Why ‘Linux networks’ is an oxymoron

06 May

Fifteen years ago or so, local area networks were strange and exotic things, and setting one up was a rite of initiation for the young computer technician. With trembling, sweaty fingers on the keyboard, they would gradually make their way through the layers of the sleeping network’s consciousness, tweaking settings and codes as they went, hoping against hope not to wake the dormant giant before everything was ready. Then the gradual retreat, taking care not to leave any open doors or signs of their presence: then the awakening, and the hoping against hope that this time, this time! the arcane instructions would take hold, the magic would operate, and the network would recognise your poor little PC.

Unfortunately, for Linux, things are still like this. Windows at least has a Network Wizard, which in typical Microsoft fashion does about a quarter of the things you actually need before petering out: but Linux users trying to set up a home network still have to install software, look up obscure numbers and names, and scrabble around with text files called samba.conf and fstab (obviously named after what you want to do to the inventor when it fails for the umpteenth time) — knowing all the while that the slightest mistake could send your PC into a state of catatonia.

The notion of plug-and-play doesn’t seem to have reached network programming gurus yet — though paradoxically, connecting to the Internet has become a no-brainer, so that it’s now actually easier for your computer to chit-chat with others in Turkey and Uzbekhistan than with the one in the next room.

Here is what a rational network installer — Linux or Windows — should do:

  1. You attach a new PC to a network cable, or bring a WiFi-equipped PC in range of a wireless network.
  2. The PC automatically detects that a network is available. It prompts you for all the necessary information — username, password, access keys — to get attached, and silently downloads off the Internet or intranet any additional software required.
  3. It shows you all the other machines attached to the network — whether they are currently on or off — and asks what folders, printers, etc of theirs you would like access to, and what folders, printers, etc on your PC you want them to have access to. Usernames and passwords are collected and stored, network shares are given meaningful and consistent names, and suitable bookmarks, shortcuts, virtual drives etc, are made in your file manager as you do so. Need short aliases? OK, let the system handle those, like DOS-compatible file names.
  4. At the same time any other PCs on the network are being alerted to the presence of your PC and asked to confirm or modify your selection of shares. PCs not currently on the network are alerted when next turned on.
  5. Complete information about your settings — and everyone else’s — is stored on every PC on the network and — if possible — on the router, so that you can do a complete set-up even if only one other machine is operating.
  6. Even if your hard disk is wiped, the information retained includes your hardware number, so as soon as your PC comes back in range of the system — and gives the right passwords — all the information can be restored.
  7. When a PC joins or leaves the network all other PCs are (optionally) alerted of the fact, and of what shares are now available or have been removed.
  8. Where a PC has both a wired and a WiFi connection, the full installation process runs for both.

Obviously it wouldn’t work for an office with a hundred PCs, but it’s not intended to. It’s intended for the family who now have four or five computers and would like to be able to communicate between them without tinkering with fstabs and samba.confs and SSLs. Or using — as I have done — cloud storage in Brazil or Kashmir to retain a file so that I can bring it back on to a computer two rooms away. We hear a lot about ‘food miles’ lately — what about ‘data miles’? This madness has to end some time.

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Posted by on May 6, 2011 in Networks, WiFi


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