A Review of Ubiquiti Wireless

About six months ago, I got fed up with my Meraki MR34 APs. They ran just fine, but they needed attention. They needed licenses. They needed me to pay for a dashboard I used rarely but yet had to keep up yearly. And that dashboard had most of the “advanced” features hidden away under lock and key. I was beyond frustrated. I happen to be at the Wireless LAN Professionals Conference (WLPC) and ran into Darrell DeRosia (@Darrell_DeRosia) about my plight. His response was pretty simple:

“Dude, you should check out Ubiquiti.”

Now, my understanding of Ubiquiti up to that point was practically nothing. I knew they sold into the SMB side of the market. They weren’t “enterprise grade” like Cisco or Aruba or even Meraki. I didn’t even know the specs on their APs. After a conversation with Darrell and some of the fine folks at Ubiquiti, I replaced my MR34s with a UniFI AP-AC-HD and an AP-AC-InWall-Pro. I also installed one of their UniFi Security Gateways to upgrade my existing Linksys connection device.

You may recall my issue with redundancy and my cable modem battery when I tried to install the UniFi Security Gateway for the first time. After I figured out how to really clear the ARP entries in my cable modem I got to work. I was able to install the gateway and get everything back up and running on the new Ubiquiti APs. How easy was it? Well, after renaming the SSID on the new APs to the same as the old one, I was able to connect all my devices without anyone in the house having to reconnect any of their devices. As far as they knew, nothing changed. Except for the slightly brighter blue light in my office.

I installed the controller software on a spare machine I had running. No more cloud controllers for me. I knew that I could replicate those features with a Ubiquiti Cloud Key, but my need to edit wireless settings away from home was pretty rare.

Edit: As pointed out by my fact checked Marko Milivojevic, you don’t need a Cloud Key for remote access. The Cloud Key functions more as a secure standalone controller instance that has remote access capabilities. You can still run the UniFi controller on lots of different servers, including dedicated rack-mount gear or a Mac Mini (like I have).

I logged into my new wireless dashboard for the first time:

It’s lovely! It gives me all the info I could want for my settings and my statistics. At a glance, I can see clients, devices, throughput, and even a quick speed test of my WAN connection. You’re probably saying to yourself right now “So what? This kind of info is tablestakes, right?” And you wouldn’t be wrong. But, the great thing about Ubiquiti is that its going to keep working after 366 days of installation without buying any additional licenses. It’s not going to start emailing me telling me it’s time to sink a few hundred dollars into keeping the lights on. That’s a big deal for me at home. Enterprises may be able to amortize license costs over the long haul but small businesses aren’t so lucky.

The Ubiquiti UniFi dashboard also has some other great things. Like a settings page:

Why is that such a huge deal? Well, Ubiquiti doesn’t remove functionality from the dashboard. They put it where you can find it. They make it easy to tweak settings without wishing on a star. They want you to use the wireless network the way you need to use it. If that means enabling or disabling features here and there to get things working, so be it. Those features aren’t locked away behind a support firewall that needs an act of Congress to access.

But the most ringing endorsement of Ubiquiti for me? Zero complaints in my house. Not once has anyone said anything about the wireless. It just “works”. With all the streaming and Youtube watching and online video game playing that goes on around here it’s pretty easy to saturate a network. But the Ubiquiti APs have kept up with all the things that have been thrown at them and more.

I also keep forgetting that I even have them installed. That’s a good thing. Because I don’t spend all my time tinkering with them they tend to fade away into the background of the house. Even the upstairs in-wall AP is chugging right along and serving clients with no issues. Small enough to fit into a wall box, powerful enough to feed Netflix for a whole family.


Tom’s Take

I must say that I’m very impressed by Ubiquiti. My impressions about their suitability for SMB/SME was all wrong. Thanks to Darrell I now know that Ubiquiti is capable of handling a lot of things that I considered “enterprise only” features. Even Lee Hutchinson at Are Technica is a fan of Ubiquiti at home. I also noticed that the school my kids attend installed Ubiquiti APs over the summer. It looks like Ubiquiti is making in-roads into SMB/SME and education. And it’s a very workable solution for what you need from a wireless system. Add in the fact that the software doesn’t require yearly upkeep and it makes all the sense in the world for someone that’s not ready to commit to the treadmill of constant licensing.

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The Cargo Cult of Google Tools

You should definitely watch this amazing video from Ben Sigelman of LightStep that was recorded at Cloud Field Day 4. The good stuff comes right up front.

In less than five minutes, he takes apart crazy notions that we have in the world today. I like the observation that you can’t build a system more than three or four orders of magnitude. Yes, you really shouldn’t be using Hadoop for simple things. And Machine Learning is not a magic wand that fixes every problem.

However, my favorite thing was the quick mention of how emulating Google for the sake of using their tools for every solution is folly. Ben should know, because he is an ex-Googler. I think I can sum up this entire discussion in less than a minute of his talk here:

Google’s solutions were built for scale that basically doesn’t exist outside of a maybe a handful of companies with a trillion dollar valuation. It’s foolish to assume that their solutions are better. They’re just more scalable. But they are actually very feature-poor. There’s a tradeoff there. We should not be imitating what Google did without thinking about why they did it. Sometimes the “whys” will apply to us, sometimes they won’t.

Gee, where have I heard something like this before? Oh yeah. How about this post. Or maybe this one on OCP. If I had a microphone I would have handed it to Ben so he could drop it.

Building a Laser Moustrap

We’ve reached the point in networking and other IT disciplines where we have built cargo cults around Facebook and Google. We practically worship every tool they release into the wild and try to emulate that style in our own networks. And it’s not just the tools we use, either. We also keep trying to emulate the service provider style of Facebook and Google where they treated their primary users and consumers of services like your ISP treats you. That architectural style is being lauded by so many analysts and forward-thinking firms that you’re probably sick of hearing about it.

Guess what? You are not Google. Or Facebook. Or LinkedIn. You are not solving massive problems at the scale that they are solving them. Your 50-person office does not need Cassandra or Hadoop or TensorFlow. Why?

  • Google Has Massive Scale – Ben mentioned it in the video above. The published scale of Google is massive, and even it’s on the low side of the number. The real numbers could even be an order of magnitude higher than what we realize. When you have to start quoting throughput numbers in “Library of Congress” numbers to make sense to normal people, you’re in a class by yourself.
  • Google Builds Solutions For Their Problems – It’s all well and good that Google has built a ton of tools to solve their issues. It’s even nice of them to have shared those tools with the community through open source. But realistically speaking, when are you really going to use Cassandra to solve all but the most complicated and complex database issues? It’s like a guy that goes out to buy a pneumatic impact wrench to fix the training wheels on his daughter’s bike. Sure, it will get the job done. But it’s going to be way overpowered and cause more problems than it solves.
  • Google’s Tools Don’t Solve Your Problems – This is the crux of Ben’s argument above. Google’s tools aren’t designed to solve a small flow issue in an SME network. They’re designed to keep the lights on in an organization that maps the world and provides video content to billions of people. Google tools are purpose built. And they aren’t flexible outside that purpose. They are built to be scalable, not flexible.

Down To Earth

Since Google’s scale numbers are hard to comprehend, let’s look at a better example from days gone by. I’m talking about the Cisco Aironet-to-LWAPP Upgrade Tool:

I used this a lot back in the day to upgrade autonomous APs to LWAPP controller-based APs. It was a very simple tool. It did exactly what it said in the title. And it didn’t do much more than that. You fed it an image and pointed it at an AP and it did the rest. There was some magic on the backend of removing and installing certificates and other necessary things to pave the way for the upgrade, but it was essentially a batch TFTP server.

It was simple. It didn’t check that you had the right image for the AP. It didn’t throw out good error codes when you blew something up. It only ran on a maximum of 5 APs at a time. And you had to close the tool every three or four uses because it had a memory leak! But, it was a still a better choice than trying to upgrade those APs by hand through the CLI.

This tool is over ten years old at this point and is still available for download on Cisco’s site. Why? Because you may still need it. It doesn’t scale to 1,000 APs. It doesn’t give you any other functionality other than upgrading 5 Aironet APs at a time to LWAPP (or CAPWAP) images. That’s it. That’s the purpose of the tool. And it’s still useful.

Tools like this aren’t built to be the ultimate solution to every problem. They don’t try to pack in every possible feature to be a “single pane of glass” problem solver. Instead, they focus on one problem and solve it better than anything else. Now, imagine that tool running at a scale your mind can’t comprehend. And you’ll know now why Google builds their tools the way they do.


Tom’s Take

I have a constant discussion on Twitter about the phrase “begs the question”. Begging the question is a logical fallacy. Almost every time the speaker really means “raises the question”. Likewise, every time you think you need to use a Google tool to solve a problem, you’re almost always wrong. You’re not operating at the scale necessary to need that solution. Instead, the majority of people looking to implement Google solutions in their networks are like people that put chrome everything on a car. They’re looking to show off instead of get things done. It’s time to retire the Google Cargo Cult and instead ask ourselves what problems we’re really trying to solve, as Ben Sigelman mentions above. I think we’ll end up much happier in the long run and find our work lives much less complicated.

A Wireless Brick In The Wall

I had a very interesting conversation today with some friends about predictive wireless surveys. The question was really more of a confirmation: Do you need to draw your walls in the survey plan when deciding where to put your access points? Now, before you all run screaming to the comments to remind me that “YES YOU DO!!!”, there were some other interesting things that were offered that I wanted to expound upon here.

Don’t Trust, Verify

One of the most important parts of the wall question is material. Rather than just assuming that every wall in the building is made from gypsum or from wood, you need to actually go to the site or have someone go and tell you what the building material is made from. Don’t guess about the construction material.

Why? Because not everyone uses the same framing for buildings. Wood beams may be popular in one type of building, but steel reinforcement is used in other kinds. And you don’t want to base your predictive survey on one only to find out it’s the other.

Likewise, you need to make sure that the wall itself is actually made of what you think it is. Find out what kind of sheetrock they used. Make sure it’s not actually something like stucco plastered over chicken wire. Chicken wire as the structure of a plaster wall is a guaranteed Faraday Cage.

Another fun thing to run across is old buildings. One site survey I did for a wireless bid involved making sure that a couple of buildings on the outer campus were covered as well. When I asked about the buildings and when they were made, I found out they had been built in the 1950s and were constructed like bomb shelters. Thick concrete walls everywhere. Reinforcement all throughout. Once I learned this, the number of APs went up and the client had to get an explanation of why all the previous efforts to cover the buildings with antennas hadn’t worked out so well.

X-Ray Vision

Speaking of which, you also need to make sure to verify the structures underneath the walls. Not just the reinforcement. But the services behind the walls. For example, water pipes go everywhere in a building. They tend to be concentrated in certain areas but they can run the entire length of a floor or across many floors in a high rise.

Why are water pipes bad for wireless? Well, it turns out that the resonant frequency of water is the same as 802.11b/g/n – 2.4GHz. It’s how microwaves operate. And water loves to absorb radiation in that spectral range. Which means water pipes love to absorb wireless signals. So you need to know where they are in the building.

Architectural diagrams are a great way to find out these little details. Don’t just assume that walking through a building and staring at a wall is going to give you every bit of info you need. You need to research plans, blueprints, and diagrams about things. You need to understand how these things are laid out in order to know where to locate access points and how to correct predictive surveys when they do something unexpected.

Lastly, don’t forget to take into account the movement and placement of things. We often wish we could get involved in a predictive survey at the beginning of the project. A greenfield building is a great time to figure out the best place to put APs so we don’t have to go crawling over bookcases. However, you shouldn’t discount the chaos that can occur when an office is furnished or when people start moving things around. Things like plants don’t matter as much as when someone moves the kitchen microwave across the room or decides to install a new microphone system in the conference room without telling anyone.


Tom’s Take

Wireless engineers usually find out when the take the job that it involves being part radio engineer, part networking engineer, part artist, and part construction general contractor. You need to know a little bit about how buildings are made in order to make the invisible network operate optimally. Sure, traditional networking guys have it easy. They can just avoid running cables by florescent lights or interference sources and be good. But wireless engineers need to know if the very material of the wall is going to cause problems for them.

Wireless Thoughts From Aruba Atmosphere

I just got back from Aruba Atmosphere this week and I thought it would be a good chance to go over some of the cool stuff that I saw there.

  • Rasa is now Aruba NetInsights. That platform is going to be a big one for Aruba in the future. There’s a lot of information that is being gleaned from installations and it’s fueling some hard looks at best practices and such. Also funny that it’s being installed primarily in university campuses to profile coverage and client capabilities. Those are usually pretty hostile environments for users and administrators alike.
  • The security pieces that were shown off were also very interesting. The idea of port profiles has always made me a bit skeptical, but the way that Aruba is doing actual traffic profiling makes me think they have it this time. It’s also really cool that it can be done with non-managed devices in the middle. I think the key is that Aruba is doing actual traffic profiling instead of just looking at the basics behind the packets, like ports or VLANs. Real, automatic port security could be a huge win for places that need on-the-fly access to rapidly changing conditions. Like, say, university campuses.
  • Live demos rock when your technology is solid enough that you don’t have to worry about it blowing up on stage. We’re past the point of the wireless network blowing up the iPhone 4 for Steve Jobs. In fact, the best part was that the demo was slower because the demo guy had an extra espresso shot and the camera couldn’t hold still!

Look for some interesting discussion from Tech Field Day and stay tuned to hear more about Atmosphere from the delegates!

Wireless Doctors

Wireless is a complicated thing. Even when you try to distill it down to networking basics on the wired side of the access point, you still have a very hard problem to solve on the radio side. Even I’ve talked in the past about how wireless is now considered a “solved” problem. But, the more I interact with wireless professionals and the more I think about the problem, the issue isn’t that IT departments think wireless is solved, it’s that they don’t appreciate the value of a specialist.

The Last Place Doctor

There’s an old joke that goes, “What do you call the person that graduated last in their medical school class? Doctor.” Professionals spend a lot of their time learning a tradecraft and practicing it to get better. And it’s not just doctors. So do plumbers, electricians, and teachers. Anyone that has ever tried to do any of these trades will tell you that the basics are capable of being figured out by the average non-professional, but the details are a huge leap.

You’d never assume that being able to put on a Band-Aid on a scrape would qualify you to do brain surgery. Or that changing a lightbulb would mean you can rewire a house. Why is it then that most IT people think that knowing the radiation pattern of an access point antenna qualifies them to just hang them wherever they want with no regard for coverage or interference?

Specialists are an important part of society. They spend their time learning things so that they can do them better than anyone else. You’d never argue that a basketball player would make a good offensive lineman. That’s a physical difference and a difference in skillset that can’t translate between the two. So why do we do it in IT?

For wireless specifically people think that it’s easy because it “just works”. Time and time again when I talk to my friends in the wireless community they tell me that it’s far too easy to put up wireless that works badly. And because it’s functional people just go with it. Whether it’s a hotel or a public venue or a coffee shop, people are content to tolerate bad design and terrible implementation. Yet, when someone steps in to try and help them fix the problem there is hesitation on the part of the customer to make it happen.

The Specials

Why are customers hesitant to make their wireless work correctly with help from a specialist? The answer could be that people think wireless is so easy that paying someone to do it is too much of an expense. It could also be that when the wireless professional starts talking about the pieces that are “hard”, namely the radio design, antenna selection, and site survey, that people just tune out the jargon and think they are getting sold a bill of goods. Yet, when the doctor starts telling them about all the procedures that need to be done to get them healthy they won’t bat an eye.

Wireless professionals need to be treated just like any other specialized professional that provides a service to help people. It may not be brain surgery or arguing a case before the Supreme Court, but it’s a piece of specialized knowledge that they spend their time practicing to the point where they are very, very good at it.

Wireless professionals also need to make sure they justify their value when the conversation inevitably turn toward costing too much or not adding any value to a design or survey. Stand up for what you do! Tell the customer that your skills are crucial to make this deployment work properly. It’s always amazing to me that no one bats an eye at someone when they say they need time to figure out OSPF in a network but when a wireless professional says they need to do a site survey there is a huge discussion about it.

Customers too need to realize that their wireless deployments are easier to accomplish when the proper resources are allocated to make them happen quickly and efficiently. You can either pay a professional with years of experience to make it happen or you can grab a CWNA book and start learning the trade. But thinking that wireless is an easy problem does a disservice for both the wireless professional community and for your users as well.


Tom’s Take

The more I talk to my wireless friends, the more I realize that wireless is hard. I spend a lot of time with the packets on the wire side and I understand how those things work. But I also don’t have to worry about trees, microwaves, Bluetooth, or any one of the hundred other problems that can interfere with an otherwise perfect deployment. The people that know more than me have learned over years how to do it right. And so, when someone asks me if I can do a big wireless installation for them I don’t have a problem going to one of my friends. Because I’d rather the wireless doctors do it right than me doing it halfway.

It’s Probably Not The Wi-Fi

After finishing up Mobility Field Day last week, I got a chance to reflect on a lot of the information that was shared with the delegates. Much of the work in wireless now is focused on analytics. Companies like Cape Networks and Nyansa are trying to provide a holistic look at every part of the network infrastructure to help professionals figure out why their might be issues occurring for users. And over and over again, the resound cry that I heard was “It’s Not The Wi-Fi”

Building A Better Access Layer

Most of wireless is focused on the design of the physical layer. If you talk to any professional and ask them to show your their tool kit, they will likely pull out a whole array of mobile testing devices, USB network adapters, and diagramming software that would make AutoCAD jealous. All of these tools focus on the most important part of the equation for wireless professionals – the air. When the physical radio spectrum isn’t working users will complain about it. Wireless pros leap into action with their tools to figure out where the fault is. Either that, or they are very focused on providing the right design from the beginning with the tools validating that access point placement is correct and coverage overlap provides redundancy without interference.

These aren’t easy problems to solve. That’s why wireless folks get paid the big bucks to build it right or fix it after it was built wrong. Wired networkers don’t need to worry about microwave ovens or water pipes. Aside from the errant fluorescent light or overly aggressive pair of cable pliers, wired networks are generally free from the kinds of problems that can plague a wire-free access layer.

However, the better question that should be asked is how the users know it’s the wireless network that’s behind the faults? To the users, the system is in one of three states: perfect, horribly broken, or slow. I think we can all agree that the first state of perfection almost never actually exists in reality. It might exist shortly after installation when user load is low and actual application use is negligible. However, users are usually living in one of the latter states. Either the wireless is “slow” or it’s horribly broken. Why?

No-Service Station

As it turns out, thanks to some of the reporting from companies like Cape and Nyansa, it turns out that a large majority of the so-called wireless issues are in fact not wireless related at all. Those designs that wireless pros spend so much time fretting over are removed from the equation. Instead, the issues are with services.

Yes, those pesky network services. The ones like DNS or DHCP that seem invisible until they break. Or those services that we pay hefty sums to every month like Amazon or Microsoft Azure. The same issues that plague wired networking exist in the wireless world as well and seem to escape blame.

DNS is invisible to the majority of users. I’ve tried to explain it many times with middling to poor results. The idea that computers on the internet don’t understand words and must rely on services to translate them to numbers never seems to click. And when you add in the reliance on this system and how it can be knocked out with DDoS attacks or hijacking, it always comes back to being about the wireless.

It’s not hard to imagine why. The wireless is the first thing users see when they start having issues. It’s the new firewall. Or the new virus. Or the new popup. It’s a thing they can point to as the single source of problems. And if there is an issue at any point along the way, it must be the fault of the wireless. It can’t possibly be DNS or routing issues or a DDoS on AWS. Instead, the wireless is down.

And so wireless pros find themselves defending their designs and configurations without knowing that there is an issue somewhere else down the line. That’s why the analytics platforms of the future are so important. By giving wireless pros visibility into systems beyond the spectrum, they can reliably state that the wireless isn’t at fault. They can also engage other teams to find out why the DNS servers are down or why the default gateway for the branch office has been changed or is offline. That’s the kind of info that can turn a user away from blaming the wireless for all the problems and finding out what’s actually wrong.


Tom’s Take

If I had a nickel for every problem that was blamed on the wireless network or the firewall or some errant virus when that actually wasn’t the case, I could retire and buy my own evil overlord island next to Larry Ellison. Alas, these are issues that are never going to go away. Instead, the only real hope that we have is speeding the time to diagnose and resolve them by involving professionals that manage the systems that are actually down. And perhaps having some pictures of the monitoring systems goes a long way to tell users that they should make sure that the issue is indeed the wireless before proclaiming that it is. Because, to be honest, it probably isn’t the Wi-Fi.

The History of The Wireless Field Day AirCheck

Mobility Field Day 2 just wrapped up in San Jose. It’s always a little bittersweet to see the end of a successful event. However, one thing that does bring a bit of joy to the end of the week is the knowledge that one of the best and longest running traditions at the event continues. That tradition? The Wireless/Mobility Field Day AirCheck.

The Gift That Keeps Giving

The Wireless Field Day AirCheck story starts where all stories start. The beginning. At Wireless Field Day 1 in March of 2011, I was a delegate and fresh off my first Tech Field Day event just a month before. I knew some wireless stuff and was ready to learn a lot more about site surveys and other great things. Little did I know that I was about to get something completely awesome and unexpected.

As outlined in this post, Fluke Networks held a drawing at the end of their presentation for a first-generation AirCheck handheld wireless troubleshooting tool. I was thrilled to be the winner of this tool. I took it home and immediately put it to work around my office. I found it easy to use and it provided great information about wireless networks that I could use to make my life easier. I even loaned it out to some of my co-workers during troubleshooting calls and they immediately told me the wanted one of my own.

As the rest of 2011 rolled forward, I found uses for my AirCheck but I didn’t do as much wireless as a lot of the other people out there. I knew that someone else could probably get more out of having it than I did. So, I hatched a plan. I told Stephen Foskett that if I had the chance to come back to Wireless Field Day 2, I would gladly give my AirCheck away to another worthy delegate. I wanted to keep the tool in use with the best and brightest people in the community and help them see how awesome it was.

Sure enough, I was invited to Wireless Field Day 2 in January 2012. I arrived with my AirCheck and waited until the proper moment. During the welcome dinner, Matt Simmons and I found a way to randomly draw a number and award the special prize to Matthew Norwood. He was just as thrilled to get the AirCheck as I was. I sent my prize from Wireless Field Day 1 on its way to a new home, content that I would help someone get more wireless knowledge.

But the giving didn’t stop there. Even though I wasn’t a delegate for Wireless Field Day 3 or Wireless Field Day 4, the AirCheck kept coming back. Matthew gave it to Dan Cybulskie. Dan gave it to Scott Stapleton. The AirCheck headed down under for half of 2013. When Wireless Field Day 5 rolled around, I was now a staff member for Tech Field Day and working behind the scenes. I had forgotten about the AirCheck until a box arrived from Australia with Scott’s postmark on it. He mailed it back to the US to continue the tradition!

And so, the AirCheck passed along to a new set of hands every event. Blake Krone got it at Wireless Field Day 5. Then Jake Snyder, followed by Richard McIntosh and Scott McDermott. Even when we changed the name of the event to Mobility Field Day in 2016, the AirCheck passed along to Rowell Dionicio.

Changing Of The Guard

In the interim, the AirCheck product moved over to Netscout. They developed a new version, the G2, that was released after Mobility Field Day 1 in 2016. The word also got around to the Netscout folks that there was a magical G1 AirCheck that was passed along to successive Wireless/Mobility Field Day delegates as a way of keeping the learning active in the community.

Netscout was a presenter during Mobility Field Day 2 in 2017. Chris Hinz contacted me before the event and asked if we still gave away the AirCheck during the event. I assured him that we did. He said that a tradition like that should continue, even if the G1 AirCheck was getting a bit long in the tooth. He told me that he might be able to help us all out.

After the Netscout presentation at Mobility Field Day 2, Chris presented me with his special surprise: a brand new G2 AirCheck! Since we hadn’t given the old unit to its new recipient just yet, we decided that it was time to “retire” the old G1 and pass along the G2 to the next lucky contestant. Shaun Neal was the lucky delegate this time and took the new and improved G2 home with him Wednesday night. I was happy to see it go to him knowing that he’ll get to put it through its paces and learn from it. And then he will get to bring it back to the next Mobility Field Day for it to pass along to a new delegate and continue the chain of sharing.


Tom’s Take

When I gave away my G1 AirCheck all those years ago, I never expected it would turn into something so incredible. The sharing and exchange of tools and knowledge at both Wireless Field Day and Mobility Field Day help remind me of why I do this job with Stephen. The community is an awesome and amazing place sometimes. The new G2 AirCheck will have a long life helping delegates troubleshoot wireless issues.

The old G1 AirCheck, my AirCheck, is in my suitcase. It’s ready to start its retirement in my office, having earned thousands of frequent flyer miles as well as becoming a very important part of Tech Field Day lore. I couldn’t be happier to get it back at the end of its life knowing how much happiness it brought to people along the way.