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802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide
Title:802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide
Author(s):Matthew Gast
Publisher:O'Reilly Media
Reviewer:Mark Songhurst

The company I work for recently supplied me with a laptop computer, which came with the Intel Centrino 802.11b compatible chipset. I saw this as an opportunity to setup a wireless network at home, with the great idea of being able to surf in the living room, bedroom or maybe even the bathroom! However, my knowledge of wireless networking was non-existent. By choosing to read a book subtitled "The Definitive Guide" I hoped to get up to speed with setting up a home wireless network, and learn about the caveats (read: security) of 802.11

And definitive this book is. Weighing in at 464 pages I was slightly put off by how much I would need to read. Fortunately Gast has structured the book in such a way that after reading Chapter 2, in which the foundations of 802.11 and it's terminology are laid down, you can pretty much pick and choose the chapters you need (or want) to read in almost any particular order.

So did I find the book useful to meet my goal? I have to admit, that at my poor level of networking knowledge, I found some parts heavy going - learning about the structure and content of wireless packets and the guts of the 802.11 protocol was probably not really necessary to be able to set up a home LAN, but at the same time reasonably interesting - fortunately my lack of requirement to actually understand these parts of the book meant that I could skim through them, browsing rather than absorbing. If in the future I need to know more detail, I'll know where to look. Other parts where fascinating; I really enjoyed learning about the physical layer of a wireless network, and the book goes into some entertaining depth. I particularly enjoyed the section on the different types of wireless antenna you could use.

However, my particular issue with this book was its lack of depth on the security side of wireless networking. The book has a great chapter explaining and demonstrating the weaknesses of the WEP protocol, and an excellent follow-up chapter (almost an appendix) which is basically a walkthrough of how to use the AirSnort application to break WEP encryption, but what I felt was lacking was any reasonable depth on alternatives to WEP. A rather too brief chapter describes the security using the proposed 802.1x standard with Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP) but by no means goes into enough depth - I suspect that this is due to a lack of definition about the 802.1x standard at the time that this book was published - May 2002. I see that O'Reilly have published 802.11 Security (January 2003) since, which would probably fill in the blanks left by this book. This could be considered an almost essential after-purchase. Perhaps the next edition of the book will pull these two books together as one.

Despite the age of this book, the foundations of the 802.11 protocol have not changed and therefore I would recommend it as an authoritive and readable reference that you can pick up as and when required. Just remember to budget for the 802.11 Security book as well.

Oh, and as a testament to the book, I now have a working wireless network at home. I've yet to surf in the bathroom though. ;-)

A useful link on 802.11 in general:

- Mark Songhurst, © 29th April 2004