What I’ve learned from nearly three years of enterprise Wi-Fi at home

(Source: arstechnica.com)

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There is a moment of perfect stillness after the cable slips through my fingers and vanishes back up the hole in the ceiling like an angry snake. Then the opening stanza of a rich poem of invective leaps from my lips and my wife stares up at me from below, eyes wide, frozen just as I am, ready to catch me if I rage too hard and lose my balance.

But perched precariously on the top step of an inadequate and shaky ladder in the corner of my living room, drenched in sweat and speckled head to toe in pink insulation and sheetrock dust, body aching with dull red heat, I just can’t maintain the torrent of swearing. I’m too tired. The words die on my lips and I drop my burning arms to my side. Sweat stings my cut hands—“man hands,” my wife has always called them, hands that seem to always sport an ever-changing collection of cuts and dry spots and calluses and torn nails as house or computer projects come and go. Tiny drops of blood ooze from shredded cuticles.

Maybe I’ll just stand here for a few hours and not move, I think, mind going blank rather than face the thought of climbing back up into the baking attic and fishing out the cable from underneath mountains of insulation. Maybe I don’t even need Wi-Fi anymore. Maybe I don’t even need computers anymore. Maybe I should throw away everything I own and live in the mountains and grow my own food and never think about technology ever again.

But let’s back up a bit.

In our previous episode…

In mid-2015, I retired my Apple Airport Extreme and upgraded my home’s Wi-Fi with a set of wireless access points from New York-based networking OEM Ubiquiti. I was trying to accomplish two things: first, to eliminate some persistent Wi-Fi dead spots that I just couldn’t reach, even by extending my network with a couple of Airport Expresses (Airports Express?). Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted some new homelab gear to tinker with so that I could get some hands-on time with an enterprise grade (or at least “enterprise-lite” grade) Wi-Fi system, because playing with the big toys is fun.

As I explained in our October 2015 review, the Ubiquiti access points delivered on both points. The individual devices weren’t even particularly expensive—strategically placing a few of the APs (the smallest of which can be had for about $80) can be cheaper than buying a single monster consumer-grade AP/router. The monster consumer router can (usually) deliver higher single-client performance in synthetic benchmarks, but the distributed Ubiquiti APs are far better at delivering consistent multi-client performance (and they’re not all bottlenecked behind a single backhaul, either).

More importantly, having multiple access points means that instead of having to take a “make my one base station scream as loud as possible” approach to whole-house coverage, you have the opportunity to fine-tune each individual AP’s 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio strengths and channel selections to create a series of interlocking cells that together offer vastly more consistent coverage—especially in the 5GHz range, which is almost certainly where you want your wireless clients connecting whenever possible.

As it turns out, this kind of network tuning is a lot like sailing: it’s relatively easy to learn the fundamentals in an afternoon, but mastering it probably takes more time than you’re willing to commit unless you just really freaking love sailing. Or screwing around with your Wi-Fi. (Or, alternately, you can get paid to do it at your job.)

A brief word of warning

This feature is not going to be a comprehensive Ubiquiti buyer’s guide. Neither is it going to be a formal review, or an in-depth Wi-Fi tuning guide, or a recommendation on what you should buy—unlike with an all-in-one router/AP, there would be just too many potential configurations to cover.

What you’re about to read is a write-up of my experience with Ubiquiti’s Unifi gear over the past couple of years—what I bought, why I bought it, and what I did with it. I’ll dig into the configuration and implementation choices I made and discuss how well they’ve worked (or didn’t work, in many cases) for me, and then I’ll touch on what I’ve settled on (at least for now).

I will admit that configuration mistakes were made—heaps of them, in fact, though I believe that most have at this point been rectified. At one point I had damn near twice as many APs as I needed, and I overcomplicated things to the point of insanity more than once—the Unifi system is the embodiment of “enough rope to hang yourself with” for a curious home system administrator.

I will admit that configuration mistakes were made.

The upside, though, is that I learned a lot by screwing up so much, and the only person I hurt was myself. Well, and my wife, whenever my weekend tinkering sessions resulted in no Wi-Fi for a few hours. This piece is intended to let you laugh at my mistakes as much as anything else.

Unifi my Wi-Fi

Ubiquiti makes all manner of stuff, ranging from wired gear to full-on heavy-duty WISP equipment. I became interested in the company’s Unifi line of Wi-Fi networking primarily because of the price—the gear seemed exceedingly cheap for the capabilities it offered, especially considering how the access points stacked up against consumer offerings.

There’s more to the Unifi product line than just wireless access points, though—it’s at this point a vertical that includes switching and routing, too, using hardware adapted from Ubiquiti’s more mature EdgeMAX line. Unlike Unifi, EdgeMAX kit isn’t centrally managed (well, sort of—there’s an all-in-one beta product called the Ubiquiti Network Management System designed to let you manage all your Ubiquiti stuff from all the product lines, but ironically, Unifi gear doesn’t yet work with it). EdgeMAX gear is intended to be standalone, used for enterprise-grade switching and routing without the software-defined networking special sauce exclusive to the Unifi line.

Much of the Unifi line slots nicely into the prosumer and/or SMB space—it offers features appealing both to homelab enthusiasts and also to businesses needing to do medium-to-large Wi-Fi deployments (features like single-pane-of-glass management and SDN, which we’ll get to shortly).

At the same time, the Unifi line doesn’t necessarily have the feature breadth or the enterprise-grade support structure to compete at the higher end with the likes of Cisco/Meraki or Aruba or Juniper. You might save a ton of money going with Unifi gear over Cisco gear, but when it’s midnight on a Saturday and your production system is down, Cisco will be there with a replacement part within four hours (assuming you pay for that level of support—it is available). With Unifi gear, you’ll be waiting for FedEx to drop off replacement parts maybe on Monday after you arrange an RMA, unless you happen to have bought from a VAR that also sells aftermarket support.

The overall Unifi brand’s positioning remains roughly the same as it was when we last took a look. However, from a product perspective the Unifi line has evolved considerably since 2015, adding several newer high-end SKUs and refining its lineup to reduce or eliminate some odd quirks.

There are plenty of Unifi alternatives—most notably Latvian-based MikroTik, which gets props for its low up-front cost and deep configurability. Unifi and MikroTik also both appeal to SMB customers by not saddling their products with feature licensing fees—fees which are annoyingly common at the top end where it’s presumed customers have fat enterprise IT budgets to spend (I’m looking at you, Cisco). The prosumer/mid-tier market picture today is roughly the same as it was two years ago: it’s crowded, which is good for us as consumers.

More Info: arstechnica.com

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