Sputnik: Open Source wireless public network

Linuxcare founders launch

The three co-founders of the Linux services company Linuxcare are on another Open Source adventure, this one an attempt to spread the use of public wireless networks, while at the same time providing a more secure wireless product for large companies.

David L. Sifry, Arthur Tyde and David LaDuke launched wireless networking company Sputnik in April 2001, but only last month did they launch a public Web site to reveal their plans. In an effort to "under-promise and over-deliver," as Sifry calls it, the trio have thus far avoided marketing and advertising their product, an Open Source 802.11b wireless gateway designed to allow wireless access providers to authenticate users while sharing their bandwidth.

The three wanted to have a workable project before the hype started, says Sifry, and Sputnik.com was launched with a working download version of the Open Sourced 1.0 Sputnik Gateway Software, which turns a computer into an 802.11b access point.

"Our goal here is, let's make sure the software is up and running, let's make sure it's bug-free, let's get a group of developers who are really interested, and let's build something really cool," Sifry says. "At that point, things start taking care of themselves. If we start hyping this thing before it's real, we don't want to deal with the backlash of that."

Download the software to a spare machine or pop in a CD bought from Sputnik, and you have a working 802.11b wireless network, providing you have the needed wireless cards. The Sputnik software is run directly from the CD -- no hard drive needed, and no need to mess with MAC addresses, or "goofy" Web interfaces to add users. "We wanted radical ease of use," Tyde says. "We wanted to make this easier to use than the Apple Airport. That's one of the reasons we took so long."

The cat's quickly coming out of the bag, with the New York Times mentioning Sputnik in an article Monday, and Slashdot linking to the article and pointing out Sputnik and competitor Boingo Tuesday.

Sputnik's concept of a public wireless network, part of the company's business plan, is similar to the Internet itself. The company is recruiting people or companies that have always-on Internet connections, such as DSL or T-1 lines, to become Sputnik affiliates.

Affiliates offer other Sputnik users a piece of their bandwidth in exchange for free use of other affiliates' wireless bandwidth when they're roaming. In addition, affiliates get a cut of the profits that non-affiliate, regular users will eventually pay to log on to the Sputnik network. The Sputnik code is released under the GNU GPL, but the company's products use code released under other Open Source licenses, including Apache.

Since the company's non-marketed public launch February 1, more than 100 affiliates and more than 400 users have already signed up, Sifry says. Los Angeles, New York City, and the San Francisco area each have multiple Sputnik access points. When users walk into a Sputnik coverage area, they are able to boot their laptop -- or in a couple of years their 802.11b-enabled cell phone -- and have the device automatically recognize that a Sputnik network is available. The user then logs in and is surfing on the laptop, or in the case of an 802.11b cell phone, is talking using voice over IP.

Sifry says with his own San Francisco set-up, he can get the wireless signal up to four and a half blocks from his Sputnik machine sitting in a window, as long as he has a direct line of sight to the device.

The advantage of Sputnik over other wireless networking packages, Sifry and Tyde, say, is ease of use, firewalled security and that possibly of getting paid for offering your bandwidth to other users.

But public networks are just one part of Sputnik's business plan, Tyde says. The company is offering the Sputnik Enterprise Gateway, which includes some proprietary software to help large companies put their wireless networks behind firewalls. The company network can be a Sputnik affiliate, allowing visitors access to the Internet and allowing company employees free access to other Sputnik networks, while at the same time keeping company information behind a firewall.

The problem with most wireless set-ups, Sifry says, is they are bridges, where information is indiscriminately sent and received. The Sputnik enterprise product acts like a router to limit intruders. Sifry says he knows people who are surfing free by tapping into their neighbor's wireless network.

Sputnik requires users to log in before using the system, so a wireless network provider knows who's tapping its resources. The Sputnik enterprise product also has security mechanisms that allow companies to shut down unauthorized wireless networks employees may have set up on the sly.

Current 802.11b networks, which either feature security and little mobility or lots of mobility and little security, are rife for abusers. Sifry and Tyde note a "huge security problem waiting to happen," where users looking for free wireless access drive around until they find a signal.

"How would you like it if somebody parked in the parking lot of your building with a server in a van and ran a spam server or a game server or a porn server off your insecure wireless link?" Tyde says. "We call it drive-by spamming. You think it won't happen, but somebody will do it."

Right now, the small band of people working at Sputnik are looking to avoid the Linux hype of the late '90s. They're pitching their products to a few dozen companies and to a couple of West Coast cities. The hardware is so cheap these says, Sifry says, with network cards as low as $40 apiece and nothing but an old or stripped-down computer needed to run the access point software, that a tech-minded city could set up an extensive Sputnik network for a few thousand dollars.

Right now, the three founders aren't actively seeking venture capital dollars, Tyde says. "Quite frankly, we're not looking for the kind of money we've seen raised in the wireless space," he says. "We're not looking for a $15 million dollar hit. The best way to fund a company is through revenues. There's a certain side of me that says, 'Why take money?' "

Next up is a developers' site, scheduled for launch in a couple of weeks. Tyde sees all kinds of applications for wireless networks, from voice over IP to downloading movies to your laptop from a gas station's Sputnik network while you're gassing up the minivan.

"For the community side, it's going to take time," Tyde says. "It's going to be one of those things where the code will slowly improve, hopefully we'll get some developers and they'll give us a hand. In terms of building a useful community networking tool, we're there. We want to see it happen."

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