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I want to create a mesh-net at my school which will, with my understanding (limited of networking), allow me to transfer files with computers on said network (which will be a different network than the internet wireless here at school, I'm not talking about simply extending the existing wi-fi) -- with proper permissions of course.

My goal is to be able to build a lot (I mean a whole lot) of small and cheap (I mean really cheap) mesh-net nodes to be able to weatherproof and solar power to create a seemingly endless network (limited only by how many nodes I have).

Of course the nodes would need to be structured so that the network was self-healing, and all of the other good things that come along with a mesh-net.

So my question, as an ignorant networker, is: is there any Linux distro to do the heavy lifting for me?

I ask because of the imminent release of the Raspberry Pi, which would seriously jumpstart this idea of mine by allowing for nodes to be the size of a pack of cards, and solar powering would not be that difficult.

If not, is there a simpler way to achieve this end result (perhaps by using routers?).

Thanks for the assistance in this seemingly impossible task to a newcomer.

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

Raspberry Pi is unfortunately unsuitable for your needs, since as far as I know, it does not have any mini-pci ports which would allow you to install wireless cards and has only one Ethernet port which doesn't support PoE (Power over Ethernet).

I suggest you turn to commercial solutions such as Mikrotik or Ubiquiti equipment. The largest difference between these two is that ubiquity comes as a completely assembled product, while the routerboard is simply a platform which you need to configure and assemble by yourself. If you choose the latter you would have many more options to choose from, but you would also need a weatherproof case, wireless cards, pigtails and some tools. As for the software, ubiquity's OS is based on openwrt and the source code is available, albeit without much support. Mikrotik on the other hand is 100% closed source, but it is possible to run linux on it with a bit of work. However, I would not base my choice on software alone, since in this case it's the hardware that matters most.

As for the actual network topology, you would need to provide more information about the terrain, buildings, etc. The general idea is to use 5GHz links for backhauls and 2.4GHz for the clients. If the school building is in the middle of the area you want to cover, then you would use 4x120degree sector antennas on a mast and connect the base stations with a directional panel or dish antenna in 5Ghz depending on the distance (and other factors). If you want to build another base station from which there is no clear LoS (Line of Sight) to the sectors on the school, you would use a pair of directional antennas between that base station and another one to which you have LoS, also in 5GHz. The details depend on local conditions.

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Thanks a lot for the useful information!! Why would using a USB wi-fi antennae not be sufficient? – James Roseman Jan 26 '12 at 22:46
There's a couple of reasons. Since the dongle itself isn't outdoor equipment, you would have to keep it inside the case with the rest of the electronics, therefore shielding it and reducing the range. Also, the chipsets in these are usually the cheapest ones possible and won't work well when a bunch of clients start connecting to them. They also offer very little configurability and may lack the very important option to disconnect clients whose signals drop below a certain threshold. Their power and most importantly sensitivity is also not very good. If you have more questions - ask. – phil Jan 27 '12 at 7:03

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