Setup a Mac-based Local Area Network (LAN)

I was asked to setup a “connection the Internet on my Mac” yesterday. In Singapore, we have this Wireless@SG service which basically allows people with a wifi card to connect to the Internet in most town-y areas. The lady said she would connect via Wireless@SG, and I was pretty confident I could do it in less than 15 minutes, so I expressed my opinion. Let’s see how long I took in the end.

Come today, I found that it wasn’t setting up the Internet connection (easy), it was to setup their Windows (bad), running in Parallel Desktops (bad setup, good software) with host OS Tiger Macs (good) to be able to talk to each other. The router is an Airport Extreme (good). The purpose of the local network was to share data — they were using a Windows software to manage their clients and appointments, and this is basically a single-user application that stores data in an .mdb file. Of course, me being a web developer, trust me to launch into my sales pitch about web applications and their portability/accessibility. Time: 15 minutes.

To begin with, the Airport Extreme was not turned on, so no network. Now I have never setup an Airport Extreme before, and so I thought it was like my Linksys router, with a web interface. Unfortunately this was not the case. The manual helped though — a reset and then I had setup the WPA wireless network. Time: 15 minutes.

I was freaking out at this point because I was way over schedule, and I had never successfully setup a network where the guest OS (Windows) were able to communicate with each other. Thankfully the Parallels Desktop documentation was excellent. The default setup was for “shared networking”, so I had to change it to a “bridged network”, such that the router now sees four machines: two Macs, two Windows. I have used VMWare before thankfully, and this looked really similar. Time: 20 minutes.

The Windows version was XP SP2, and luckily the networking was setup correctly, workgroup MSHOME, and I was able to setup a shared folder to access the application. Time: 15 minutes.

They had an IT guy, so we messed around with the data a bit — performance was piss-poor, for some reason — and we confirmed that the data was indeed shared. Time: 10 minutes.

The lady announced that she wanted the printer to be setup as well. I freaked out (again), but was calm on the outside. I messed around with the USB printer for a bit, then announced I would not setup the printer. Chances was that I would have to setup the printer on the Macs, and then in Windows, so no thanks. Time: 15 minutes.

The lady brought out another laptop, an Asus S6. Wireless connection to Airport was fine, but when I used the “My Network Places”, I was able to see (but not browse) the other two Windows machines. I twiddled my thumbs for awhile, and then I decided it was the fault of the software used to connect to the Airport. This was non-standard, and I was missing the “Authentication” tab when viewing the adapter settings, so I figured it was that. Switched over to the Windows one, and I found that only WEP was supported. WPA wasn’t an available option. Time: 15 minutes.

I decided to set the AirPort to use a WEP encryption instead. The Mac outside was wired, so there was no downtime. The Mac in the treatment room did not register the change, and to my horror I found that there was no way to choose what encryption method would be used. Great. I waited 5 minutes, and then it connected to the AirPort via WEP. Without any interference from me. Time: 15 minutes.

I had taken 120 minutes, 10 times longer than what I had predicted. Of course, I had estimated a totally different task, but its here to illustrate the fact that estimating effort is like winning the lottery sometimes — its tough.

And the sad fact is… I got a call from the lady again. Wireless@SG is apparently not working — Safari is not supported?!? Argh. I have to head down again tomorrow, or rather, later at 9am. Excellent productivity.