Remotely Managed Home wifi

“Oh you work in the tech field?  Can you fix my wireless?”  We all get this request, it is why I have started pushing friends and family toward chromebooks and iPhones.  They seem to be the easiest to troubleshoot when things don’t work as expected.  Wireless on the other hand has always been a challenge, trying to help someone remotely, to explain why their wireless doesn’t work.  With home networks now relied upon for home automation, home media, security systems, and normal web browsing, a $50-$100 wifi router is not likely to cut it any longer.

Recently I decided to put in wireless for my mother, who has never had internet access, and lives 2 hours away.  We wanted to get her an iPhone, but wanted to make sure the experience was optimal.  I did significant research on how to control the system remotely, and even debated trying to teach my mother how to manage the system.  For our home, I had already installed the Ubiquity Unifi System, so after some research I opted for the same system for the remote site.

The setup was pretty simple.  I opted for the Unifi Secure Gateway  for the firewall, I need to write an update on why I made that decision later, and the UAP-AC-LR for the access point.  I chose the Long Range model because I was more concerned with coverage than performance, and because the only use case was internet access, no network storage or local media servers.  I used the Raspberry Pi 3 unifi controller from my previous post, but I opted for a local controller, rather than running both from the one controller, although it is possible based on this support KB.  My concern was if there was an issue when I was not home with the controller, I didn’t want to lose access to both systems.  For the price, it seemed prudent to separate them.

Making changes to the system was exceptionally simple since Ubiquiti gave us the cloud controller.  I simply enabled cloud access on my existing system, and the new one, and voila, I have remote access to the controller with no VPN and no port forwarding.

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To manage the system I go to the cloud management site, http://unifi.ubnt.com and login.  I am able to access both controllers independently, make any changes, and push those to the firewall or the access points.

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I even went so far as to install a TP-Link Smart Plug so I can remotely reboot the controller if it becomes non-responsive.  This became necessary after I made a change that caused an issue with the controller and required my son who lives nearby going over to reboot the controller for me.

As I tend to support family and friends wireless, it occurred to me this has a number of potential use cases.  For several years I have supported the wireless internet at our Church, which usually leads to me driving 30-60 min each way when there is an issue, thankfully not often.  I am also working on some projects for an orphanage we support in El Salvador, one of which is wireless.  As I continue to build out my home and extended family wireless, I am seeing further uses for this type of a system.  Simplifying the management, and making it remotely accessible will make my life easier, but also change the way others use technology.

Wireless internet is changing the way we interact, my mother is on Facebook finally seeing more pictures of the grandchildren than ever, her brother is watching old television shows and old car races he remembers from his child hood.  Young girls in an orphanage in El Salvador are getting a better quality education, and going on to improve their country with their own knowledge, not foreign aid.  Providing a remotely managed wireless system helps create more opportunities to learn and share, changing the way we communicate and takes much of the burden off those of us who support multiple family members and friends.

Remotely Managed Home wifi

Automating my home Wireless Revisited Part 1: Design

Since moving into our new home, I have been on a quest for new gadgets, and new ideas that would help make our home more manageable, and more enjoyable.  Most of this has centered around controlling as much as possible remotely, generally from my iPhone.  In earlier posts I wrote about various home wireless routers I had tried, and about my journey to settling on the Ubiquity wireless technology.  Since I have been having many conversations recently about my configuration and the growth of my home network I thought it would be helpful to walk through my current configuration and explain some of the choices.
 

Router

 
Moving away from the all in one wireless router became imperative when I wanted to begin separating some of my traffic on my home network.  It started with a a guest network on my Apple Airport Express devices, but as devices began to multiply in my house, I wanted more control over traffic and more functionality to block users access by time and various other criteria.  This required a fully functional firewall with more advanced router functionality.
 
After significant research, the Ubiquiti EdgeRouter X met all my requirements at a very reasonable price.  The biggest benefit here was having a full firewall, actual VLAN support, and the ability to create the DHCP scopes needed to support my new design.  For the price, I determined if this didn’t work out it would be a fun lab experiment.  After some review I decided against the Ubiquity Unifi Security Appliance, due to the lack of advanced functionality, the integration with the Unifi controller was tempting but not enough.
 

Switch

 
Initially when I was planning for a wired design, the physical switch was a pretty critical component.  I was looking at several 24 port switches, more advanced functionality, and assuming that all VLANs would terminate at that central switch, with small 5 or 8 port access layers witches where needed for aggregating cabling as needed.  As the wireless design unfolded, the switch became less relevant, and only required for the few devices without wireless, most of which sit next to the router.
 
After careful consideration and design review, the TP-LINK Easy Smart Switch 8 portTP-LINK Easy Smart Switch 8 port was again the best choice for what I was designing.  I gave some consideration to the Ubiquity Unifi 24 port managed switch, but the additional functionality was not compelling enough for he significant price increase, especially since I only needed a few ports.
 

Controller

 
When I initially installed the software controller, I tried to use a first generation Raspberry pi B+.  The process was cumbersome, and required me to build from source.  In the end, it proved to be far too slow for my likings, and seemed a bit unstable.
 
To get things up and running, I installed the Unifi management software on my Mac Mini media server.  This worked pretty well, but I prefer to isolate things as much as possible, and it required me to change the port on one of my media management apps.
 
