Home Networking with Ubiquiti UniFi: Part 1

If you’re thinking about taking the plunge into the Ubiquiti UniFi universe (alliteration!), or just giving your home network a serious upgrade, this series of posts is for you. From what I’ve gathered, the rewards of a system like this are great — but its not for you if you don’t avidly enjoy tinkering.

This first post covers how I decided what to buy (and particularly where to put APs), and some tips on how you can too.

Prelude

In May of 2015, my parents were on their 5th router in a period of 3–4 years. Every time my father would make a purchase, he’d buy the cheapest one he could find “on sale” — and as you can imagine, all of them largely performed like routers that belonged at a discount. Within a matter of months, each one would slow down; most would require daily unplugging to reboot, and a couple eventually just gave up altogether. It was this that led me to not only go out and purchase a significantly more expensive Netgear R7000 (also known as the “Nighthawk”, or “AC1900”), but also solder a PC fan to the motherboard in an effort to increase its longevity:
The Helicopter Router
I was in heaven — not only could I get far more reliable WiFi anywhere in the house, but the R7000 is compatible with DD-WRT, allowing me (what I thought was) all the customization and power I could ever want.

This combination has served us well now for over 3 years — but as time has passed, the following has kept me from feeling completely satisfied:

  • I can only get a good 5GHz connection standing in the same room as the router.
  • The DD-WRT interface is painfully old looking, sometimes hard to configure, and some of its features haven’t been updated in years.
  • The router only has four ethernet ports — standard for a consumer router, but having my servers, NAS, and other hardwired networkables (Philips Hue, Amazon Echo Connect, Ooma) spread out across multiple unmanaged switches can be a pain.
  • I top out at about 350mbps, even on a gigabit ethernet connection (I’m under the impression this is due to DD-WRT’s inability to take full advantage of hardware acceleration on the R7000).

Fast forward to now: I have a friend who recently moved and needed to purchase his own router — and it was this development that has inclined me to impulsively offer him the “helicopter router”. It seems like an opportune time to begin the expedition into enterprise-grade networking hardware — because all I needed was a good excuse :)

The Components (and their relation to consumer routers)

When I first started researching Ubiquiti as a possibility, I didn’t come across a simple explanation of the separate individual components involved. If you already know the difference, you can either skip to the next section or read through and correct me if I got something wrong. 😉

Your typical consumer router can be broken into four main components:

  1. The gateway,
  2. the router,
  3. the switch,
  4. and the access point.

The Gateway & Router

Both the gateway and the router perform similar functions — they control the way in which traffic flows between networks, but the gateway regulates traffic between two different networks (i.e. the internet) while a router regulates connections between devices on your local network. Thus, the firewall is located in the gateway. In the UniFi ecosystem, both of these functions are performed by the Security Gateway products (often abbreviated as “USG”). As of writing, there are three of these — but the Security Gateway is the smallest/cheapest one, and the one I’ll be using. The other two are for much larger networks than I think many would have in their home.

The Switch

When explaining this component to the technically inept, I often describe it as an “ethernet cable splitter”. While the actual technology inside is quite different, it’s an easy description of its function that most people understand. The switch connects multiple ethernet devices together — some managed switches then route those connections (like a router), and unmanaged switches (or managed switches with routing capabilities disabled) do nothing other than bridge the connections by relaying transmitted data to the appropriate devices. I want more capacity, but can’t afford one of the UniFi switches with PoE (and I’m okay with using a few injectors) — so I opted for the non-PoE Unifi Switch 24.

The Access Point

This device broadcasts your WiFi — simple as that. It connects to your switch like any other device on your network. There are several options to choose from for these, and there’s plenty of articles and information available on their differences — I won’t go into all of that, but the main three UniFi APs (as of writing) are the AC Lite, AC Pro, and AC Long Range.

A quick important anecdote: don’t let the idea of the Long Range trick you, it’s not the best option for most home-use cases — while they have a longer broadcast distance, it’s better to have a higher AP density with a shorter range AP (i.e. the Lites or Pros). There are a couple reasons for this:

  • The broadcast range of the LR is higher, but that doesn’t make the transmission power of your phone/tablet any higher. Just because it can receive signal from the AP well, doesn’t mean it’ll be able to transmit back.
  • A higher AP density will spread your load out (across APs connected across multiple connections on your switch).
  • 5GHz bands travel half as far as 2.4GHz bands — so you while you may be able to receive 2.4GHz on the opposite side of your house (even maybe with a Lite), you wouldn’t be able to achieve a reliable 5GHz connection without a higher AP density.

Planning AP Placement

Ubiquiti sells a component for the UniFi system called the Cloud Key — similar to the web interface on a consumer router, this is just a little server that hosts a web panel (Ubiquiti calls it the “Network Management Controller”) used to control the rest of your UniFi hardware. However, if you’re on a budget you don’t need this! If you have a Raspberry Pi (Docker image here) or Linux server (Docker image here) with spare processing power, it’s super simple to install. The Ubiquiti website seems to indicate that you can even run it on Windows/Mac as well, though I have not tried myself. There are even iOS and Android apps available that allow you to configure APs without it.

That said, if you have a computer available to run the full software, I highly recommend it — it’s incredibly useful for planning AP placement prior to buying any hardware. Once installed, you’ll see something like this:
Main Unifi Controller Panel

While it doesn’t provide us hardly any network info, the cool stuff is under the “Map” tab:
Unifi Controller "Maps" tab

Here, you can import a floorplan and actually draw the different types of walls (and different heights/thicknesses) in your house over the floorplan, place virtual APs, and see how your walls will affect where you should place them for optimal 5GHz coverage. It’s fantastic!

If you don’t have a floorplan of your home, it’s ridiculously easy to make one and fast — there’s an app for both iOS and Android devices called magicplan. All you do is go to each corner of a room, point the camera at it and click a button, and they give you one free floorplan “unlock” so you can email yourself an image file that you can import into the UniFi Control mapping software at “Add New Map” -> “Image” tab -> “Choose Map Image”.

And so it continues…

This concludes the first step of the process. My equipment is on order, and I’m just waiting for it to arrive! I will update this post with links to the newer posts (and any more information I find out).

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