Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Easy 802.11 Configuration

More on the UPnP theme.

In a world where all things are networked, it stands to reason that we'd want to make as many of those things as possible wireless. After all, what's the point of requiring an ethernet router just to run our home entertainment center when a couple of S-video jacks will work just as well with less wiring. Getting things to talk to each other is already doable, getting them to talk securely without requiring cables is really the next step. We've got 802.11g now which claims to shuttle data at a respectable 56Mbps (still too slow for AV delivery, but the DLNA is working on that), the key is to get the home wifi network up and running and available to every UPnP device in the home.

According to this article, Microsoft has devised a way to quickly and easily establish a secure wireless network through the use of USB Flash Drive and some XML files which contain the encryption codes to login to the wifi network. For large electronic appliances like laptops, printers, even TVs, DVD players, and Speakers this seems ideal. Just plug and play, literally.

But what about small devices that we'd be interested in enabling wireless LAN communication for, like cameras and PDAs? The main problem here is that adding this functionality would result in the requirement to add a large USB host controller that would be used very rarely. It also requires extra software on-board the smaller device that provides the USB Host device driver as well as a program which can read the UFD and decode and initialize the wifi connection. This is not quite the optimal solution for networking these devices.

Leaving the devices open to connect to any open wifi network is also very risky. Any bozo with an 802.11 router could connect to your digicam without your knowledge and download all the naughty pics of your wife or girlfriend (that's why we bought the digicam in the first place, isn't it? :-). So we obviously need some means of securing the portable device against open networks, but the interface of these small devices is not conducive to inputting such information.

Until now the primary means of downloading data off of a camera has been to hook it up to a Host PC using a USB or IEEE1394 wire. This has the benefit of being fairly secure as the connection is a peer-to-peer network (so to speak) with no other entities between the two devices. It has the detriment that it requires pulling out the USB cable from the desk drawer and sticking the connectors into the appropriate ports. Not too difficult, but it still needs wires to do all this.

Before everyone jumps up and yells "Bluetooth!" I would just like to say that I need to read more about the technology before making any comments on that. Does Bluetooth address the problem of foreign devices intruding on the PAN? Does Bluetooth provide a mechanism of simple network configuration that doesn't require significant user interaction to register a device into a PAN? These are the key questions about BT. But on the flipside, are we going to require that all UPnP devices also require BT? Event the Host PC?

So with a wave of my hand I dismiss Bluetooth. IXI claims to have a solution to these problems, but again, how much is truth, how much is marketing material?

We're still stuck with the problem that the portable device isn't configured to talk to the wireless network. What about if we do some sort of auto-configuration the first time we connect the device to a network-registered Host PC? Brilliant idea, except that it still means that we need to hook up the device with a USB or Firewire cable at least once. So what, you ask, it's only once per network. For me, that is once too many. Using a cable at all requires getting under the desk or a reach to the backside of the PC for too many users. The ideal solution is to not have to use wires at all.

The real solution here will be to use something that is proximity-limited like Bluetooth but can internetwork with an 802.11 wireless LAN seamlessly and still require network authentication. How to do this, I don't know. What if the routers and hubs had a proximity-limited antenna (to 1 meter or even less) that could allow users to automatically authenticate a device by bringing it within that range? The device would prompt the user for a button click to accept the network codes. Since the user expects to receive the codes and knowingly accepts the codes, there is no chance that the camera would auto-configure itself onto an unknown network. Also, the proximity of 1 meter restricts the device owner from registering on someone else's network either by accident or on purpose. Once configured, the device would then be free to use the network using those codes until the next time the codes change.

I'm sure I'm missing some key security element here, but my expertise doesn't lie in that area. I'm interested in how this will play out in the future because I don't see wires in the future. ;-)

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