Ubiquiti WiFi: How I Got Started with this Fantastic Kit on a Modest Budget
It all started a few weeks ago when I was sat out in the garden on a sunny day with my wife. She was trying to do something on her tablet and was bemoaning the poor WiFi outdoors. At the time I was coincidentally reading an article on WiFi mesh systems and since WiFi wasn't too great in some parts of indoors either I briefly flirted with the idea of buying something like Google Wifi or BT's Whole Home Wi-Fi. However on looking in to this in more depth none of the products seemed to tick all the boxes, either being very expensive or lacking in what I would consider an essential feature. For example Google Wifi is administered by an app rather than by a browser application. Fine for some perhaps but not for me thank you.
I thought I could fix things on the cheap and bought a Netgear EX3700 WiFi Range Extender. I used this in both extender mode (I think of this as WiFi in serial with the router's WiFi) and also in access point (AP) mode via an Ethernet connection (I think of this as WiFi in parallel with the router's WiFi) however I wasn't thrilled with the results. The main gripe was that the mobile devices in my home at least (phones, tablets etc) all wanted to hang on to their existing connection for grim death. So even when standing next to the EX3700 in AP mode blasting out a 100% signal, my phone could still be hanging on to almost no signal from the router. Perhaps it was something wrong with my setup—the EX3700 too close to my router perhaps? Either way it wasn't wholly satisfactory.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I found myself working through Troy Hunt's excellent Pluralsight course on What Every Developer Must Know About HTTPS. One of the slides had a screenshot of a blog post by Troy on fixing dodgy WiFi on his jet ski with Ubiquiti's UniFi Mesh. I vaguely remembered reading about Ubiquiti somewhere and with my interest piqued I started checking out Troy's blog.
And as it has been with so many others it seems, that's where my love affair began...
Warning! Reading Further WILL Cause you to be Parted from Your Hard-Earned Cash
There are many places on the Internet that eulogise about Ubiquiti products so I'm going to resist the temptation here. These are the key posts I read (specifically about the UniFi rage of products) and which I think you will enjoy and find useful and informative:
- Ubiquiti all the things: how I finally fixed my dodgy wifi
- My Ubiquiti Home Network
- How I finally fixed the dodgy wifi on my jet ski with Ubiquiti's UniFi Mesh
- Wiring a home network from the ground-up with Ubiquiti
Make sure you don't miss the video in Troy's first post of him unboxing a load of Ubiquiti kit. This does a great job of explaining what all the main bits of kit are, and if you watch this in conjunction with reading the posts above you'll have a good idea of the key products in the UniFi range.
Needless to say, I was instantly hooked and I wanted in. However my existing WiFi setup wasn't so bad that I could justify spending over a £1,000 on new kit. Feeling slightly deflated I continued to research the UniFi range of products, to the point where it dawned on me that you don't need to start off with a big investment, and you don't need to buy every component to make a working system. And so the fun began...
Starting off with an Access Point
My journey began by adding a wireless access point (AP) to my home network. A few things need to be in place to make this work:
- The first thing of course is an AP. There are several in the UniFi range and like many others I plumped for the AP-AC-PRO on the basis that it was only a little more expensive than the less capable models but vastly cheaper than the AP-AC-HD daddy.
- Generally speaking APs require an Ethernet connection so you are going to need an Ethernet connection near to where you will site the AP. I'm lucky in that my home had CAT 5e wired-in when it was built and I have 40+ sockets all over the house and garage. An alternative would be running a dedicated cable from your modem/router or more likely powerline networking using the domestic electricity supply.
- In addition to Ethernet providing a data connection, UniFi APs also need to get their power over an Ethernet connection (logically known as power over Ethernet—PoE). Although Ubiquiti sell some lovely switches that have PoE ports (see here for an example) you don't actually need one of these because the APs (if you buy them singly at least) ship with a PoE adaptor (the POE-48-24W-G model). As long as you have an electrical power socket near your Ethernet connection you are good to go.
