Have VPN, will travel

Master your network.

Bigwig corporate dudes who travel always use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to access the data and programs on their computers back at the office, either over dial-up or high-speed hotel or hot-spot connections. VPNs are like protected tunnels through the wild and woolly public Internet. They're secure—all the data flowing back and forth is encrypted, making it almost impossible to hijack–which is why they're standard equipment for big-business travellers. Now small-biz—and even home-office—dudes can get the same convenience and security, plus a blisteringly fast wireless network in the office, using the WZR-RS-G54 Wireless Secure Remote Gateway (about $250) from Buffalo Technology. It does everything a garden-variety Wi-Fi router does, plus it's a relatively easy-to-set-up VPN server.

The G54 uses proprietary enhancements to standard 802.11g Wi-Fi technology to deliver a top local network speed of 125 megabits per second–more than twice the 54 Mbps that standard 11g gear provides. In my testing, the G54 network speeds never went higher than 54 Mbps; on the other hand, with standard 11g gear I was only getting 36 Mbps, so some improvement there. Like other Wi-Fi gateways, the G54 provides the software and services needed to share a high-speed cable or DSL connection among multiple computers in a home or small office network. This was easy enough to set up.

It's the VPN functions, though, that set the G54 apart—and also, alas, make it more complicated than the average Wi-Fi router. When you're on the road, the VPN software on your laptop must be able to find the VPN server on the Internet to make a connection. If your Internet service provider assigns you a fixed IP address, no problem: you enter that address in the Windows or Mac VPN software, which then unerringly finds the G54, even if it's in Timbuktu and your laptop is at the South Pole. The trouble is, many residential high-speed access services assign dynamic addresses that change occasionally, or even frequently. If the address changes without your knowing, the VPN software on your laptop won't be able to find your G54. You'll be virtually stranded.

The solution is a dynamic DNS (for “domain name system”) service; free ones are available on the Net. The provider assigns you an easy-to-remember address. If the dynamic IP address from your ISP changes, the G54 automatically notifies the DNS service, which updates your information on its server. This means you don't need to know your current IP address. You just enter the address from the DNS provider, and it finds your G54 for you.

I needed a little help from Buffalo's excellent 24-7 tech telephone support to get this all set up. But once that was done, I was able to log in to my home network from anywhere on the Internet and access data on any of my four computers. Using Windows Remote Desktop Connection software, I could take control of any of my computers as if I was sitting at the keyboard. I could even wake up computers that were powered down. Which is pretty cool.

Now if someone would just send me on a trip.