An Open Source Wi-Fi Roundup

By Sean Michael Kerner

May 21, 2004

Wireless networks and hotspots aren't just for Windows users. Linux-based projects are cropping up all over to make for inexpensive WLANs of all sorts.

If you've read any tech publication in the last 18 months then you've seen dozens of articles about open source software and how it's transforming all verticals of the technology industry. Open Source is usually touted as a disruptive technology that is a boon to innovation and something that lowers costs and barriers to entry.

And the open source movement is having the same impact on Wi-Fi.

There are a number of interesting and innovative open source projects out there that enable Wi-Fi, and make it cheaper to setup a hotspot or even just enable Wireless connectivity in a house or small user group.

The general belief when it comes to setting up Wi-Fi connectivity is that you need a Wireless access point (AP) device and computers with wireless client cards. This site has reviewed dozen of consumer and business oriented APs, some better than others. One thing always remains the same, however: the access point always costs more than the wireless card.

Guess what? You don't always necessarily need a fixed wireless router device to create your own WLAN. You can do it with two machines that both have Wi-Fi cards, and leave more expensive APs out of the picture.

There are a number of different ways to accomplish this with freely available GNU/Linux based open source software. A typical Linux distribution will generally allow you set up a Linux box as a 'wired' router, so turning it into a wireless router isn't really that big a leap.

For instance, if you have a desktop machine in your home office, and want to create a WLAN for the notebook that you or other family members use in the rest of the house (or to create an AP for a console gaming platform like Xbox or PlayStation2), all you may need is two Wi-Fi cards.

The caveat for the 96 percent of home users that are not running Linux would be that they'd have to move away from Windows, or run a Linux Virtual Machine inside of their Windows installation and --if you're lucky -- get it to work.

However, as with many things in the open source world, there is another way. You don't even have to actually install Linux. If you've got an old PC with a CD-ROM, then you have the minimum requirements for creating a Linux based WLAN access point. You do this with the Linux LiveCD Router project. It will allow you to simply boot from the CD and have a working Linux terminal, complete with a Wi-Fi Router.

Taking open source Wi-Fi solutions a step further, there are a number of freely available tools that will enable you to create and manage a public access hotspot. There are three projects in particular that are under community development and in use today that are deserving of mention: Sesame Wi-Fi, ZoneCD from Public IP and the Less Networks Hotspots Server (popularized by the Austin Wireless City Project in Texas).

The Sesame Wi-Fi is perhaps the most difficult of the three projects to get a grasp of for those that fear getting their hands dirty. The free version unfortunately does not have much English language documentation. The complexity of configuration and lack of direct easy integration with a payment system are obvious drawback of this otherwise highly functional project.

Public IP's ZoneCD is a simple Hotspot on a CD solution. Like the LiveCD Router, it's a bootable CD-ROM Linux distribution, but with the graphical tools needed to freely create a hotspot in minutes. If you really wanted to, you could also download a version of the ZoneCD without the GUI (for those that live in terminal windows and the command line).

Out of the box, the ZoneCD comes close to being able to create a commercially viable open source powered hotspot. It includes full user registration and authentication as well as content filtering to prevent access to inappropriate content and downloads. The project also easily allows for fully customizable login pages to allow hotspot creators to have their own branded entity. To top it off, ZoneCD hotspot administration functions include daily log mailing, live usage statistics and access to the end user data stream.

Recent articles in the press have helped to popularize the Less Networks Hotspot Server's use in Austin. The project currently provides Wi-Fi hotspots in 50 locations across the city to over 8700 registered users. The project does not have commercial aspirations and is intended to provide free access to registered individuals. Like ZoneCD the hotspot itself can have its own unique branding to create whatever login experience a hotspot operates want to create. Unlike ZoneCD however, at present the Less Networks solutions is not CD based and required installation on a dedicated machine.

You can do more with less when dealing with open source solutions for Wi-Fi. From creating an access point to a full blown hotspot, the tools are out there. Stay tuned as we continue our exploration into open source Wi-Fi with more in depths tutorials and reviews of the projects that we've mentioned here and others as they emerge.

Originally published on .

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