The new home network

Asus DSL-AC68U wireless modem router

Next year will be 10 years since I bought any new home networking gear. Compared to typical IT gear lifetimes, where you’re normally replacing gear every couple of years, hitting double digits on anything is an impressive feat that usually represents one of two things. Either you over-invested to begin with in the name of “future-proofing”, even if you couldn’t fully use the gear at first, or there have been so many other expenses/upgrades ahead of it that you haven’t even thought about upgrading something that works perfectly well. As the old adage goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But look, I’m not here to judge your personal technology choices. Merely provide some insight into some of my own, a cautionary tale or two, and some helpful anecdotes along the way. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get all three in a single post, but if not, two out of three ain’t bad.

For the past nine years, a venerable Asus DSL-AC68U wireless modem/router has been dutifully providing access to the interwebs to all my devices. It’s done its job so well, faultlessly, that I feel like I need to put it out to pasture before it starts getting ideas and starting the robot uprising that every sci-fi has warned us about. Besides, it’s 2024 now, and putting aside the glaring limitations of Australian internet speeds or your device’s ability to utilise that kind of speed, the Wi-Fi 5 that it came with is positively pedestrian compared to what we have now. Plus, WPA3 is also a thing now too, and any security upgrade is always worthwhile.

When I was waiting for the internet to be connected in my first apartment, I was able to plug a USB 4G modem into it and have the AC68U share it to all my devices. And when that same apartment joined the 21st century and upgraded to NBN, albeit on the slightly-inferior FTTB version, the AC68U just kept on working. And now that I’m on Opticomm (i.e. non-NBN) FTTP, it just keeps on working. I have no doubt that it would keep doing so until one of two things happened: it releases the magic smoke and spontaneously combusts into a small pile of ash, or the heat death of the universe. Whichever comes first.

That means it’s time for an upgrade! But to what?

Home networking gear is boring in the best possible way. The ideal scenario is that you set it up once, and don’t ever touch it again unless you’re changing something. But if you’re like me, you’ll spend a few weeks every ten years fiddling with it, then never touch it again. That’s basically how I’ve run my AC68U over the years, besides upgrading the firmware every now and again, or forwarding a port here and there. Like I said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I have basically three options for upgrading my home network.

I consider myself pretty lucky (for the purposes of picking home networking gear), in that I live by myself in a small apartment. That means I don’t need a fancy mesh system, or multiple APs to cover the whole thing. Because I’m the only one that uses the network, I can wire up all my computers for the latency and consistency advantages wired connections provide, put everything else on wireless, and have a pretty simple setup overall.

It would have been easy to pick up something like the 2024 version of the AC68U, an all-in-one wireless router. This time around, I won’t even have to buy something with an ADSL modem, because I’m not planning to live in a place with ADSL ever again. But as ugly as the aesthetic of most of today’s wireless routers are, surely there are better options? Some of the Wi-Fi 7 wireless router options from TP Link don’t look too bad, although they are a little on the pricey side. But what if I wanted a slightly less consumer option? After almost a decade with the Asus and never touching all the marketing buzzwords in its web interface and going straight to the advanced settings, what if I wanted to step it up a notch?

Ubiquity seem to be the current flavour of the month for their prosumer networking gear. Their new-ish UniFi Express is a nice little all-in-one that I could probably recommend pretty comfortably to anyone who wanted something configurable, but backed with a great user interface that makes setting it all up easy enough. I can even see myself trying out a UniFi Express to see if I like the Ubiquity ecosystem as a whole, as it’s also a pretty cheap entry point into the UniFi ecosystem. It would probably also be suitable for someone to deploy at a “secondary” site like their parent’s house to replace their ageing network gear, too, and even comes with cool features like remote management.

But as nice as the UniFi Express is, it “only” comes with Wi-Fi 6, so wouldn’t be that much of an upgrade. It’s also lacking some features. There’s no USB port, for example, if you wanted to share a 4G/5G USB modem between all your devices, just like I had to do while I was waiting for the internet to be connected at my place after moving in. That isn’t a huge deal these days given the relatively fast provisioning times of NBN, but it’s a nice to have. There’s also only one LAN port, like Ubiquity expect you to have a switch if you plan to network a few computers together like it’s 1999 or something. It’s a reasonable assumption, but would it have killed Ubiquity to put a few more Ethernet ports on the thing? Fortunately, this also isn’t a big deal for me as I already have a switch connecting my computers together on a LAN like it’s 1999.

