Eee 701 Planetoid

2011/09/20

Lightweight network access with wicd

Filed under: Linux, Software — Tags: , , , — Tim @ 18:42

One of the double-edged features of Arch Linux, is that it encourages the user to put together a software system which suits their needs, and not necessarily the system which someone else has assembled for them.

That’s not meant as a criticism—Linux distros like Ubuntu are great if you want/need a workable OS “out of the box”. However, as I’ve written here before, it’s not what I wanted for my Eee 701—my aim was to put together a “leaner” OS for the machine, which would use as many “lightweight” alternatives to the usual GNOME and KDE applications as possible.

Desktop environments like GNOME do a lot for the user, that they don’t always realise—one example is GNOME’s NetworkManager. It sits unobtrusively in the GNOME panel, quietly doing its best to connect the user to wired and wireless networks. If you want a Linux setup without GNOME and its associated apps, but would still like a measure of “hand-holding” managing your network connections, what is the alternative?

Image of wicd graphical and console clients

wicd graphical and console clients, running under Arch Linux (with Fluxbox)

For me: the answer is wicd. Wicd (pronounced “wicked”, apparently) is a network manager for Linux, which at its simplest has no GNOME or KDE dependencies, so it is well-suited to running under lightweight window managers like Fluxbox or IceWM (and is installed as part of quite a few “light” Linuxes, such as Zenwalk). In fact, wicd doesn’t need to run under X at all—it operates as a client-server application, where the server (daemon) does all the network-connection work, and you use a client application to interact with it. There are graphical (Python/GTK+) and console (ncurses) clients, so you can choose which you prefer (or need) to use.

Should you wish to give wicd a spin on your Linux system, you should be able to install it via your package manager, or compile it if you prefer. You need to start the wicd daemon at boot time; in Arch Linux, I add it to the “daemons array” in /etc/rc.conf. (For the finer points of setting-up, the wicd page at the Arch wiki is most useful.)

Most of the time, I’ve found wicd a “set it and forget it” kind of application—it stays in the background and just gets on with managing your connections. It’s not perfect—sometimes it fails to reconnect a dropped wireless link (giving a “bad password” error, even if the password is given correctly), though I believe I read this is a DHCP client issue, rather than wicd specifically—but in general I find wicd a pretty essential part of my Eee’s software setup. I especially appreciate that because of its client/server design, wicd is always running on the Eee, whether I am using the graphical interface or console. In X, the graphical wicd client can always be found in the system tray, and checking the network link is just as easy at the command-line.

Compared with GNOME NetworkManager, there are a few missing features; the main one that I would like to see, is a graphical interface for managing VPN connections. The wicd FAQ states that direct VPN support is planned for version 2—in the meantime, wicd offers the option to trigger per-connection scripts (a bit fiddly-looking to set up, but probably better than nothing). The developers have also expressed an interest in adding options such as management of 3G modem connections, but it looks like a lack of resources is holding this back for the moment. I think I’d like to keep an eye on the VeryPluggableBackends development branch, though…

In short: if you’re looking to build a Linux system without GNOME or KDE, but still want help managing your network connections, wicd is definitely worth investigating.

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