NetCenter Internet Station
By David Strom
(originally appeared in Internet World, 1/98)
If you don't know anything about IP networking and want to share your existing single-user dial-up ISP account with two or three networked computers, then take a careful look at Dayna's Internet Station. It is a small box, about the size of a large novel, and comes with everything you'll need to share a dial-up or ISDN Internet connection among a small workgroup, with the exception of cables and a hub.
The I-Station is designed to meet the needs of a home, small office or workgroup where setting up new phone lines and Internet accounts on every workstation is painful, expensive, or impossible. It comes with two PC Card slots for modems and a third serial port for attaching external modems. By modem I mean either the traditional sort or ISDN terminal adapters. This means you can upgrade the box with faster modems (or ISDN terminal adapters) when they are supported by your ISP. That's the good news.
The bad news is that only one of these modems can be used to connect to the Internet -- with other products from US Robotics and WebRamp, you can pool modems together to obtain a faster connection. The remaining modems can be shared for faxes and other general-purpose communications tasks, provided you first install the special Dayna software that maps a communications port on your local machine to the shared modem.
The I-Station is supposed to detect the modem inserted into its PC Cards but I found it doesn't always do so. It has trouble working with older Hayes external modems and several different PC Card modems that I tested. But it did find and configure itself with Dayna's own Communicard 33.6 PC Card modem. I'd recommend buying this modem if you do decide to go with the I-Station.
But modems are only part of the story here. The I-Station comes with a built-in server that will assign IP addresses on your network automatically, provided you are running a copy of Windows 95/NT or a Macintosh with Open Transport. When these machines boot, they grab a spare IP address from the I-Station. This capability, called a Dynamic Host Control Protocol (DHCP) Server, isn't unique -- indeed, it is found on many routers and comes included with Windows NT Server software -- but can be helpful.
I tested the I-Station on a small network of Windows and Mac clients. Getting it setup was troubling, mainly because I tried not to take advantage of all of its features at once. I already was running a DHCP server on my network, so first tried installing the I-Station with this feature turned off. After numerous calls to Dayna's support line, I removed my existing DHCP server. This will probably be where you'll want to start out, and if so then you'll find that Dayna has done a great deal of work to make things simple and help get novice users up and running within minutes of opening the box.
Here is how easy it is to setup. You connect the I-Station to your Ethernet network, and then bring up your browser and type in "istation.myoffice.com" as the URL. This connects with the I-Station and runs a setup wizard that asked for my user name, password, dial-up phone number and DNS IP information. If you don't know these things, the documentation gives you some hints. Also, your ISP usually provides this information at the time you open your account.
I used an account from Concentric Networks for these tests and had no trouble sharing it among the computers on my office network. However, I found that having more than one user doing major downloads or file transfers could make for slow access for others sharing the connection. This is why I wouldn't recommend the I-Station for more than a small workgroup. I occasionally got errors running the Java applets with Navigator 3.03 on my Windows 95 machine: when I reloaded the I-Station's configuration page in my browser, these errors went away. It needs a relatively recent browser version because its pages run Java applets to display the server's status information and post configuration changes. Both Windows and Mac software, along with a copy of Internet Explorer, are included on the software CD included with the I-Station.
One complaint I had was that the I-Station by default turns off the modem's speaker. This means you can't hear the dialing or connect sounds when you are initially testing. While there is a way to change the modem initialization settings, it isn't very pretty and you have to know what you are doing and where to insert the appropriate ATM1 command.
If you lack the skills to setup a router and various IP network parameters, and want to start out by leveraging your existing single-user ISP account, then consider the I-Station. But if you have more than three or four users, you might be better off buying an inexpensive ISDN router such as the WebRamp (reviewed in IW, May 97).
Summary: A turnkey Internet communications server designed for networking newbies: it contains a DNS and DHCP server and allows users to share a single dial-up account to the Internet. But beware if you have already some networking expertise.
Dayna Communications, Inc. Salt Lake City, UT
801 269 7200; fax 801 269 7363
Copyright 1998 Mecklermedia Inc.