Posts tagged ‘Wi-Fi’

Pimp My WLAN

2012-03-03 20:41

About two weeks ago I moved to Netherlands, landing in a medium-sized but cozy town of Groningen. This of course deserves a general blogpost on its own right (more than a single one, in fact), but the story I wanted to share today is extremely specific. For the most part, it’s also purely technical, exhibiting typical hacker’s dynamics. An overarching theme is an “itch” that needs to be scratched.

Let’s start then, first by defining the problem at hand.

On architectural features

I happen to live in a square which is referred to as town’s center, where significant fraction of buildings – maybe even majority – look kinda like this. Don’t pay too much attention to the outside appearance, as it can be very misleading. Despite their seemingly old architectural style, they’re often quite new and modern, but have been “retrofitted” to match the surrounding urban landscape. Final effect is rather pleasing aesthetically, I’d say.

What is more important and relevant here, though, is the size of windows. By my standards at least, they are simply enormous – and this fact precludes simple evaluation. (On one hand, there’s a lot of sunlight! On the other hand, there’s a lot of sunlight…). Moreover, it hints at how remarkably long the vertical distance between floor and the ceiling is. In my case, it’s about 2.8 m (that’s 9 ft for you Imperalists), having a significant impact on how spacious the apartment feels.

On insufficiently vertical waves

But for the issue I want to talk about, this was actually a downside. The matter concerns Internet access, which is shared among mine and three neighboring apartments through a Wi-Fi network with a single access point. In theory, the area it has to cover spans just couple of meters. In practice, however, it’s hindered not only by walls and doors, but also – and maybe even primarily – but this significant distance along the vertical axis.

See, most of the typical household wireless routers have directional antennae which are deliberately set to output signal mostly in the horizontal plane. While this allows for a single AP to easily cover even big apartment, it is also a liability in a setting similar to mine. Because the access point is on ground floor, it fails to appropriately cover the higher levels. And since this includes the very place I’m living in, I’ve been having rather annoying problems caused by signal’s low strength and quality: dropped packets, lost connections, and all that stuff. Even web browsing (or similar activities that doesn’t really depend on latency) has been very cumbersome, despite sitting less than 5 meters in straight line from the access point! It’s almost amazing how one can get screwed over by such simple design limitation like the direction of an antenna.

So, you can easily see how this was a problem that yearned to be solved. But how? One does not simply make the waves go further, right?…

On re-purposing of the old hardware

Actually, this is perfectly possible: devices known as WLAN repeaters do just that. Serving as sort of amplifier, they can extend the range of wireless network by relaying its signal between base access point and the final receiver, e.g. WLAN interface in a laptop. Basic physics suggest that it obviously cannot be done for free, so side effects include decreased performance of such range-extended networks due to reduced bandwidth. But where applicable, this solution is usually worth its while.

The Router

My scenario was definitely one of those, as I vastly prefer “not ideal Wi-Fi connectivity” to “almost no Wi-Fi connectivity at all”. So I went to investigate how I could procure such a device. Specifically, I had an old router lying around unplugged and useless – and it quickly gained my attention.

I cannot say that I’m any sort of expert when it comes to telecommunication, electronics or hardware of any kind (that’s vastly below the level abstraction I typically operate on), but I have some basic idea of what a wireless router really is. Elementary deduction suggest it’s a transceiver, an equipment able to receive and send out radio signals. What those signals are – that should be pretty much irrelevant, as long as (1) they fit into physical characteristics of the device and (2) the only thing we want to do is to propagate them further.

In short, it should be capable of acting as a repeater! Yay?

On awesomeness of the open source

Well, not really – not at a first glance, at least. While many routers feature the repeater option in their firmware, mine is somewhat old and low-end model: it doesn’t even support IPv6, not to mention goodies like the 802.11n band. Acting as a relay was also on this “nay” list, because being an ordinary access point is pretty much the only thing this inconspicuous black box used to know.

But thanks to one impressive piece of hackery, it was possible for its limitations to be lifted. What I’m talking about is DD-WRT – a community project that provides a custom firmware for variety of different models of popular routers. This firmware is very powerful and allows to easily tap into device’s hidden power, exposing capabilities omitted in vendor software. In my case, it promised to provide the crucial Client Bridge feature: ability to create more then one virtual, wireless interface and form a bridge between them in order to relay network traffic.

On thrills & perils of low-level hacking

I set to try it out – and it turned out to be non-trivial, to say the least. Some steps of the process were amusing due to their obscurity – like setting up a local server for the archaic TFTP protocol. Turns out it was needed for the actual transfer of new firmware and a small Linux distro that works on top of that. I suppose you have to do same when installing Linux on a microwave, but admittedly, I haven’t tried that just yet ;)

The most troublesome part was actually the very beginning. It involved connecting to the device via Ethernet wire and then telnetting at the right moment during it’s boot-up. This way, it is possible to access the RedBoot bootstrapping shell and perform all kinds of surgery on software internals.
Unfortunately, the instruction for making this happen was hopelessly unclear. I spent good several quarters troubleshooting any potential issues, even going as far as to use Wireshark to monitor any traffic originating from the router, looking into how it identifies itself within this crude two-node network.

Fortunately, I’ve later found a much better instruction that didn’t lack the rather important part about holding down the RESET button for, well, long time. From there everything went rather smoothly.

On trickery of network management

The last part was tweaking numerous options and settings in DD-WRT’s web interface in order to make the router talk to its cousin downstairs. This level of abstraction was obviously much more comfortable for me to work at. Still, there was some sorcery involved, as in deciding whether I’d like to have my own subnet or operate within existing one – essentially a choice between WLAN-to-WLAN router or “switch”. The second option was of course much more appealing because it was completely transparent to clients. Choosing it, I didn’t have to reconfigure the vast multitude of my 3 (three) devices that use Wi-Fi :)

This variant ended up being more complicated, though. And again, I have found both good and rather crappy instructions on how to make it happen – but unlike last time, now they were both coming from the DD-WRT wiki. Well, seems like documentation is not among the strongest sides of this project…

It works!

But rest assured: this story has a happy ending :) Yes, it was preceded by juggling IP configuration of my PC and few reboots of the router, but it would be malicious to consider this as something more than a little nuisance.

So, what’s the point in all of this?… I guess the bottom line would be about not being afraid to experiment if something needs to be improved. Risk aversion is powerful, true – but sometimes even failure is not that bad, especially if everything remains inside the realm of software. Here, even if you “blow” something up there will be no holes left to cover with duct tape ;-)


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