The Efficient Mac User

Small Networks: Apple's AirPort Hardware Trumps the Competition

- 2006.09.14 - Tip Jar

It's been over two months since the first article of this series (see Switching the Small Office from Windows to Macs). Let me apologize for the delays and say thanks for your patience!

Meanwhile, I've had a couple of months to see how the new office setup - a 17" G5 iMac, an Intel Core Duo Mac mini, my iBook, and the headmaster's Dell Inspiron - works out. For the most part, it's been great, but we've had some snags. I'll finish the roundup of how we got things established, then talk through the difficulties we've had.

Air Traffic Control

Our previous setup was a very low-end wired network. Two desktop PCs and the headmaster's Dell laptop were the essential components, with shared printers (a laser and an inkjet) attached to each desktop and a 5-port switch connecting it all. Not bad - but also a relatively closed environment, and teachers regularly had to employ "sneakernet" tactics to simply print documents (never mind checking email or using the Web).

Thus, it wasn't too hard to decide to go with a wireless network. While printers shared through our new Macs would work, I wanted to at least have the laser printer on a print server. Also, the size of our school's campus required that we have one range extender.

I set out for CompUSA to see if I could find a great deal: I wanted to find the best prices on brand-name equipment. I ended up with a Linksys wireless router, a Belkin range extender, and a D-Link print server, all for around $200.

Back at the office, after time spent setting everything up, I couldn't get the different pieces to talk to each other correctly. Now I'll be the first to admit that I'm no Network Administrator, so you can write off a substantial amount of my problems to "operator error". But after about three hours of trying different configurations, I had only gotten as far as a router that recognized two of the three available machines and a working range extender for the one laptop in the mix. Frustrated, I packed it back up and returned it all.

After returning it, I decided to go with the same equipment under the same brand. I chose Belkin, mainly because I have a Belkin wireless router at home and was more familiar with the setup interface for it. As you might have guessed, I paid the price for unifying my brands - this move added another $75 to the bottom line.

At least I stood a better chance of getting it all to work.

Or so I thought. However, after another few hours of setup and troubleshooting, I was little closer to having a solid, working system in place. Now I was about eight hours into the whole project (counting time spent shopping) with nothing to show for it.

Back to CompUSA to return everything, again.

The Apple Solution

Not wanting to waste any more time on it, my next stop was the Apple Store. I didn't want to pay full retail for AirPort equipment, but I would if I had to. It turns out I didn't: Asking for "refreshed" merchandise (that's Apple code for an open-box return) scored me discounted equipment for both an AirPort Extreme base station and an AirPort Express. Because of this, I only spent $25 more than the last attempt at CompUSA.

Since both the AirPort Extreme and the AirPort Express have print servers built in, there was no need for further additional hardware.

With the Apple gear, setup was a piece of cake. I'm not joking when I say that the AirPort Extreme base station took 10 minutes to set up, from opening the box to running test prints from all three Macs. (I timed it for curiosity's sake.) I count this as a major victory for Apple's gear.

Getting AirPort Express set up was another matter, however - but still an Apple victory. The "refreshed" Express had apparently not been refreshed enough; it was password-protected, and while it showed up on the network, it could not be changed or set up in the way I wanted it to be.

Another stop at the Apple Store solved this quickly. I was told by the clerk, "go ahead and grab one off the display over there." When I asked if they had noticed that the one I returned was discounted, I was told, "You expected to have a working AirPort Express when you bought that one; I want to make sure that you have what you need this time." No extra charge - I got a new (not refreshed) Express for $50 off retail. And Apple further cemented their relationship with me.

Another 10 minutes had the AirPort Express set up and working exactly as I wanted it to. Counting two trips to the Apple Store, it took me less than two hours to set up a network that eight hours of prior work left unfulfilled.

Student/Teacher Workstation

A bit later in the summer, we were given a Blue and White Power Mac G3/400 with OS X 10.3 "Panther" onboard. While this machine wasn't quite robust enough to serve as one of our office machines, it would work fine as a workstation for students and teachers. I found some RAM for it (through the Low End Mac Swap List), and found that Panther is actually pretty snappy with 700+MB of RAM.

A keyboard, mouse, and CRT monitor installed on a new computer cart (the cart was the most expensive part of this proposition) resulted in a good setup to live in the school library. And low and behold,we had leftover licenses for MS Office Student & Teacher edition and FileMaker Pro to install on it.

Everyone's happy.

Troubleshooting Network Connections

Now that all of the systems are up and running, and the network connections are solid, it's time for problems to start showing up, right?

Well, we did have problems. For starters, I learned quickly how accurate the reports are about Rosetta being a RAM hog. The 512 MB in our Mac mini quickly bogged down when running FileMaker Server and FileMaker Pro - both of which were, until recently, PPC builds.

