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How to move from ISDN to cablemodem with a minimum of fuss

Plus, setting up a Linux-based firewall has never been easier.

(LinuxWorld) -- Call it what you will: downsizing, right sizing, or simply trimming the fat. I reengineered the Internet access from my home office and it is going to have a significant impact on my monthly expenses. It's also given me 10 to 20 times more bandwidth. There is a down side, but at the end of the exercise I'm left wondering why I didn't try this long ago.

I've had an ISDN connection since I put my Web site online in 1996. When I shut down my ISDN line last month, I was paying $300 per month to the telephone company, which is SBC, and an ISP. That gave me a handful of static IP addresses, 128 kilobits of bandwidth, and 24x7 access. I used an Ascend Pipeline 75 router to talk ISDN out of one side of its mouth and Ethernet to a Linksys five-port hub from the other. The hub connected my Web server and two or three workstations to the Internet.

The only broadband option I had to the existing ISDN connection was Road Runner service from Time Warner. The cable company has followed me when I moved out into the boonies three years ago. Sometime during the past year it began making Road Runner available in the area. I knew that even if Road Runner doesn't officially support Linux, many regulars in the Austin LUG have been using it on their Linux boxes. I also heard unofficially that Road Runner in Austin has been slowly migrating network services from NT to Linux servers.

The first order of business was to find a place to put the Web site. The very day that I started looking for a host I noticed an ad on LinuxToday.com for an outfit called Hosting24-7.com, Inc. I ran over my checklist for a host. Was Linux a choice for the server? Yes. Could I use ftp and telnet for maintenance of the site? Yes. Were additional e-mail accounts provided? Yes. Was it cheap? Yes. I signed up and moved the Web site to its new host as the first step in the transition.

Next, I ordered the Road Runner service. The installer showed up within the four-hour window as promised. Road Runner provides the cable modem (Toshiba PCX1100U) and a NIC (Lite-on PCI using a Tulip driver) at no additional cost. Actually, the installation was free as well during a special promotion. I had my new dual-boot laptop available for him with which to complete the installation, but even though the installer had shown up on time, it appeared the home office folks didn't. The installer left me with a number to call in a couple of hours to complete the connection. When I called the number later, the home office had caught up and I breezed through the initial Road Runner sign on and configuration on the laptop running Windows 2000.

Now it was time for the big test. Connecting with Linux. It was much simpler than I had imagined. I run Red Hat 7.0 on my primary desktop box, so I used linuxconf to make the change. All I had to do to configure my Linux box for cable modem access was to click on DHCP. Period. Nothing else. I reset the modem, restarted the Linux box, and I was connected. Nothing to it. The first download I did flew over the wire at over 200 plus kbps (kilobytes per second). I had never gotten faster than 14 or 15 kbps on ISDN. It was great.

Configuring a firewall

I didn't tackle the LAN until after LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco. In fact when I did get the LAN set up to share the Road Runner connection, I did so using a freebie copy of Cybernet's NetMAX Firewall that I picked up at the show.

First, I set up the box that would become the firewall/router. It is a 300-MHz K6 with 128 megabytes of RAM. I added a second NIC so the box could talk to the LAN on one and to the Internet on the other. Already equipped with a CD-ROM drive, that box was now ready for NetMAX. But I had more work to do before I could begin.

Back on my trusty Red Hat desktop, I ran linuxconf again, this time selecting a static IP instead of DHCP. Following the clearly written installation guide that came with NetMAX, I set the IP address, host name, and DNS entry on the desktop, pointing at the IP address that the firewall/router would use as its gateway. That done, it was time to install NetMAX.

I booted the firewall/router from the CD and after a minute or two I was given the choice of continuing the installation from the console or doing it remotely from the desktop machine. As required by the NetMAX "Quick Install Method" I opted for the GUI on the desktop, which I had just reconfigured. Using the Quick Install Method with the user manual by my side got me through the setup in less than half an hour.

Road Runner and my LAN have been peacefully coexisting ever since. There have been a couple of quirks due to NetMAX and Road Runner quarrelling over DNS duties. Some links in the Road Runner Web site, particularly those used for account maintenance, are abbreviated on the assumption that DNS will resolve the complete URL. And it did before NetMAX was installed. But now I have to enter the complete URL to get to the page I need.

NetMAX is my first firewall and I believe it was a good starter. Configuring the box so that it functions as a DHCP client on one NIC and as DHCP server on the other was painless. I know from previous attempts that this is not always the case. But it doesn't allow a great deal of granularity in specifying rules for the firewall, nor does it provide the type of reporting I expected. I'm going to be evaluating other choices for the future, but for now I'm happy to have NetMAX between me and the big bad Internet.

Road Runner and the hosting service together cost less than a third of what I was paying previously to the telephone company and ISP for my ISDN pipe. Not only was I cutting costs, I was dramatically increasing bandwidth. The only down side has been giving up the ability to run a server: something prohibited by Road Runner's terms of service. There have been rumors of a new commercial offering by Road Runner, which would allow both fixed IP addresses and the right to run servers. If those rumors prove to be true, I may move my Web site back home where it belongs.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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