Okay, I admit it, I love toys. No, not little plastic whatzits (although they can be pretty cool too, I always had a softspot for transformers), but technology toys. I buy first, I buy often, and I have boxes and boxes of crap that didn't survive their first test runs. I like being on the bleeding edge and I have lots of blood to give.
Plus I'm pretty good at retaining what I see, so once I've looked into a toy once, I usually remember it. I think it was Steve Forte who first called me the Toy Master, when during a phone conversation about whether or not some gadget actually existed, I was firing links over IM to him without a pause in the chatter.
So when my friend Michele Bustamente asked me about networking her two demo laptops together, I knew it was going to turn into a toyfest. Its all about feature creep, y'know.
Besides asking me about the weather in Amsterdam (which was just about the worst I've seen in May yet), we also talked about networking her machines together, and we talked about crossover network cables, switches, point-to-point wireless and other good stuff like that. But, as with all “clients”, if you don't get to the heart of the matter, if you don't ask the magic question “So what do you want to do?” you really miss out on hitting a home run in terms of solving problems.
Besides just wanting to network her two demo laptops together, Michele was also thinking about her Web Services Interoperability Education Day on May 22nd, just before Tech Ed San Diego. There, she figured she'd have at least three machines involved, and possibly two projectors, and wanted to have all the machines talking to each other, possibly with Internet connectivity, and so on, and so on...
Crossover ethernet cables are fine, as long as you're prepared to live with fixed IPs and no additional connectivity. And it falls down as soon as there's three machines involved. Its a one-off solution, and you always need more.
For years I've been carrying around a little D-Link DI-713 whenever I was travelling to any form of geekfest, geekfest being defined as any place where more than two geeks are. Because as soon as you have more than two geeks together, you have connectivity issues. We all have laptops, we all want internet connectivity, and we all want to fire files back and forth between each other.
If you're in a hotel, you soon find out that hotel broadband, while nice, is really a per-machine product, and so if you have three laptops in a room, you end up hopping the wire from machine to machine and then arguing with the manager at the end of the day as to whether or not you should be charge $10 for the day, or $10 per machine per day...
The D-Link box solved the problem: its a NAT router, a switch and a wireless access point all in one. So you can plug the hotel broadband into it and everyone can share, as well as network, or use the wireless connection. It even provided DHCP support so we don't have to mess with the network settings.
Unfortunately, my little D-Link gave up the ghost a few months ago. It owed me nothing, having been the saving grace of many a geekfest, and having logged tens of thousands of miles in baggage, multiple irradiations and so on. It won't be missed though, it'll be replaced.
Meantime, it was apparent to me that Michele needed the same little gizmo for her demos. All those laptops are likely using DHCP, and they need to speak to each other, and could use some Internet access... so a quick sprint around the Internet (I have a great favorites section called Shopping) returned this list of products:
There's more, but they're essentially all the same: a NAT router, a four port switch and a wireless access point. These four all were 802.11a/b/g compatible too. There were a bunch that left out 802.11a, which is fine with me, in my experience it only takes a piece of paper to block 802.11a signals.
The non-a variants get as cheap as $50 US, the tri-mode units are $100-$200 US. They're all relatively compact, but the SMC unit is the smallest (a mere 5"x3.5"x1.25") and hey, if you're travelling, that's important. They all have decent web-based configuration, and they're all routinely updating their firmware. You couldn't go wrong with any of these units really, but I liked the SMC for its compact size and decent looks.
I see these gizmos as essential fare for anyone who's going to be working with more than one geek at a time. When we're all speaking at conferences, there's always a gathering somewhere, often the speaker who got the biggest room. This solves the networking problem.