Free Range Technology

A Nerdy Weekend Filled With Success and Resounding Failure

Xubuntu Laptop

This last weekend I decided to tackle a couple of tech projects I’ve been meaning to do for a while. The genesis of all of this was the fact that I have a detached garage with no connection to the innerwebs. Having access to the tubes that carry the World Wide Web while working on a project out there without having to run inside and muck up the desktop’s keyboard with dirty or greasy hands would be quite convenient. So, I developed a plan. As we all know, the best laid plans fall apart as soon as the first shot is fired.

My first task was to re-load Linux on my old IBM T41 laptop. Why Linux? I wanted a light operating system for it since it’s got a pretty ancient Celeron processor and only a thimble full of memories. I hit a hiccup when I found the CD/DVD drive no longer functions. Luckily, the folks at Pendrivelinux have created a utility which allows you to take the ISO file for almost any flavor of Linux and create a bootable USB drive with it. Once done, I set to install Ubuntu 13.10. Until I got an error message.

The laptop has a non-PAE processor. What does that mean? It means I have no PAE in my laptop, which might explain why it’s so light. It also means that anything newer than 12.10 will not work. No big deal, I just downloaded the 12.04 LTS version, the last version with a non-PAE kernel, and set to install. Actually, as I was reading about the PAE issue, I found Xubuntu. It uses the Ubuntu kernel, but uses the very lightweight Xfce interface. Since my goal was lightweight, this made more sense.

Success! On to the next task…

In order to get the innerwebs out to the garage my plan was to set up a wireless router as a repeater, place it in the corner of the house closest to the garage and be done. After discussing this plan with some of my more knowledgeable friends, they all indicated that the stock firmware’s repeater functionality was somewhat limited and, in their experience, unreliable. Instead, they recommended I use dd-wrt or Tomato, which are open source replacement firmwares for a variety of routers.

After doing some research, it appeared the dd-wrt would be my best bet considering I was going to use a Netgear WNDR-3700v3 router. I read up on the installation process, downloaded the appropriate files, and set forth reflashing the router’s firmware to dd-wrt.

Then I spent the next 2 days trying to get the stinking router to connect. To anything. Via wireless or wire. Without any reliable success.

So, I did some more reading. I came across a post in the dd-wrt forums where several people were saying that they had issues with the dd-wrt firmware and their WNDR-3700v3 routers. Apparently, it works great on some and not great on others. I seem to have one of the others.

So, after monkeying with it for a while I decided to change my plans. Rather than set up the router as a repeater for my existing wireless network, it would become a separate wireless network meant to only serve my garage. My existing wireless router is set so the signal extends barely beyond the walls of my house. I don’t want people getting in. I don’t want people leaching my internets. This one would be different. It would have the signal power set high enough that I can get it comfortably in my garage, which would also mean several of my neighbors will be able to get it. It’s got WPA2-AES encryption, so nobody should be able to leach off of my internets, and it’s plugged right into my cable modem, so it is almost completely separate from my “main” wireless network.

In order to do this I decided to reflash the router back to the Netgear firmware. To do this I needed to put the router in recovery mode. I couldn’t get it into recovery mode, which according to the forums is not uncommon. So, I had to telnet into the router and issue an “erase linux” command. This erased the dd-wrt firmware. After a reboot the router automatically went into recovery mode since it had no OS. Then I was able to use a tftp put command to load the Netgear firmware. This worked great. From there it was a simple exercise to set up the router and get it blasting an innerwebs signal to the garage.

In the end, it appears I failed on my original plan. However, I learned quite a bit about how routers work, re-learned some telnet skills I haven’t used in many many years, and learned that Windows has a built-in tftp client. The latter one I didn’t really use since I was doing all this fun stuff from my be-Linuxed laptop, but I still found it interesting. I may still try to use the Netgear repeater function, but for now I’ve met my ultimate goal, even if it’s not how I expected to do it.

So why do I share all of this with you? Because we can all have grand plans that go awry. It doesn’t mean you failed if you learned something. That, I think, is the key to life. Never avoid something because you might fail. Instead, learn from those failures and move on.

  • chrystlubitshi

    one other thing that i have found helpful for a wireless network that you want to keep others off of is to use a mac address white-list. This will only allow the devices that are entered by in to the router to gain permission/receive an IP address and keep everyone else off, even if they figure out your wireless key.

  • Although Ham radio operators are, by their nature, fond of the wireless, nonetheless we know when to run a coaxial through a length of PVC tubing and bury it in the ground. I'm sure this will work with CAT5.