Which brings us to the third option, separate out my router, switch, and wireless access point into three separate devices. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with having an all-in-one wireless router, sometimes you just can’t find the right device at the right price. There’s also something about the modularity of having three separate devices, meaning that if you want to upgrade something in the future, you can do so without having to replace everything. But now instead of having one decision to make, I have three! Make that two, on account of the fact I already have a switch. It’s an 8-port, 2.5G RJ45 switch with one 10G SFP+ port from Keeplink, which you can also have for the low price of around $70 if you’re willing to buy it from AliExpress.

There aren’t that many Wi-Fi 7 APs available right now, given how new the technology is. But I’m picking up the Ubiquity UniFi U7 Pro, once I can find it in stock. Normally you need to use a UniFi Controller with any of Ubiquity’s APs, but I want to try running it without, in what they call the standalone mode. Standalone mode has some limitations compared to setting up a UniFi AP with a UniFi Controller (either one that you self-host, or one that runs on other UniFi hardware), but of the documented reasons, I don’t currently plan to use roaming because l only need one AP in the first place, and I’m not currently interested in remote management from outside my home network, so hopefully those will be workable. If standalone is too limiting for what I want to do, or there are other weird quirks about it that aren’t documented, the backup plan is to spin up the controller on a Docker container on my NAS and use it that way. The great thing about picking up a Ubiquity AP is that if I decide to go all-in on Ubiquity for my home network later on, I can always get one of their stand-alone routers/gateways that has the UniFi controller built-in, so it’s not even like I’m limiting myself by buying into Ubiquity over some other brand. AP: sorted.

But what of my router? What kind of device do I want handing out IP addresses for me? What do I want doing my DNS lookups? What sort of firewall do I want?

There has recently been a lot of noise being made about these little fanless mini-PCs, pairing a small, power-efficient Intel CPU with some storage, RAM, and a handful of Ethernet ports, all in a NUC-like package that’s even passively cooled. If you don’t need bays for 3.5-inch hard drives, then they’re a great option for a small machine that will run pretty much anything you want on it. Picking one of these up, slapping pfSense/OPNsense on it, and pairing it with my AP would definitely work as a suitable router. But as much as I am open to the idea, there’s something about using a PC to run as a router that rubs me the wrong way. A PC might give you the flexibility to run whatever software you want, but no one really wants to have to maintain another computer when they could also have the near-zero maintenance of a true network appliance that’s purpose-built for the task of filtering and routing packets. After all, home networks are supposed to be set and forget, remember?

A quick peruse through the OCAU networking forum reveals another option: MikroTik. I had heard of the company before, but wasn’t sure if they were in the business of prosumer-level gear, or if they were only SMB/enterprise. It turns out they’re both, but the thing that really piqued my interest, though, was a mention of MikroTik having a great implementation of Smart Queue Management (SQM), which fixes bufferbloat.

What is bufferbloat? It’s basically when your internet connection slows down due to being utilised. It is characterised by a marginal increase in latency, but it can make your internet feel much slower if everything you do is slower. Doing a test on Waveform says my normal internet connection, without any SQM applied, gets an A. But how often am I maxing out my connection while doing something latency-sensitive like gaming? Not often, and I’d even say I try to actively avoid doing anything else intensive on my connection while I’m in a game.

After looking at the available MikroTik options, I think a good starting place is the Hex. It’s cheap and cheerful, while still offering all the features that I’d want. There looks like a bit of a learning curve in terms of configuring it, but the documentation and forums seem good enough that it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

Even if I eventually decide MikroTik isn’t for me, and want to have an all-Ubiquity setup, I can easily swap out the Hex for a something like the Cloud Gateway Ultra. But for the moment, the Hex is doing a great job. I contemplated picking up the Hex S, because of its SFP+ port, in the hopes that I could further simplify my network setup and remove my fibre-to-Ethernet GPON device with some kind of GPON ONT SFP module, but that seems tricky at best and not something that’s really recommended due to the potential to impact other customers using the same fibre.

It’s said that Ubiquity is the Apple of the networking space, which probably makes MikroTik the Linux of the networking space. And sometimes, that’s OK. The best tool for the job, and all.

But that’s a story for another time.

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