System Crashes Linked to Centrino, VPN Client Glitch

New Intel mobile chip set incompatible with Nortel's software, possibly others

Intel Corp. last week turned off software used by its Centrino mobile chip set because of incompatibility problems that can cause some notebook and laptop PCs to be hit by blue-screen system crashes if users try to run virtual private network (VPN) client software.

The problems came to light after Nortel Networks Ltd. acknowledged that the operating system on Centrino-based PCs can stop functioning when Nortel's Contivity VPN software is installed. A posting on Intel's Web site indicates that the suspected cause of the system crashes could apply to any VPN client package.

Mike Schexnaydre, a software engineer at Nortel, said the Brampton, Ontario-based company has determined that the conflicts between Contivity and Centrino stem from the use of an adapter-switching feature in the Intel-developed software used to manage wireless LAN setup profiles and other functions on PCs.

The adapter-switching component of Intel's PROSet software lets end users automatically switch from wired to wireless connections, Schexnaydre said. But a work-around developed by Nortel requires IT departments to uninstall the PROSet drivers, according to a technical bulletin that the company released May 14.

Big Problem, No Solution

Jonathan Jordan, a LAN engineer at a large textile company in South Carolina, is experiencing firsthand the incompatibility between Centrino and Nortel's VPN software. Jordan said he ordered "hundreds" of Centrino-based laptops from Dell Computer Corp., only to discover that installing the Contivity client "causes the PC to blue-screen upon reboot."

He added that he has worked on the problem with Dell and Nortel for more than a month, but the vendors still don't have a viable solution. Nortel's work-around disables useful functions in PROSet, Jordan said, and unless the problem is resolved, his company "may have to move away from the Intel Centrino chip set."

Intel spokesman Daniel Francisco confirmed that the incompatibility issue involves the adapter-switching feature but said that Intel thinks most Centrino-based systems are already being shipped with that functionality switched off.

An advisory that's posted on Intel's Web site and dated Feb. 26—nearly two weeks prior to Centrino's official launch on March 12—says the adapter-switching feature "must be disabled when VPN client software is in use."

Seattle-based WatchGuard Technologies Inc. and San Jose-based Secure Computing Corp., two other vendors of VPN clients, said they're investigating whether there are any conflicts between Centrino and the products they sell.

The Centrino architecture, which has been widely adopted by hardware vendors, includes a Pentium-M mobile processor and a supporting chip set that helps manage power consumption, graphics cards and the Universal Serial Bus ports on PCs.

Schexnaydre said the operating system freezes appear to occur only on Centrino-based models that include an 855GM version of the onboard graphics and power management controller. PCs with Intel's 855PM chip set don't appear to be affected, he added.

Chris Kozup, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said he finds the fact that Intel didn't build plug-and-play VPN client support into Centrino "baffling." But he noted that it illustrates the fact that vendors of mobile and wireless technology have done a poor job of addressing users' security requirements.


Centrino's Other Problem

The mobile chip technology currently supports WLAN access only via the 802.11b standard.

The Fix: Intel now says it will offer Centrino with mixed 802.11b and 802.11g WLAN support by the fourth quarter.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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