- The final piece of this jigsaw is the UniFi Controller software. Ubiquiti sell a dedicated device that runs the software (the Cloud Key) but again, you don't need this. The software is free to download and runs happily on the usual platforms—even on the Raspberry Pi. Furthermore, if you are just running an AP the UniFi Controller software doesn't need to be running all the time and can be installed on a PC or a Mac and spun up as and when is needed to configure the AP.
Putting all of this together was pretty straightforward. The AP-AC-PRO simply linked in to my Ethernet network via the PoE adaptor, and I opted to position it in the middle of the house on top of a unit in our open-plan kitchen / dining room. I have an always-on Windows Server 2012 R2 machine on my network and I installed the UniFi Controller software on that. There are a few considerations to be aware of when running on Windows:
- Java is a requirement and whilst the installation wizard takes you to a download page you seem to end up installing 32-bit Java. For reasons I'll explain below you probably don't want this so instead make sure you download and install the 64-bit version.
- In it's default configuration UniFi Controller doesn't run as a Windows service. It's easy to configure using these instructions however it only works with 64-bit Java—see above.
- You access UniFi Controller using a browser (https://localhost:8443 if running locally) however it's not compatible with browsers that ship with Windows Server 2012 R2 or Windows Server 2016 and if this is a problem you can easily get round this by accessing from a different machine replacing localhost with the machine's IP address or FQDN.
- UniFi Controller ships with a self-signed SSL certificate which causes browsers to raise warnings. These can be safely bypassed but it does leave the browser address bar looking a bit ugly.
The UniFi Controller installation wizard is a doddle and doesn't need explaining. At the end of the process you are presented with a nice dashboard:
So far so good, but it's clear that there are a lot of greyed-out features. The fix? Just a bit more expenditure to buy the UniFi Security Gateway, commonly known as the USG.
Probably Will Want to get a UniFi Security Gateway
That was my initial reaction on seeing the Controller dashboard without the USG. There is a choice between the rackmount USG‑PRO‑4 or the standalone USG. The former is enterprise grade and much more expensive than the USG, which is perfectly adequate for a home network and the one I opted for. There are a few steps to incorporating the USG in to your home network and it helps to be clear about which roles each piece of kit will perform when the USG is in and working. In my case I'm on VDSL broadband and my original setup consisted of a Netgear D6400 performing the roles of both modem and router (as well as DHCP and a few other things of course but I'm keeping it simple). With the USG in the mix, the D6400 is configured to work in modem only mode and the USG takes on the router function. Crucially in my case, I needed to configure the USG to be the device that supplies the PPPoE credentials my broadband provider needs for a successful connection. This was a bit of a head-scratcher at first since the USG can work in two other modes (DHCP and Static IP) and I wasn't entirely sure how much configuration would be down to the D6400. None as it turns out.
Because the default D6400 gateway configuration is 192.168.0.1 and the USG is configured as 192.168.1.1 and I wasn't sure what would happen if I changed the USG to 220.127.116.11 as well, I decided to change my network to fit in with the USG. I planned to perform the initial USG configuration directly from my always-on server (running UniFi Controller on Windows Server 2012 R2) which I knew would cause issues with Internet Explorer so I planned ahead and installed FireFox. I also made sure that my broadband provider's PPPoE credentials were available locally on that box as well as the credentials to log in to UniFi Controller. The procedure was then as follows:
- Configure the USG to work in PPPoE mode by attaching it directly to a laptop that did not already have a connection to another gateway (ie WiFi turned off and no Ethernet connected) and running the setup routine by pointing a browser to http://setup.ubnt.com/. This didn't work for me but pointing a browser to http://192.168.1.1 did. An Edit Configuration button allows you to change from the default DHCP setting to PPPoE.
