Upgrading My Network

The network at my previous dwelling evolved over several years, which made it a hodgepodge of different gear. Before I moved out the final form of it was a Ubiquiti EdgeMax router, a Ubiquiti Edge Switch, and an Apple Airport Extreme (I got a good deal on it, but it was never something I recommended to people). When I bought my new house I decided to upgrade my network to Ubiquiti UniFi gear. For those who are unaware UniFi gear fits into that niche between consumer and enterprise networking gear (it’s often touted as enterprise gear, but I have my doubts that it would work as well on a massive network spanning multiple locations as more traditional enterprise gear) often referred to as prosumer or SOHO (Small Office/Home Office).

Because I live out in the boonies, my Internet connection is pretty lackluster so I opted for a Security Gateway 3P for my router (it’s generally agreed that the hardware is too slow to keep up with the demands of many modern Internet connections, but I don’t have to worry about that). If I had built a new house, I’d have put Ethernet drops in every room, but I bought a preexisting house with no Ethernet drops, which meant Wi-Fi was going to be my primary form of network connectivity. I still needed Ethernet connections for my servers though so I opted for a 24-port switch as my backbone and AP-AC-M access points for Wi-Fi. The AP-AC-M access points provide mesh networking, which is nice in a house without Ethernet drops because you can extend your Wi-Fi network by connecting new access points to already installed access points. Moreover, they’re rated for outdoor use so I can use them to extend my Wi-Fi network across my property.

A UniFi network is really a software defined network, which means that there is a central controller that you enter your configuration information into and it pushes the required settings out to the appropriate devices. Ubiquiti provides the Cloud Key as a hardware controller, but I already have virtual machine hosts aplenty so I decided to setup a UniFi Controller in a virtual machine.

Previously I was resistant to the idea of having to have a dedicated controller for my network. However, after experiencing software defined networking, I don’t think I could ever go back. Making a single change in one location and having that change propagated out to my entire network is a huge time saver. For example, I decided that I wanted to setup a guest Wi-Fi network. Without a central controller this would have required me to log into the web interface of each access point and enter the new guest network configuration. With a software defined network I merely add the new guest network configuration into my UniFi Controller and it pushes that configuration to each of my access points. If I want to change the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) password for one of my wireless networks, I can change it in the UniFi Controller and each access point will receive the update.

The UniFi Controller also provides a lot of valuable information. I initially setup my wireless network with two access points, but the statistics in the UniFi Controller indicated that my wireless coverage wasn’t great in the bedroom, was barely available on my three season porch, and was entirely unavailable out by my fire pit. I purchased a third access point and rearranged the other two and now have excellent Wi-Fi coverage everywhere I want it. While I could have gathered the same information on a network without a centralized controller by logging into each access point individually, it would have been a pain in the ass. The UniFi Controller also allows you to upload the floor plan of your home and it will show you the expected Wi-Fi coverage based on where you place your access points. I haven’t used that feature yet (I need to create the floor plan in a format that the controller can use), but I plan on playing with it in the future.

Overall the investment into more expensive UniFi gear has been worth it to me. However, most people probably don’t need to spend so much money on their home network. I know many people are able to do everything they want using nothing more than the all in one modem/switch/Wi-Fi access point provided by their Internet Service Provider (admittedly I don’t trust such devices and always place them outside of my network’s firewall). But if you need to setup a network that is more complex than the average home network, UniFi gear is something to consider.