By Sean Michael Kerner
June 15, 2004
Planning a free hotspot, but don’t want to pay a lot of money for equipment? Why pay if you have an old PC that can run that bootable CD, a Linux based alternative.
Creating a freely accessible and easily deployed hotspot is a bit more complicated than getting a hanger and putting aluminum foil around it, although it hardly needs to be more expensive.
In my overview of open source hotspot tools, I briefly touched on Public IP’s ZoneCD. The two paragraphs I had in this article could hardly do the project justice. ZoneCD is essentially a Wi-Fi hotspot / gateway on a bootable CD-ROM solution. No mess, no fuss.
A live Linux CD like ZoneCD runs entirely from CD, uses system memory, and does not require invasive installation on the user’s hard drive. This makes it possible to try without risking spoiling an existing computer. The CD, using a few Linux tricks, automatically detects and configures itself to run on your hardware.
You can get the ZoneCD by ordering it from Public IP for $ 10 or you can simply download it for free from one of the SourceForge mirrors in the project. The current full graphics version is just under 300MB. The ZoneCD project is licensed under the GPL and is a remastered version of Morphix Linux Distribution, which is based on the Knoppix Live Linux CD distribution (itself based on the Debian Linux distribution . Phew.)
To run ZoneCD, Public IP recommends any Intel compatible processor (I would say a Pentium 166MHz is the minimum) with a minimum of 128MB of RAM, CD-ROM, network interface cards (NIC, Public IP recommends two, however it is possible to get by with just one if you really want to) and of course some sort of Wi-Fi access point (AP) or wireless router.
You will also need to register to get a free ZoneID from the public IP address, which identifies the gateway to a server called Virtual Authserver which manages user privileges and tracks usage. As a CD-ROM, it is by definition read-only. Thus, it cannot save or modify this data, hence the need for the virtual Authserver server. You can store and load your ID from a floppy disk, which I highly recommend.
The GUI version of the boot CD contains Linux Kernel 2.4.x, the XFce GUI and some other non-Wi-Fi tools that are part of the main Morphix distribution with Gimp (image manipulation), GAIM (instant messaging), ABIWord (word processor) and Mozilla Firebird (web browser). So if you want, you can also use your gateway machine as a reasonably equipped Linux workstation. But that’s not what you’re reading this article for, is it?
The whole reason for downloading ZoneCD is for Wi-Fi tools, which includes NoCat, a tool that has already been covered here. In a nutshell, it is a gateway authentication server.
Authentication is of course only a small part of the wireless access point battle. This is where the included DansGuardian tool comes in. Dansguardian is a content filtering tool that ensures that inappropriate content is not delivered through your hotspot. Of course, access to frequently requested sites is of great importance for any type of Internet access and for this purpose ZoneCD includes the Squid Web Proxy. Last, but not least, is the public IP virtual authentication server that really sets it apart.
The authorizations of ZoneCD users fall into different categories:
- Public users will have set up a firewall, content filtering, and file size restrictions (default is 2MB)
- Trusted users – for whom there is a higher level of trust and fewer restrictions (file size downloads, for example)
- Super users have no restrictions. Use this setting only in a local WLAN type environment where there is no risk of someone sniffing your master password.
The user can also be identified and restricted based on MAC.
As a hotspot administrator, it is not enough to grant access. That is why the project includes powerful statistical tools to help with usage analysis. Administrators can choose to view live usage statistics and access the end user data feed. A daily newspaper dispatch is also available.
ZoneCD is limited to 100 concurrent users by default, depending on the included DHCP server. I guess if you really wanted to you could hack the source and remaster the CD to increase that default number to what you wanted. At some point, the capacity of your access point – along with your upstream provider’s bandwidth – will provide a real physical limit.
Public IP has a number of funders, including the Detroit Wireless Project. Public IP is clearly intended for “free” users and does not connect to a commercial network like Boingo Wireless or other aggregators. The public IP site encourages users to register their “free” hotspots through the free Freshspot wireless hotspot directory submission service, which, among other sites, submits to Wi-Fi HotspotList which is part of from the same network as this one. Planet Wi-Fi.
In general, it is quite easy to download ZoneCD, insert it into a machine, and get a hotspot up and running very quickly. The project documentation of course does not have the step-by-step screenshot, like Windows does. The docs are duplicated on the main site as well as a Wiki project which can be confusing for a beginner. Although to be fair, the setup is so straightforward that it will take some trial and error to get everything to work, as it should.