Monday, December 01, 2003

Silicon Tears

By now, readers are fully aware that I’m a geek. That’s how I describe myself when asked what I do for a living, and I take a certain amount of pride in the name.

As a geek, I tend to take my technology personally. Just like the basketball fans who identify with the team and ride the emotional roller coaster with every slam dunk or misdemeanor arrest, I’m that way with technology.

I’ve long had a local area network within my home. I have a nice, fast broadband cable connection, and at any given moment I have three to seven systems and a couple of printers all connected together. I use different systems for different purposes, and may be using multiple systems at the same time.

My home network has long been protected by a WebRamp Model 700s firewall/router. The company that produced this device, Ramp Networks, is long gone and their technology has appeared, and disappeared, at several other companies.

Having a dead vendor has been a bit of an aggravation at times, and a huge aggravation at other time. Still, the WebRamp has worked well (for the most part) and done a yeoman’s job of protecting my home network. Still, the technology inside my webramp box is showing its age, and it is time to move on.

I thought of just going and buying a new router – I can get one for less than $100 at any of several electronics stores. But, cash flow is tight, and I have a garage full of hardware, so I began to look for plan “B.” After all, we all know that Plan “B” is usually a good one.

So I dug out a nice old Gateway box with 300MHz Pentium processor that I had sitting in the corner of the garage, tossed in a serviceable hard drive and a second network and began to scour the web in search of firewall/router software that I could legally download and use. Certainly some fellow geek with extra hardware and great programming skills wrote something that would run on Windows and do the job for me. I figured that I could connect the system to the cable modem using LAN card #1 and then connect to a 10/100 hub via the second LAN card.

Then I began my software search – and basically came up empty. I was able to find a few minimalist router programs for free – but at close look it appeared that the were selling the additional add-in necessary to give it any degree of robustness.

So I did what any other gookzoid would do, I went into a couple of discussion forums where I know a lot of the players and kept getting the same answer back: that I was a luzer for wanting to do this with Windows, and the Linux was the answer to all of my prayers. But I don’t want to learn Linux. It is not ready for end user geeks like me, just for programmer/engineering geeks, and I’m not one of them. Too bad, came the answers, learn to use and love Linux they chanted. Linux! Linux! I had these visions of a mob of engineers, with torches held high, marching on my little house in suburbia, chanting Linux! Linux! Then someone threw the first torch, and my whole world turned red and orange…

OK, so maybe I’m going off of the deep end here. Maybe? Maybe!!! OK, I’m definitely going off of the deep end here in my quest to save about $90, but I still think that I can get over the sadness involved in retiring my trusty WebRamp by putting a retired PC to work acting as my network router.

In the interim, I could not leave everything unprotected, so I’m back to running just a single PC on my network, and I’ve installed Systems Mechanic 4 Professional from iolo Technologies which now comes integrated with antivirus protection from Panda (of Spain), and a nifty firewall and pop-up blocker. I just installed it this past weekend, and by the time you read this I will have either fallen in love with it, or burned the installation CD. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, if any of you readers have an answer to my quest for a PC-based router/firewall that will run of a 300MHz Windows box, let me know. I’d also like to know if you think that I should get off of my high horse and learn something, anything at all, about Linux. If you do think I should learn some Linux, let me know which flavor, particularly if there is a Linux for Curmudgeons version out there someplace.

OK, confession time. I couldn’t end this column without telling the rest of the story. My WebRamp. Well, I retired it, but I didn’t quite retire it. I simply could not bring myself to power it off. So it sits in the closet in my office, plugged into the wall, with several green lights glowing, representing its connection to my hub. I wonder if it knows that I unplugged the connection to the cable modem, or if late it night it somehow sends out little electronic whispers calling “Surfboard, Motorola Surfboard, please come back!” When I am sitting at this system, pounding away and the keyboard, creating entire worlds of new typographical errors, all I have to do is look up, and I can see the three green lights. I get a bit misty and wonder if the processor inside is crying silicon tears.

6/2005 Update: The WebRamp is forgotten, the 300MHz Gateway is probably in a landfull. The requirement for wireless meant I spent $45 for a used LinkSys router, and life has been good ever since.

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