The 19th Century Meets the 21st

Mr. Murphy describes how he set up frame-relay service for the old Brooklyn apartment where he lives.

At the start of the project, I had one overriding goal: keep the architecture as simple as possible. I could not guarantee a networking wizard would be available when things failed. In fact, our backup system administrator is a 12-year old resident who knows little about computers; I figured she would be easier to train than most adults. Knowing I was going to have to write thorough documentation about everything I implemented helped me stick to my goal.

We knew Linux could support multiple Ethernet interfaces. We were not sure where to find a card with Linux drivers that could interface with our DSU. A bit of Net research turned up a Canadian vendor, Sangoma Technologies, that seemed to be selling exactly what we needed. Five minutes on the phone with one of their Linux guys convinced me their WAN pipe product would do the job. At $550, it was the most expensive piece of hardware I had to buy, and it certainly beat Cisco's “cheap” solution.

I now had all the pieces: a frame-relay line from the outside, a DSU, a router, a hub, a general purpose computer, wires and a willing alpha tester. I just had to work out the details.

Network Topology

We originally planned to isolate each apartment behind an Ethernet interface. Of course, that seemed ridiculous for those with a single Windows 95 box. We then considered putting all the single machine apartments on their own segment. This presented an evolutionary problem. Whenever anyone bought a second machine, we would have to change IP addresses, physical connectivity, etc. We were stuck between over- and under-engineering the network, until my neighbor remembered some work he'd done earlier for a client in Atlanta.

He remembered Linux supports something called Ethernet aliasing. This allows a single interface to support multiple networks. For example, a single Ethernet card can be configured to support ten apartments, each of which is assigned its own subnet. This turned out to be the perfect compromise. We could logically isolate each apartment without having to use many Ethernet cards and several computers.

If an apartment grows into needing more thorough isolation, we can upgrade it to its own Ethernet board! By the time all available slots are used in our current 486, it will have to be replaced in order to deal with the Y2K issue. By then, maybe the router vendors will be selling solutions with more down-to-earth prices.


When I first began discussing the network idea with other residents, security seemed to be at the top of their list of concerns.

We worked out a few security schemes using proxy and masquerading facilities. Whatever we ultimately decided to do had to be configurable on an interface-by-interface basis. I personally wanted access to my computers from the outside world. Luckily, Linux supports that sort of granular security.

One day, I happened to mention the various options to a relatively computer-savvy neighbor who runs a local area network in her apartment. She was horrified that I would consider implementing a security scheme at the building level. She wanted control over her own security so that she could access her machines from anywhere on the Net. After a bit of discussion, we realized the original requests for high security were all from people who used Windows 95 to dial up through AOL.

It turns out the concerns were the result of alarmist articles in the local papers—security threat articles fail to put the subject in perspective. The least savvy are most easily frightened, even though they are least at risk since they use operating systems with few services that can be abused.

Having come to that realization and remembering our “keep it simple” goal, we decided to leave security up to the individual apartment. After all, AOL does not provide any special security to the lone PC connecting through its network.

Name Services

We toyed with the idea of allowing everyone to register their own domains, but finally decided against it as this would have created too much work. Instead, we registered a domain for our building,, which is related to our physical address. This is one of the few cases in which I think geographic addressing of any kind makes sense. Given the choices we made, the administrative burden of adding a machine or cluster of machines is relatively light.

Mail Service

Mail service is not yet settled. At the moment, we run a POP3 server, because it is essentially administration-free. POP3 is not, however, particularly friendly for people who travel a lot or use multiple computers. Therefore, it is very likely I will eventually bring up an IMAP4 or web-based mail server.

Anyone who wants a more flexible e-mail system immediately in place needs to set up and maintain their own.