.11g hardware you buy in the fourth quarter of 2003 or beyond, you'll need to give the older 802.11g devices a firmware upgrade.

Let's say you do have a problem, for example, your access point is always dropping user connections or packets or you need to get your old 802.11g access point working with your new 802.11g network interface cards (NIC)s and there's a firmware update that seems to address this problem. Do not update your firmware as your first, or even, second step to fixing your wireless woes.

First, read the manual, check the FAQ files and call technical support for your device to see if your problem is popping up because of an installation flow or an operating system or application quirk before resorting to a firmware upgrade. Heck, make sure your devices are plugged in. More computer problems are the results of silly mistakes -- like neglecting to plug the access point into your network switch with the right cable -- than the more fundamental problems that firmware upgrades are meant to addresses.

A good rule of thumb is that if the company or its technical support doesn't recommend a particular upgrade for your particular system, don't do it. Yes, it's not as exciting as riding the bleeding edge of technology, but it's a lot safer.

You should be especially cautious of beta firmware updates. These are really only for people who don't mind taking chances with their hardware with the full knowledge that the upgrade may not work. For instance, many firmware upgrades promise more connection speed, but I've never seen a beta upgrade deliver on that promise. In fact, the beta firmware usually bring performance down. Eventually, the final firmware delivers the goods, but the beta process is only worth it for people who love to tinker with their systems. For most of us, the only time to try beta firmware is when you have a problem that can't be fixed any other way.

OK, so you're quite sure that your problem can be traced to something that can be fixed by firmware upgrading, does the company agree? Just because a firmware upgrade sounds like it might fix your problem doesn't mean that it will.

For instance, does the latest firmware revision really apply to your hardware? You should be especially careful that the firmware update at hand applies to your exact equipment model. For example, D-Link comes right out and says that firmware for the DWL-650 is not compatible with the DWL-650H or the DWL-A650. If you go ahead and try it anyway, chances are you'll end up with junk instead of a working Cardbus Adapter.

You should also be sure that you're not wasting time with a firmware update. You may already have the latest and greatest firmware installed.

To forestall either of the above possibilities, use your Wi-Fi installation or monitoring software to note down both your exact equipment model and firmware revision. That's especially important since sometimes the equipment box may say it's a GeeWhizBang Wireless XYZ-1, when it's really a GeeWhizBang Wireless XYZ-1A under the hood, which might require a completely different firmware upgrade.

While you're at it, you should also record your Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) keys, IP address settings, user IDs and passwords, and the like. Chances are you're going to lose all of that. (Oh, but don't store them on your computer for an industrious hacker to find).

If you're also using your access point as a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server, you'd be well-advised to set up another system to handle DHCP services until you're sure that your firmware fix took and that the access point is back to normal. Firmware updates shouldn't take more than an hour, but if something goes badly wrong, you don't want to put your network out of commission while you get a replacement access point with a DHCP server.

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Originally published on .

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