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Jeff Duntemann's Wi-Fi Guide -- A Review

Constructing and administrating computer networks used to be an arcane job for professionals. Now, more and more people are setting up computer networks in their home, driven by thoughts of browsing the Web from their front porch as much as they are of sharing Internet connections and printers. Mostly, these are wireless or Wi-Fi networks. If you are thinking about taking the plunge yourself, you may want to pick up Jeff Duntemann's Wi-Fi Guide, 2nd Edition.

One thing you need to watch when buying a book in such a fast-moving field is timeliness. The official publication date for the book, from Paraglyph Press, was April, 2004, and there are a number of spots where you can see Duntemann strove to get the newest info, from 2004, into the book to keep it timely. In addition, most of the products he discusses in his examples are in the stores (or at Amazon, if you want to follow the links below) right now. The 802.11g products, the newest standards in the marketplace, are covered just as well as the 802.11b products that were still the standards in 2003. (802.11b and g are technical standards published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. The marketing term Wi-Fi was invented to avoid using the technical terms while selling the products.)

The book opens with an introduction to networking. Wi-Fi is just a subset of networking, after all, so to get Wi-Fi to work you need to know something about basic computer networking. As a tech writer myself, I know that there is always a struggle to get the right tone to your explanations. One approach is to just ignore all the details (tell your reader to assume that it works by magic) and tell the bare minimum you need to know. That's the approach taken by the Dummies series. The opposite is to go into everything in excruciating, mind-numbing detail, as many technical reference guides do. In between is the "sweet spot" and Duntemann usually manages to nail it, especially in the early networking chapters. This is not a Dummies book, yet just about any intermediate to advanced computer user should be able to learn about networking, and then apply it to the wireless chapters.

Chapters Four through Nine then take you through one of the two core parts of the book, which is designing, buying, installing, and configuring a wireless network. Most of his examples are illustrated using Windows XP -- this is a Windows-centric book, so if you have an Apple Airport or use Linux, you probably should buy something else. He's fond of talking about the "85 % Design" solution, the information that is all that is necessary for 85 percent of the readers. The advanced stuff --building souped-up antennas (souped-up can be a literal term, for he shows how you can make antennas out of tin cans), bridging networks, war-driving -- get moved to separate chapters. Since most people are installing Wi-Fi networks to share a broadband Internet connection, that's what he concentrates on.

The second core part of the book is security. It is a core concept because Wi-Fi by default is an open standard. Unless you do something to secure your system your neighbor, or the hacker driving down your street, may be able to tap in to your system. A key point in his security discussion is the differences between WEP, an older and weaker security standard, and the newer WPA. As in the earlier section, he starts with an introduction to security and hacking that is very good. He also points out a very important point when he says "Being able to trust a security system last year says nothing about being able to trust it next year. The job of security a computer or a network -- or anything else -- is never 'done'."

In addition to the advanced topics mentioned above (building hardware, war-driving) he also has a chapter for road warriors learning how to tap in to the growing collection of free and pay hotspots available at airports, hotels, coffee shops and McDonald's. This segment of the Wi-Fi industry is moving a lot faster than changes in hardware, and while there's a risk that it could be the first part of the book to become out-of-date, there's still much to learn. (Wish I had read it before I opened my Boingo account.)

If there is any weakness to the book, it is that he mentions only in passing some of the network troubleshooting techniques, not related to wireless, that you may have to deal with when setting up your network. He recognizes the problem in a paragraph titled "The Weirdness of Networking" where he says

"I hate to say it, but networking can be a pretty freaky thing. If you spend enough time fooling with networks, and mix enough technologies, things will happen that defy easy analysis and troubleshooting. This is why you must keep on studying, and learn networking as deeply as you can find the time and intestinal fortitude to do. Even the experts encounter problems that they never entirely understand.... 95% of networking problems respond well to calm though, analysis, cold systematic testing, and reliance on good notes. The other 5% will make you nuts. Be ready.

The first time I set up a wireless network, I spent hours trying to get the network configured, with many choice curse words aimed at the manufacturer of the wireless hardware. It was only on the second day of struggling that I discovered that the problems getting the network going was really due to my personal firewall software, ZoneAlarm Pro. Once I made one configuration change there, the system worked like a charm. On the other hand, you do have to draw a line somewhere, when deciding what will go in a book. Once you get started on networking problems, you may not know when to stop, and pretty soon instead of 483 pages of text you have 800.

Who will benefit from this book? As was said before, it is not a Dummies book. You will need to be at least an intermediate level computer-user to get much use out of the book. Although not an IT Pro, I'm an experienced computer user and author who's had a wireless network for over two years, and I've learned a lot from it. If you've got your CCNA or MSCE, you won't need the material but you may learn a lesson from the clear writing style.

This review originally appeared at Blogcritics at http://blogcritics.org/archives/2004/07/05/133126.php