I run into an interesting networking problem recently. My company is testing a hosted VoIP solution from Packet8. I don’t think I have ever mentioned our adventures with the PhonePeople™ as we call them around the office. This is probably because unlike every single other piece of electronic equipment in the building, the phone system actually predates me and for some unspeakable reason is not one of my responsibilities. The powers that be are trying the rectify this oversight by going VoIP, but in the meantime the phone problems are usually dealt with by the administrative staff. They actually have a history of support tickets dating back 3 or 4 years – for the same problem. Our calls get randomly dropped every once in a while, and sometimes it is impossible to dial out. They send some guy, he fiddles with the phones, moves around some wires and says it is fixed. The issue is so intermittent that it is really hard to challenge them on it – sometimes we go weeks without any problems, but they always come back.
So you can probably see why we are researching alternative phone system. Someone recommended Packet8 to us and we decided to give it a whirl – especially since they give you a free 30 day trial of their service. I was actually quite surprised how easy it was to deploy. You just take out the phone from the box, plug it in, activate it by typing in the MAC address in Packet8’s online control panel, pick a number and you are ready to go. You can set up a fully functional PBX in less than 20 minutes – that is, if you don’t mind using VoIP and having the servers located offsite and managed by a 3rd party.
We are using the Packet8 6755i phones which are actually very nice:
There is only one problem I have with them: they are not wireless. There is nothing wrong with that per se. In fact, I anticipated that. Still this is an issue since our office is pretty much all wireless. We actually do not own the building and we have no cat 5 running through the walls. Or rather there is but it is not ours and we can’t really use it. In effect our setup looks roughly like this:
I’m omitting bunch of people with laptops who migrate from cube to cube on any given day and I might be missing a workstation or two in there. But roughly this is the network – everything except the servers, and 1 or 2 workstations that are located close to the switch is wireless. The little hub where we have a piece of Ethernet heaven is divided from the rest of the workstations by an area with a rather heavy foot traffic. No way to pull cables there. Shit has to be bridged.
I needed a network bridge device of some sort, which would pick up the Wifi signals from across the hall and allow me to plug in bunch of phones or a switch into it using a regular cat 5 cable. I needed a Wifi to Ethernet bridge. Fortunately these things are not so hard to find.
Initially I was hoping to just use the hardware which I had in the office. There was an old Linksys WRT54G router lying around somewhere. Naturally it did not have a network bridge functionality – that would be way to convenient. I knew that it should be capable of it though – it’s just that Linksys firmware is crippled by default. I figured I would flash it and with the open source, linux based alternative firmware known as dd-wrt. It can make your average chepo router into a high end piece of hardware with more options you could think of. Unfortunately it turned out that I have one of the “netutered”, easily brickable boxes. It had half the memory that was needed for running dd-wrt and required a whole slew of extra preparatory steps to be made to flash it with the stripped down version of the firmware. There is a big warning on the wiki that the chance of bricking the device is actually much higher than the chance of actually flashing it. They advise against even trying and recommend investing in a version of the router which is not crippled.
So I gave up the WRT54G and decided to pick up something that would work out of the box without additional labor. Enter Linksys WET200:
It is actually a designated bridge which was pretty much designed and built for providing Wifi to Ethernet interface that I needed. Setting it up was a cinch – I simply needed to plug it into a spare laptop, set it up with a static IP and point my the browser at 192.168.1.226. You can actually change that once you log in for the first time and put the thing in the correct subnet. Setting up the bridge took literally seconds – all I had to do was to click on Site Survey, pick my SSID from the list, and type in the WPA encryption key. That was it! I was able to just plop it on the other side of the office, and plug 4 of the VoIP phones into it like this:
Packet8 doesn’t really support this sort of thing. They actually warned me that this may not work, but so far we haven’t had any trouble with reception or lag. If things hold up and the phones work fine across the wireless bridge we will likely switch over to the VoIP system over the next month or two. The quality of service over Wifi will be our deciding factor.
If you need a Wifi to Ethernet bridge WET200 is a really decent investment. It is a no frill’s device, aimed at business networks so setup is clean and without any user-friendly bullshit. It works with both B and G networks and does WEP, WPA and WPA2. You have 4 general purpose ports on the back and 1 special purpose port you can use for powering the device if you have PoE setup in your office. I don’t, and I actually never seen it used – fortunately the bridge comes with a regular power adapter that you can plug into the wall as well. It will cost you a little over $100 at most retailers so it is a bit more expensive than your average lower end router (like the WRT54G). But it works out of the box and you are not voiding the warranty by flashing it with 3rd party firmware which should be more than enough to justify the purchase to your boss.