Sharing an Internet access on a LAN

Internet access is a great thing. Internet access in a library is even better...it's the merging of the past, present, and future of information access to the public. There is another topic related to this, but I'll save it for another page.

My mother is the director of the Norelius Community Library in Denison IA. It's a pretty good library in a small city in west central Iowa. Like most public libraries in small cities in Iowa, it gets along on a tight budget. It's unfortunate, but it's reality. So when the need to provide public Internet access arose, several options were discussed and discarded because of cost. Since I'm one of her closest sources of computer information (and since I was living with my parents at the time), Mom posed the problem to me and asked for help in finding solutions.

I looked at the task as a learning opportunity and took on the task, along with my Dad.

A local business updated its computer system and offered to donate some of the old hardware to the Library. We ended up with a collection of Compaq 486 PCs. With those boxes, some donated network hardware, and a gateway program called Wingate we were off and running.

These boxes all had small hard drives and very little memory. They worked fine for Windows 3.11, but we needed to run Windows 95. It took some effort to find the right SIMMs but we finally got all of the boxes to 16 MB or more, got Win95 loaded, cleared enough of the junk off the hard drives to get it all to run and got the network set up.

We didn't have much long-term success with WinGate, I think in large part to the older version of Win95 we had running on the 486s, and the shortage of RAM and HD space.

We were looking for a more reliable solution when a friend suggested FreeBSD. I bought a set of disks and Greg Lehey's The Complete FreeBSD and set out to learn a bit about FreeBSD. Eventually, I got 2.2.5 running on a 486-33 and configured as a PPP server. I found a wealth of information on the 'Net...I thank all of you who have taken the time to work out many of the solutions and post them for others to use.

In 2001, the same business updated its hardware again, this time casting off some Pentium 200 boxes. We set up one of those running FreeBSD 4.2R and sharing a DSL connection.

We probably invested more time and money in those 486s than most people would, but for a few hundred dollars, we had three public access terminals available on the LAN, another standalone with its own modem, and two printers shared among the 4 computers. The computers weren't speed-demons, nor did they support a lot of the newer gimmicks on the Internet, but they worked fine for patrons wanting to use the Internet for research or to check mail in Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail.

The "new" boxes are able to run Win 98, so there are a few more user applications that run, but for the most part, usage is still limited to browsing. Again, the investment has only been a few hundred dollars, mostly for more CAT5 wiring and more hubs, but the system works, and I couldn't have purchased the education I got from the project anywhere!

For me, the experience has been good. I've learned about setting up a network using the networking integral to Windows 95/98, and I've learned a great deal about upgrading old hardware. The Library now has another service to offer its patrons, and my Mom and Dad are both enthusiastic about Open Source software.

Like most of my other skills, I don't claim to be an expert on the topic of LANs. Nor do I take credit for inventing anything new. I just made lemonade of the lemons I was handed. I've got some experience, and a potential reference for later.


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© 2005 John Amdor III
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