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30 July 2010

Huawei and the VPN Saga

After a horrendous experience, usually I feel the need to share my findings with the world. Other unhappy souls shouldn’t go through what I’ve gone through yesterday.My company offers the possibility of working remotely, by connecting to its VPN. I have a USB dongle with my certificates and also a preinstalled software that manages the VPN connection. I travel fairly often to my hometown, Braşov. This week was no exception, I decided to work remotely for a couple of days.

In Bucharest I have no issues connecting to the VPN from home, I’ve done it quite a few times. The first surprise came to me when I realized that, although I have the same ISP (Clicknet, Romanian DSL provider), in Braşov my VPN connection failed. Moreover, when I tried to connect to it, I’d lose internet connectivity for about a minute. I first thought it’s a port forwarding issue, although it seemed strange that an ISP would have different port forwarding policies in different cities. Also, I couldn’t explain the connection loss. After being on the phone with “technical” support for about an hour, passed around by 4 or 5 people, trying to explain to most of them what VPN means, I finally got a straight answer from one of them: they aren’t blocking any ports, anywhere. I took a closer look at the modem/router’s behavior and then I noticed something. Whenever I tried to connect to the VPN, my router would reset (!) itself.

I have a Huawei SmartAX MT882 ADSL terminal supplied by the ISP. In Bucharest I have a Linksys wireless router with ADSL support bundled. I tried googling the problem for a while but finally I gave in and decided to buy a 3G modem, I was considering this option for some time now. I went to the Vodafone store and got a mobile internet subscription. I received a Huawei K3765 HSPA USB Stick; I went home and installed it. The installation process was extremely smooth; the stick already has its software bundled in it and it’s almost auto-installing. In a couple of minutes I was connected to the VPN and everything was working fine. After about six hours of continuous connectivity, the 3G modem decided to stop working, right before I was trying to do a server push. I thought that it had overheated or something (it was extremely hot), so I restarted my PC and left the modem to cool down for a few minutes. When I plugged it back in, Windows failed to recognize it, as did the Mobile Connect application. I spent the next couple of hours trying to sort this out. I uninstalled the Mobile Connect Software, removed the USB entries for the modem from the registry, removed it from the Windows modem list and from device manager, waiting for Windows to re-detect it. Guess what, it didn’t. Googling wasn’t much help, most of the questions we’re on Vodafone forums and the their quality (as the quality of the responses) was poor to say the least. Also, I found that in some situations, the Vodafone experts’ policy is to “Hey , I’ve sent you a PM regarding this issue”. WTF, you idiots! Other people have problems too and we’re supposed to be living the age of ubiquitous information, not sending private messages on crappy forums. I then spent an enchanting half-hour on hold with Vodafone support. I just wanted to see if it’s a common issue for the modems to stop working, I was hoping the issue was not coming from my computer. Support was useless, no surprise there, so I decided to go to a Vodafone shop so they could test my modem and eventually replace it with a working one. Sadly, I discovered that the issue was coming from my computer. They tried my modem on one of the laptops they had on display and it worked. I decided to go over to a friend’s house to finish the updates I needed to finish. I also tested the modem on his computer and it also worked.

When I came back home, later in the evening, I started thinking about what could be causing the problem, but I couldn’t come up with any solution. My work-supplied laptop is running Windows XP and is bundled with tons of ‘enterprise software’ that make it run slower than PC’s made in the early 2000’s. Really. I’m not joking. I was so angry that I decided to purge my system of anything that I didn’t need, regardless if it’s “policy” or whatever.I started with the anti-virus software, McAfee Enterprise Suite. I never understood why anyone would need anti-virus software, assuming he’s at least a bit computer savvy and doesn’t download warez daily. It turns out that uninstalling McAfee is an adventure. I had to remove about three or four of their products from the Windows Add/Remove programs list. I couldn’t remove the McAfee Agent, because it threw an “in-use” error when I tried to do that. If I restarted the system, the agent would reinstall what I’d previously removed. Swell. Eventually, I found out that the solution is to remove the McAfee common framework. It’s located in Program Files/McAfee/Common Framework and you need to run: frminst.exe /forceuninstall. After removing it, I ran their Consumer Products Removal tool and after a reboot I was McAfee free. After removing the anti-virus, my 3G modem started working again. Damn.

So, “I’ve learned something today” aka conclusions: