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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When Redundancy Strikes

Networking and systems professionals preach the value of redundancy. When we tell people to buy something, we really mean “buy two”. And when we say to buy two, we really mean buy four of them. We try to create backup routes, redundant failover paths, and we keep things from being used in a way that creates a single point of disaster. But, what happens when something we’ve worked hard to set up causes us grief?

Built To Survive

The first problem I ran into was one I knew how to solve. I was installing a new Ubiquiti Security Gateway. I knew that as soon as I pulled my old edge router out that I was going to need to reset my cable modem in order to clear the ARP cache. That’s always a thing that needs to happen when you’re installing new equipment. Having done this many times, I knew the shortcut method was to unplug my cable modem for a minute and plug it back in.

What I didn’t know this time was that the little redundant gremlin living in my cable modem was going to give me fits. After fifteen minutes of not getting the system to come back up the way that I wanted, I decided to unplug my modem from the wall instead of the back of the unit. That meant the lights on the front were visible to me. And that’s when I saw that the lights never went out when the modem was unplugged.

Turns out that my modem has a battery pack installed since it’s a VoIP router for my home phone system as well. That battery pack was designed to run the phones in the house for a few minutes in a failover scenario. But it also meant that the modem wasn’t letting go of the cached ARP entries either. So, all my efforts to make my modem take the new firewall were being stymied by the battery designed to keep my phone system redundant in case of a power outage.

The second issue came when I went to turn up a new Ubiquiti access point. I disconnected the old Meraki AP in my office and started mounting the bracket for the new AP. I had already warned my daughter that the Internet was going to go down. I also thought I might have to reprogram her device to use the new SSID I was creating. Imagine my surprise when both my laptop and her iPad were working just fine while I was hooking the new AP up.

Turns out, both devices did exactly what they were supposed to do. They connected to the other Meraki AP in the house and used it while the old one was offline. Once the new Ubiquiti AP came up, I had to go upstairs and unplug the Meraki to fail everything back to the new AP. It took some more programming to get everything running the way that I wanted, but my wireless card had done the job it was supposed to do. It failed to the SSID it could see and kept on running until that SSID failed as well.

Finding Failure Fast

When you’re trying to troubleshoot around a problem, you need to make sure that you’re taking redundancy into account as well. I’ve faced a few problems in my life when trying to induce failure or remove a configuration issue was met with difficulty because of some other part of the network or system “replacing” my hard work with a backup copy. Or, I was trying to figure out why packets were flowing around a trouble spot or not being inspected by a security device only to find out that the path they were taking was through a redundant device somewhere else in the network.

Redundancy is a good thing. Until it causes issues. Or until it makes your network behave in such a way as to be unpredictable. Most of the time, this can all be mitigated by good documentation practices. Being able to figure out quickly where the redundant paths in a network are going is critical to diagnosing intermittent failures.

It’s not always as easy as pulling up a routing table either. If the entire core is down you could be seeing traffic routing happening at the edge with no way of knowing the redundant supervisors in the chassis are doing their job. You need to write everything down and know what hardware you’re dealing with. You need to document redundant power supplies, redundant management modules, and redundant switches so you can isolate problems and fix them without pulling your hair out.


Tom’s Take

I rarely got to work with redundant equipment when I was installing it through E-Rate. The government doesn’t believe in buying two things to do the job of one. So, when I did get the opportunity to work with redundant configurations I usually found myself trying to figure out why things were failing in a way I could predict. After a while, I realized that I needed to start making my own notes and doing some investigation before I actually started troubleshooting. And even then, like my cable modem’s battery, I ran into issues. Redundancy keeps you from shooting yourself in the foot. But it can also make you stab yourself in the eye in frustration.