WebRamp M3 lets you set up Net-ready LAN

For field offices, dial-up Internet accounts for modems on standalone computers are too
expensive and cumbersome. Modem pools cut the hardware costs but support only one Net
connection at a time. Even an experienced administrator may have trouble configuring the
routers and hubs for a small network, let alone connecting it to the Internet.


WebRamp M3 does something about all these problems. Its compact, 9- by 6- by
11Ž2-inch box contains a router, four-port 10Base-T hub and three serial ports. It
multiplexes three modems so that userscan connect simultaneously to the Internet over
standard analog telephone lines.


The modem multiplexing relies on proprietary firmware called Connection Optimized Link
Technology, or COLT, for downloading World Wide Web pages. Don't confuse this modem
multiplexing with modem channel bonding.


Multiplexing gives slower transport speeds but is more transparent to the end user and
the Internet provider, who need not support special channel bonding hardware.


COLT spreads the browser connections across the multiple modem connections, which cuts
download time and improves apparent browsing speed. There is an algorithm to balance
traffic among the modems.


You can configure WebRamp to use all modems at all times for faster surfing. Or you can
set WebRamp to establish multiple connections only when traffic exceeds preset thresholds.
As user activity declines, connections drop after a predetermined time.


I tested WebRamp M3 by building a LAN from scratch--the most common situation for Ramp
Networks' customers. The device arrived with one-page, quick-start instructions and clear
illustrations but without an index.


Wiring the LAN was a matter of plugging in the power supply and connecting the two test
PCs' network interface cards to WebRamp. The box included everything necessary to connect
the PCs except for modems and NICs. I used two 56-kilobit/sec Accura modems from Hayes
Microcomputer Products Inc. of Atlanta, plus NICs from Standard Microsystems Corp. of
Hauppauge, N.Y.


WebRamp requires one Point-to-Point Protocol dial-up account per modem.


After installing the hardware, I followed the instructions to configure WebRamp's
Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server. DHCP assigns an Internet Protocol address to
each station. DHCP is present in Microsoft Windows NT and Windows 95 operating systems and
in Apple Macintosh systems that have Open Transport installed.


You can also install WebRamp on an existing network or use it to network Macintoshes or
Unix computers.


After enabling DHCP, I turned to my Web browser to configure the WebRamp firmware. A
copy of Microsoft Internet Explorer came with the unit.


There was a Wizard to guide me through the configuration options. After entering
information about my modems and Internet accounts, I rebooted the computers to enable
DHCP.


WebRamp worked almost flawlessly, automatically dialing the provider and establishing
the PPP connection when I opened Explorer. The connection process was transparent: no
dialing necessary, just rouse a browser and go.


COLT can multiplex up to three modems, so in theory a WebRamp user could browse at
close to Integrated Services Digital Network speeds. But reality is different from theory.


Surfing the Web with two modems was faster than surfing with one, but the connections
together didn't come close to matching the speed of my single 56-kilobit/sec frame relay
connection.


I estimate a single user could get 25 percent to 50 percent better performance for each
additional modem installed.


WebRamp's value is in sharing user resources with intelligent load balancing. I could
open multiple instances of my browser on different machines. Browser performance degraded
a bit, but not as much as I expected.


The number of modems your office needs depends on modem speed and the services you
expect to use. For example, a single modem could serve 15 or more users if all they did
was download e-mail and text files. But if the staff spends a lot of time on the Internet,
it's likely that three modems are insufficient. You could daisychain M3 units to get more
bandwidth.


I experienced one curious problem that I was able to fix but not explain. The second
modem connection kept dropping. I checked the status log through the configuration screen
and saw that the connection was being refused because of an authentication error.


I verified the account information and re-entered name and password. I swapped modems
and used another account, to no avail.


As Ramp Network engineers tried to troubleshoot this problem remotely, I connected via
a different telephone number using the same account information. I had previously
configured WebRamp to use the same number to establish the connection for both accounts.


This time authentication succeeded, but the engineers couldn't explain why.


WebRamp offers outstanding value with its unlimited site license, free technical
support with 24-hour response, one-year warranty and 30-day, money-back guarantee. It can
shave capital and operating costs by sharing out Internet accounts, modems and phone
lines.


The firmware is upgradeable via the Trivial File Transfer Protocol. Authentication
based on the Password Authentication Protocol provides a basic firewall. The system is
reasonably scalable and has close to foolproof networking.


My only criticism is that modems connected to the WebRamp box can access only PPP
online services. You can't dial up, say, electronic bulletin board systems as you can with
a modem pool.


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