Saturday, October 28, 2006

Back to Ubuntu

After the long wait for Ubuntu 6.06 (Dapper) the release of 6.10 (Edgy) seems to have come round in no time, bringing raptures to the faithful. Eager to prove my worthiness, I rushed to the Ubuntu website within minutes of the release being announced (multiple times) on Planet Ubuntu.

A short one hour download later (isn't broadband great? I remember downloading Corel Linux over dial-up, it took a full day, good job we had a dedicated phone line at work ;-) ) I was clutching the blessed CD, and rushed to my desktop machine, ready to destroy the foul works of the evil one, and replace it with the Holy Ubuntu (actually I'm dual booting with Windows 2000, couldn't bring myself to delete it entirely, Party Poker doesn't seem to work with Wine).

A very quick installation later (you installed Windows XP lately? What a drag!) I was looking at the new, improved Ubuntu Gnome login screen. Slight change of colours, otherwise, business as usual. Log on, and the usual orange and brown colour scheme, tweaked slightly from the last release, is there.

First order of business, the internet. I access the web via a wireless access point, using a Linksys USB adapter. This had worked easily with Ubuntu Breezy, but with Dapper they completely fumbled the ball on wireless, and to be honest, after a frustrating effort trying to get wireless working on Dapper, I gave up. Initially I thought I was going to have the same problems. Edgy decided to install Prism54 drivers for my wireless adapter. Technically it is correct, it is a Prism chipset, but there appears to be so much messing to make them work, and quite a low chance of success, that I wasn't prepared to persist with them. So, blacklist the modules relating to the Prism drivers, and get cracking with Ndiswrapper. After a bit of fiddling, the familiar wlan0 appears, but no joy in connecting to my wireless access point. Then I remembered that I had become a bit more paranoid, and was using WPA encryption on the wireless network.

Wireless security is a huge weakness of Ubuntu (and I suppose, most Linux distributions). With Windows XP, it just works. Everything you need for WPA is there when you install your network card. Not so with Ubuntu. You have, to my knowledge, 3 choices. All three depend upon WPA Supplicant. Option 1 is to fire up a terminal, and configure WPA Supplicant by hand, editing the appropriate configuration files etc. Sorry guys, this isn't for me. Whilst I am quite happy to use the command line, and frequently it is the most efficient way to do something, I want a nice GUI interface for my wireless settings. This leaves two options - the Gnome Network Manager or WiFi-Radar. Both of these are in the repositories, but neither of them are installed by default. Why not! Come on, with the huge uptake in wireless, there needs to be a decision taken at Ubuntu to have a standard wireless security tool and make it industrial strength, so it Just WorksTM

I tried the Network Manager first. Grabbed it from the repositories, and a little network icon appears on the bar at the top right. Right clicking on this gives me options for setting up the network, including WPA key. After entering all the required information, I am asked to create a password for my keyring, where the WPA key will be stored. Here's the main problem with Network Manager. It is part of Gnome. You have no network connection until you are logged into Gnome and have entered your keyring password. You screw your X Windows setup, you haven't got an internet connection to find help, or to download fixes.

Having decided I wasn't happy with this, I moved along to Wifi-Radar. Once again, installed it from the repositories; no icon on the toolbar this time, but the program was amongst the entries on the menu. Starting it up, I am presented with a number of options. Looks pretty straightforward - network name (ssid) mode (auto, managed, adhoc etc, I chose auto), channel (auto again), key (you'd think this was your WPA key wouldn't you? Well, its not. I assume this is for WEP), security (open or restricted, I chose restricted). Then you come to a line which says "No WPA." Clicking on this changes it to "WPA Options" and you are presented with one option - Driver. I entered ndiswrapper in here, but some googling told me this was wrong, I needed to enter "wext" in here, which apparently is "Generic Wireless Extensions." There are also options for DHCP and Connection commands. I left these alone.

Saving my settings, I was delighted to see my wireless network appearing in the main window. Click on connect however, and I get nowhere. By running Wifi-Radar from a terminal, I see that it is looking for a WPA supplicant configuration file. More googling. I come up with the following configuration file (/etc/wpa_supplicant/wpa_supplicant.conf - use your favourite editor, I use Vi, but YMMV. You'll need to run the editor with sudu).


#group of users allowed to control the interface

#network options
ssid="your network name here"
psk="super secret password here"

Back to Wifi-Radar, click on connect, and after a short delay, I'm connected!

Now the main advantage of Wifi-Radar over Network Manager is, in theory that is starts at boot time as a daemon, so you don't have to enter passwords once X Windows starts, and you have a network connection independent of X Windows. I've yet to see this. After I've logged on, when I go into the Wifi-Radar gui, the connection hasn't been made; click on connect, and its there. It may be down to the Linksys adapter I am using. It is version 1, and often didn't connect first time under Windows 2000 either.

I'm going to persist with Wifi-Radar, but this issue of wireless networking, and in particular, wireless security, must be addressed if Ubuntu is going to tempt more people into defecting from Microsoft. The average user is not going to bother with all the messing about I've just described, when Windows Just Works!