Using Xircom Wireless on a College Campus

by Alan Rothberg

Have you ever looked out the window on a beautiful, sunny day and thought you'd rather be working under that nice shady tree, instead of sitting there in a stuffy office?  As a network specialist with a small, local college and a member of the working group to bring 802.11b Ethernet wireless to our campus, I had the opportunity to do just that. 

Because of the growing popularity of PDAs among students and faculty members, I searched for a wireless solution that we could use on our network, along with the more traditional laptops.  After finding Xircom had just announced such a product for the Handspring Visor, they were kind enough to send me a pre-release evaluation product.  Initially, the product sold for $299.00 USD, but it can now be purchased for as low as $229.00 at this writing.  Is it worth it?  I have used mine for over 9 months now and here's what I've found.

A look at the module

The Xircom module fits into the Springboard slot that is proprietary to Handspring products.  It's a little bulkier than most of their modules, and extends out approximately 1.25 inches from the top of the Visor. This is probably due, in part, to the antenna and the built-in Li-Ion battery, which is rated for 2 hours of continuous use, and keeps the unit from using the Visor's battery.  It's charged via the serial cradle, but also includes an AC charger.  It takes about 2 hours for a full recharge. 

Xircom Module
Xircom's Springboard Module

Active and Status LED indicators are on the top of the unit, with the Status LED doubling as a battery charging indicator while recharging.  Also, there is a very small vertical line in the upper right corner of the Visor's display that shows network activity.

As soon as the module is plugged in, the Xircom-bundled applications are available for use through the desktop.  The module includes 678K of storage, in which applications, such as the web browser, can be stored, saving room on the Visor itself. The utility, "File Mover" (included) is used to copy and move files back and forth, if needed.

Setup and configuration

Derrick Story has written an excellent article on this module, Introducing the Xircom 802.11 Module for the Visor, and he goes through each menu step-by-step. Instead of duplicating this information, I'd like to elaborate on some issues I've come across related to configuration.

You start off with the Springport application, which allows you to configure and view the status of the wireless module.  User profiles allow for up to three different configurations, each with different network and security settings.  Also, it's not well documented, but you can use your Visor for another network login by choosing "Service" at the Network Settings menu, and selecting Options, then New. Enter your domain or workgroup name, then your user name and password for that network service.

Switching networks is then a two step process, matching the profile with the Service. Wireless security (standard 802.11b WEP security, 40 or 128 bit) can be configured in each profile, and when setting up accounts, passwords are not shown after entering them.  Infrastructure and Ad-Hoc configurations are both supported. For the techies who may be interested, the Xircom uses a Cisco chipset (Aironet).

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WEP Issues:  I use my Visor Platinum in two different networks, both being Microsoft NT domains.  At work, I connect to a Lucent AP-1000 with 128-bit WEP and MAC ACLs (Access Control List or MAC-filtering). 

At home, it's a D-Link AP with 40-bit WEP.  Each configuration works fine, but there are some things to watch for. When using WEP, make sure your access point is configured for HEX key values.  The Xircom module will not accept ASCII or "PassPhrase" values. 

Also, when enabling WEP on the Xircom, you'll find you are first presented with a password dialog box. This should be your network login password, for example, on my profile(s), it is my NT domain login password.  Be sure to type your password in correctly, if not, WEP settings will not be saved, and you'll be asked to enter the WEP values each time you login.

Also, for network environments using enterprise-type access points that allow multi-key WEP settings and use "Key Rollover" schemes, be sure to enter in all four keys and any temporary key.  In these multi-key environments, some administrators use a mixture of ASCII and HEX keys for security reasons, so this may be issue depending on which key is active. Your network administrator should be able to help you with these issues.

IP Addressing: The Xircom module allows for both dynamic and static addressing.  DHCP addressing can be configured by choosing the "Dynamic" setting, under Client, Advanced, IP Address properties tab.  At the same menu, you can chose "Static" and configure the Gateway and Subnet Mask values.  You would think that Xircom would include the IP address value at this menu also, but instead you have to go back to Network Settings, Preferences, and Details.  From there, you'll see a heading called IP Address. Enter your static address here (or check Automatic for DHCP).

You can verify your settings by going to Status, Advanced Status, IP Address.   Two other things worth mentioning at this menu is the ability to set the idle OFF time for the module (if the Power Management setting is On), and the ability to specify your DNS servers manually or by DNS query.

After configuring the settings for your particular network, a pop-up dialog box with a "handshake" icon tells you when you've connected to your network.  You can look at the "Status" and "Advanced" options to get IP information and signal strength information. You'll also find your MAC address listed here, in case your access point requires it for access control.  It is also on the inside label of the module itself.

Actual use

I am part of a team that supports an OC-3, ATM network with about 6,000 users.  Our campus is approximately 500 acres in size. Many days I am out of my office, somewhere on campus. Ordinarily, I have a laptop I lug around, but as an experiment, I started using my Visor for daily outings.  Assembling a host of tools and utilities, I found I had put together a rather useful device. 

Bundled applications

Comment on this articleAlan has described a real world situation where the Xircom has proved quite useful. Do you have any experiences from the field to report?
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For starters, the bundled applications included Blazer 1.1 (for web browsing) and MultiMail SE for email.  Blazer is a decent browser, having enough options for basic browsing and presented pages in very readable format.  I also tested AvantGo's browser product, and if your favorite site is included in their list of channels, it's a pleasant experience using the somewhat limited PDA display. 

MultiMail SE works fine for light duty email use, but I would probably look at their commercial product, or some of the others available, for sending attachments and other serious email needs.

A handy feature with this client is that you can download only email headers to save time, and go back for the message body.  I recommend keeping your messages on your email server, if you want to have them on your desktop email client as well.  For most of the tasks I use it for, I find it to be very useable. 

If you need to access an SSL-encrypted mail server, you might want to consider Eudora 2.1 for the Palm OS. You can learn more about by reading Derrick Story's article, Accessing Secure Mail from Palm Devices with Eudora 2.1.

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