    IDK how detached your garage is, but a tube running from one building to the other could be a good thing. Your family could shout through it to get your attention, and eventually you'd be able to up-sell them to a pneumatic document (& ham sandwich) delivery tube.

    • The garage is 14' from the back of the house with concrete in between. I had busted up a strip of concrete and dug a trench late last summer to run 220V service to the garage. I should have run a separate conduit out for network (and maybe cable TV?), but needed to get the trench filled and concrete poured before the weather got too sour in the fall. So, I decided I would just use wireless technology.

      Now that you mention the possibility of a sammich delivery system, I'm thinking I run a conduit from the window of the back bedroom, across the ground, and then to the window of the garage. Hmmmm…

      • An old fashioned pulley clothes line, a ziplock sandwich bag, 2 spring clips and a dog that can't jump too high. You can call it the Ziplok Zipline.

  • OA5599
  • sawer-massey

    Wow, I actually managed to follow your story AND understand most of what you were talking about.
    It sure is funny how even the most outdated and "junk" (according to modern tech) laptops seem to run without too much creaking or squeaking with linux vs the original os. I had a friend who ran a toshiba satellite (the WORST laptops ever) on linux for an extra 6 years after it died running windowz.

  • Slow_Joe_Crow

    The laptop bit sounds familiar since I run Xubuntu 12.04 on a slightly newer T42P for setting up and testing our Aruba wireless gear.
    For your wireless needs you might consider Open Mesh which uses lots of small APs to cover large areas cheaply.

  • Wouldn't it be easier to have your phone create a hotspot for a super cheap chromebook?

  • jeepjeff

    Good show. Also: You inadvertently made a really good decision for your install: Xubuntu 12.04 is probably the last one I'd recommend anyone install as a desktop. The Unity interface that comes with vanilla Ubuntu is utter garbage.

    So, with the last major round of upgrades to my desktop, I started down one of these trips. Rather than buying an Nvidia card, I switched to a Radeon, because AMD had released specs for them and were encouraging the OSS driver effort. Welp, that hadn't gotten nearly far enough to be usable, and I had to install frglx (blech). Two things happened this past fall: frglx got unstable enough to be unusable, and the OSS drivers matured just enough to be worth trying, so in January, I upgraded to latest Slackware (14.1), converted it to a multilib install, and went about compiling Mesa 10 and supporting libraries by hand.

    After many iterations of "recompile and install with this feature enable", it (eventually) worked great. I got smooth play on most of my games (except those by DoubleFine, alas), maybe not quite as fast as the frglx drivers, but I'll accept a speed hit for the feature "does not crash 2 minutes after starting X".

    So that went well.

    Then, I found I needed a game that doesn't run on Linux. NEEDED IT. Which meant getting into a fight with WINE. This never ends well. Not ever. I disbelieve everyone at winehq, the thing doesn't actually work. I installed the latest: 1.7.15. Got the 32 bit version working on my 64 bit slackware install. Then I installed the Windows version of Steam. No text displayed. Oops. A quick google revealed a workaround. There were three or four more rounds of this with new and interesting crashes, missing DLLs and hangs of the game. There was also one solid red-herring which rather than fixing things, caused the game to crash immediately. The red herring was excellent, the source was a youtube video where the guy spent 4 minutes building up the video by talking about all the other misleading information on the internet, then confessing he had no idea if what he did actually solved anything and finally insisted that paying attention to fools who don't know what they're talking about on the internet is a waste of time, and that he'd really like your subscription. I did not subscribe.

    After much futzing, I got the game into a state where it would fire up, show the splash screen, change monitor resolution and rail the CPU seemingly doing nothing (I suspect it's doing some frequent rendering task in software…). At this point I had to walk away and get back to my real life.

    No Goat Simulator for me, yet. My wife has, bravely, offered to let me install it on her Windows 7 machine.

    • The world of Linux is fun, huh? Also, I've never had luck with wine, and am convinced it's a giant ongoing inside joke amongst the Linux Illuminati.

      When I first got the laptop about 4 years ago I installed Ubuntu (I can't recall the version level) and then spent the next week getting the video drivers to work, the CD/DVD drive to work, and to be able to connect reliably to the printer. There were times where I considered just loading XP on it, but I kept at it and got everything to work. Now, it seems all of these things work out of the box. Plus the CD/DVD drive is dead.

      • jeepjeff

        I'm sure you're right. I'd be surprised if more than a handful of the wine developers were in on the joke. "Come! Help us copy ALL OF MICROSOFT'S APIS! FOR THE JOY OF IT!"