Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Hardware Hassles

November 2001

By Mike Gould

Those of us who fix things for a living are not immune to the same problems that afflict our clients. We like to think we have fewer problems because we take proactive measures to prevent them, and generally have a better understanding of our wiring. We also tend to have newer equipment, which is usually better built than problematic older stuff. But this cuts both ways; newer equipment means newer problems, and that was the story at my house last month.

Where's the Grief?
I have one of the more complex household setups hooked to my BAN (Basement Area Network): cable modem, router, Ethernet hub, AirPort wireless network broadcast station, 3 USB hubs, 2 laptops, 2 Mac desktops and a PeeCee, all talking to each other, the Internet, and a shared pool of peripherals (laser printer, PalmPilot, zip drive, floppy drive, external harddrives, and a passel of electronic camera and video gear). One big happy digital family. Hah!

We have been wireless for a year or so, the AirPort unit happily sharing the cable modem hookup with my wife's iBook and my G4 Ti PowerBook. Then little problems started popping up: dropped connections, timed-out email delivery and unsuccessful Web searches. Unhappy Web-addicted wife. I spent a solid weekend troubleshooting the connections and software, becoming intimately familiar with the nuances of all the settings involved. I lived, ate, and slept DNS, TCP/IP, DHCP, and all the rest of the acronymical entities I was dancing with. I pinged, I clicked, I dragged, I called Tech support. Nada.

I finally convinced myself that I was up against the wall of hardware, and directed my attentions there.

For a while it looked like the AirPort unit was at fault; it was a first-generation unit that was within the serial number range of a recall, so I sent it back. The replacement unit died completely within 2 days, so it went back. That replacement worked fine, but the intermittent problems continued. The laptops could talk to the AirPort and the router on the other side of it, but they couldn't see the cable modem.

Repeated calls to ComCast tech support were inconclusive; they could talk to my router through the cable modem just fine. At one point a ComCast problem did crop up when a different pattern of lights blinking on the box indicated a connection failure. A nice tech guy showed up a week later, and couldn't find anything wrong. The setup worked for a day or two after that, and then things were wonky once again.

When Good Wires Go Bad
The problems were not constrained to the laptops. My production machine, a Macintosh G4, was also having problems uploading pages to the various Web sites I maintain. For a professional Web worker, this is bad news indeed, so diagnostic efforts continued.

Usually, things could be returned to normal for a while by shutting everything off, then turning on the cable modem, waiting 2 minutes, turning on the router, waiting 2 minutes, re-starting the AirPort, waiting 2 minutes, spinning around 3 times widdershins (a technical term) and clicking my heels together. I forgot to re-set the Ethernet hub at one point, and this seemed to have some bearing, so I disconnected it completely. No joy. I bought a new hub - no joy. (This hub allows all the computers to share our laser printer, and hooks the Mac in my recording studio to our network).

I replaced all the Ethernet wiring with the highest-quality cables I could find. Nope.

Finally, I had replaced everything in the path except the cable modem and the router, and as I couldn't replace the modem (actually, Media One had replaced the modem 6 months ago to correct another problem), I bit the bullet and bought a new router.

Eureka; peace at last. Stable connections, regular email, happy wife.

The Router's Revenge
I replaced an Xrouter Pro with a LinkSys 4041 that I got at Office Max for around $100. This router is configurable with a Web interface, and is pretty easy to set up and run from a Mac or PC. Readers of my earlier columns will recall that you need a router if you want to share your single ComCast-supplied Internet address with multiple computers. My new router does this admirably, enabling our fleet of 5 computers to surf and email. I will be sending my old router back to see if it can be fixed.

But they might not find anything wrong with it. I have a sneaking suspicion that in changing from MediaOne to ComCast, Something Strange Happened. A subtle timing change, a difference in the way packets are packed - something changed and my old router couldn't deal with it. Or maybe it was just a bad chip; we'll see.

I must say that ComCast was very responsive and all the techs who have visited me have been very knowledgeable and competent. This is in stark contrast to the several horror stories I have heard regarding DSL support, but your mileage may vary. For the moment, I endorse ComCast broadband service.

Lessons Learned
Find out what the blinking lights on your cable modem and other boxes mean; sometimes they are calling "Heeeelp Meee" in a high squeaky voice. Once you have a stable system in place, record all the relevant settings. Take screen shots of panels with numbers in them; this can help you recover from the curse of software weirdness. Keep your login ids and other data close at hand for when your phone helper asks for them. I have a sheet of all the DNS, IP, and other numbers involved with my system; it sits beside me whenever I call tech help.

Above all, stay patient and focused; take notes, take breaks, and take heart that even we alleged experts have some of the same problems as you.

(The pathologically curious can see a diagram of my network, with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back, at: http://mondodyne.com/mondowire.gif).

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