As an experiment, I wanted to test out the new Raspberry Pi 3 as a controller, realizing that might make this something I could package for people who wanted better wireless.  As it turned out, this model supported the native debian linux package for the controller, and is now my permanent controller.
 

Wireless Access Point

 

I have owned dozens of wireless routers.  Unfortunately, I could never find a single solution that covered my whole house.  When we moved into the new house, I decided I needed a system that would give me full coverage everywhere, even if it required multiple access points.  After significant research, I finally settled on Ubiquity Unifi UAP-AC-PRO.  I had to put watchers out on several sites, and finally was able to get ahold of one.  I assumed I would need 2-3 to cover us, but the one has served incredibly well.  The POE was also a huge benefit, I was able to simply do a quick cat6 run through my attic and drop it in the upstairs hall.  It actually looks like a smoke detector if you don’t know what you are looking for, so it blends right in.

 

This post is just designed to give you the architecture, and some of the decision points.  Soon I will go over some of the more interesting configurations in detail and explain why I made some design choices.  The takeaway here is that for under $300 I ended up with enterprise wireless at my home.  I have put all my streaming media on wifi with no issues, the only things plugged in are controllers and other devices without wifi.  I am very happy with the system, and plan to do a similar configuration for friends and family who want a better wifi experience without the insane costs of Cisco Meraki or similar.

 

Automating my home Wireless Revisited Part 1: Design

Enterprise Home Wireless and Home Automation

Solid Home wireless networks have become expected.  We don’t think about them, we don’t want to invest much in them, but we want them to always work.  For something so critical, it is logical for many users to implement a more Enterprise wireless system at home to support home automation and the myriad of new technologies that demand more and better wireless performance.

Why is home wireless so important?

     My first home wireless access point was a Linksys  running 802.11b, much slower than what we run today with significantly less range.  I had one laptop which connected to it, which was great for our small apartment.  We now live in a much larger house and use smart televisions and devices for streaming Netflix, Sling tv, and Plex to provide our entertainment.  There are 2-3 devices between phones, tablets, and laptops, per person, not including our home media server, wireless thermostat, wireless cameras, and others.  There are over 30 devices running off our home network at any given time, often with multiple HD video streams running simultaneously.

     While we may be the extreme, it is also indicative of the direction that many home users are going.  Recently a friend of my wife asked my sons and I to help setup her new smart tv. When I arrived, she had two wireless routers, one from Comcast, and a Linksys router, and too my surprise, both were broadcasting different SSID’s.  I worked on the routers for a while, but eventually gave up and just left everything as it was because I wasn’t sure what the implications of changing it would be.

What should you look for in home wireless?

     With many internet providers integrating wireless in their routers, often the installer from the provider will setup the basic wireless service.  This is great for getting the user going, but this introduces some significant issues.  First the wireless routers are often used equipment, whatever the technician happens to have in their van.  For many of these providers they also use these wireless routers to provide a public hotspot for their other customers.  This is done using a separate network, but is still a potential security risk.  Finally the features on these routers are fairly limited.  Updating the firmware often requires the providers tech support, not my idea of a good time.

     For all home wireless users, purchasing a wireless router is at least a very good idea.  Types of routers depend widely on the size of the home, and the types of devices used.  At a minimum, at this point, 802.11ac routers should be selected with features like a guest network being a standard feature.  Most modern wireless routers come with several gigabit ports on the back as well which is nice for devices which may not have a wireless connection.  Finally range is critical to look at.  With the rise of “Mesh” routers, basically the concept that you can drop in several routers throughout the house and they connect to each other wirelessly to extend the wireless network, it is important to remember that this is going to significantly slow the performance of your wireless network.

How do you set it up?

From a performance perspective it is important to consider how fast your home internet connection is, and what you are using the home network for.  Having fast wireless is critical for me, due to the number of devices connecting out to the internet, but also because we stream movies and tv shows we own from a central media server, or the internet.  A majority of the content is internal to the home network so we have an incredibly robust wireless system.  I also have chosen to purchase my cable modem to ensure that we have a good quality connection outside.  We have a fairly advanced network with different wireless for the children, a separate guest network, and even a separate network for devices such as cameras and the thermostat.  This ensures that if there is a problem with a device I have less control over, I can isolate the problem.

     Unless you are someone who fully understands how to configure some of the more advanced settings, it is often wise to find someone to help.  While it is tempting to go it alone, this is a risky proposition when you consider how much of our life is online.  Offering a friend working in IT, or your local IT guy some cash, or other bribes is always a good way to get some help, or looking at services offered by Geek Squad at Best Buy or other similar companies is often wise.  It is always good to remember you get what you pay for, and you wouldn’t do surgery on yourself.  It is also wise to seek advice from these type of people on what to purchase.  While $200 or more for a wireless access router may seem like a lot, it is important to remember that wireless internet is an essential part of our daily lives.

     As more devices connect to our networks, and we continue to expect more from these systems, better devices, with more complex configurations are required to keep up.  While most people can read the instructions and get the basic out of the box configuration to work, a more advanced and full feature set is likely available.  Getting assistance, and learning about how wireless can help simplify your life and provide more opportunities for home automation can be a critical for the home user just as much as the business user.

Enterprise Home Wireless and Home Automation