FileMaker has released Universal builds of both of these, but the upgraded builds cost a fair amount, even though we only purchased our licenses a few months ago. I'll be upgrading FileMaker Server later this month, but we'll wait to upgrade any of our FileMaker Pro licenses until next year.

Meanwhile, a more affordable option was to drop another gigabyte of RAM in the mini, so now it's cooking with 1.5 GB. That solved a lot of our problems.

We have also had trouble with the headmaster's Dell Inspiron. This problem, I'm convinced, is with his equipment. I'm not saying that just because he uses a Dell, but because of the way his problems have manifested.

When he first set up his connection to the new wireless network, everything worked fine - file sharing, database server connection, Internet, and printing. Over time, it has degraded, and he has had to set up his connection more than a few times. Usually we are able to get him Internet and printing capability - but obviously this alone isn't satisfactory.

We're planning to troubleshoot the hardware he's using to determine if he has a bad network card next. Honestly, though, I think he should ditch the Dell and get a MacBook.

Shared Calendars

Another issue to troubleshoot: How about shared calendars? While the next version of iCal, coming in Spring '07 with the release of Leopard (OS X 10.5), promises to offer shared calendars for groups, we need something sooner than that. My administrative assistant will be keeping my calendar for me (at least for work-related appointments), and we need to sync my laptop's iCal with hers.

While I'm actually a fan of .mac (one of the shrinking minority, it seems), that option doesn't present the best solution in this case. For one, because I already use .mac at home and don't prefer to stop doing so - and you can only have one .mac account active for a given user account.

For another, our Internet access at the school is currently dialup, and that makes for a lot slower synchronization with the .mac servers.

Finally, we'll eventually need to share calendars for more than one administrator and/or headmaster, and .mac doesn't support this sort of robust division.

On the other hand, if these limitations were not present, .mac would be a great option - particularly because it can be configured to always keep calendars synched (not just daily or weekly), and because I could sync from any Internet connection.

Since midsummer, however, we've been using iSynCal, a shareware utility designed for situations like this. iSynCal lives on my laptop, and at the intervals I've specified it connects to my Admin's mini and synchs only those calendars I've told it to.

I have a lot of calendars set up in iCal for specific purposes, but I use three primary calendars for scheduling - personal, home and family, and work-related. Only these three sync with their counterparts on my Admin's mini. (If we should add another sync to the mix, we would only have to name their calendars something different in the Admin's computer to keep them separate - or we could have a group calendar that we all reference, etc.)

What the Future Holds

iSynCal is a great solution and works well, after a bit of configuration. However, we're probably going to move up to Chronos's SOHO Organizer in the next few weeks.

We desperately need something in the lines of a CRM (Customer Relations Management) system to keep track of our donor and public relations. SOHO Organizer's integration with existing iCal, Address Book, and Mail systems is quite appealing in this way, particularly since we won't be relying only on SOHO as our interface with these tools (a look at the demo - and the complaints on Chronos's forums - suggests that this would leave us disappointed).

The integration of notes and contact management, along with something closer to an enterprise/groupware solution, makes the SOHO Organizer a compelling switch. This will likely take care of our iCal synching as well - though, if it doesn't, it's nice to know that iSynCal is an available solution.

We're getting high-speed Internet access, which means that the .mac account set up at the school will become a more utilized backup option. For now, we have a Newer Technology miniStack external drive with Backup handling daily archives from both desktop Macs. (I back up regularly at home, and thus I don't need to be included in the school's backup rubric.)

High-speed Internet access will also allow our teachers to use the Web in their classes, if they wish. We're unsure about granting Internet access to students, though we are thinking about allowing it as long as students have an account established with Covenant Eyes (though this would require us to upgrade our workstation to OS X 10.4.x Tiger).

I'm also looking forward to Leopard, mainly because I've heard great things about how older systems optimize well under system upgrades. I'm interested to see how well our G5 iMac does, and the B&W G3 Power Mac, if it qualifies for the upgrade (and maybe if it doesn't - either through XPostFacto or through an additional processor upgrade: Other World Computing lists an upgrade to a 1 GHz G4 for only $200).

Finally, I'm looking forward to when our headmaster's Dell gives out! He's suggested that he may get a Mac the next time around, and that would obviously make "IT" a bit easier around our school. Two of the faculty already use Macs, and three others have indicated that they may be getting Macs this semester.

It would be great if nearly all of our folks were using Macs.

In a future article, I'll talk about navigating the waters of living on two wireless networks regularly.

Next time, look for my take on efficiency in the face of laptop theft (this one is actually based on real-life experience). LEM

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