- Convert the Netgear D6400 from modem/router mode to modem only mode. This wasn't too hard to find in the advanced settings—you'll have to dig around for this on your own device. At this point you'll loose your broadband connection and for many devices it seems the ability to connect to them without performing a factory reset.
- Because I was planning to bring my wired devices back one-by-one I unplugged everything from my switch and the D6400. I then plugged the machine running UniFi Controller directly in to the LAN 1 port. Because this machine had a static IP on the D6400's subnet I changed this temporarily back to DHCP so it could communicate properly with the USP. (I could have course given it a static IP on the USP's subnet.)
- In UniFi Controller > Settings > Networks I amended the DHCP Range (I leave space for static IP addresses). You should end up with something like this:
- After saving the network settings I navigated to UniFi Controller > Devices and located the USG. Under the Actions column I clicked Adopt to configure the USG with the previously defined settings.
- Following the adoption process, I accessed the USG's properties by clicking its name (not the IP address). On the Configuration tab the WAN section allowed me to supply my ISP's PPPoE credentials and DNS details (I have an OpenDNS account):
- Once the WAN changes had been provisioned to the USG I connected the WAN port of the USG to an Ethernet port on the D6400 in order to check broadband connectivity and speed. Note that both the WAN and LAN 1 ports should be connected at 1 Gbps. Initially my LAN 1 was showing 100/10 Mbps and it was due to a dodgy cable.
- With broadband now connected again I took the opportunity of upgrading the USG's firmware using the handy button in the Actions column:
- The final bit of this configuration was to plug the USG in to my switch (a ZyXEL GS1100-16) and plug my always-on server running UniFi Controller in to the switch and configure it with a static IP address.
With the core configuration completed I reconnected my wired devices one-by-one, fixing up any static IP address issues (due to the change of subnet) where required and giving each device (or client as they are known) a friendly name in UniFi Controller (click a client to open its properties and then navigate to Configuration > General > Alias). With this done the dashboard looks much better:
Troubleshooting and Disaster Recovery
If you do run in to problems you can find logs in the UniFi Controller installation folder (C:\Users\<profile name>\Ubiquiti UniFi\logs on Windows). It's also worth enabling Auto Backup from the Settings area. I configured mine to backup every day at 1am and then added C:\Users\<profile name>\Ubiquiti UniFi\data\backup to my CrashPlan configuration. Obviously do whatever works for you.
Outstanding Issues and Future Plans
One facility which I had taken for granted with my Netgear D6400 was some local DNS resolution. I first realised this was an issue when I couldn't get to my Windows Server 2012 R2 machine using its hostname. Long story short, it would appear that many SOHO routers use a tool called Dnsmasq for DNS forwarding and as a DHCP server. This apparently allows Dnsmasq to resolve DHCP client names. The USG doesn't really do DNS (which is fair enough since it's part of an ecosystem where different boxes are expected to do specific jobs) however I've seen a few posts in the forums where some scripting has been used to implement local DNS. It's not a major deal breaker for me and for the time being I've edited the hosts file on my Windows machines whilst I figure out what, if anything, I'm going to do about it.
EDIT: My conclusion about local DNS resolution is wrong. I traced the problem back to static IP addresses, specifically with me assigning static IP addresses from within clients themselves. (Most of my network is DHCP however there are a few clients on my network which I like to give static IP addresses. Probably pointless though—old habits die hard.) It turns out that if you assign IP addresses from within the clients DHCP is bypassed (of course) and the IP address doesn't get registered for DNS loookup. (It's something like that anyway.) The procedure to follow instead if you want a known IP address is to use IP address reservations. You can set these from the Properties window of a client by navigating to the Network tab under Configuration. Once I'd done this everything started working!
In terms of what's next, it will probably be a second AP-AC-PRO so I can have one at either end of the house. After that I will probably look at configuring some serious outdoor coverage via the UniFi Mesh devices. There's a huge amount to like about Ubiquiti products, but the ability to add new bits in as budget allows is one that I really appreciate.
Cheers -- Graham