Article: Replacing AirPort with UniFi

by on May 12, 2018

Apple’s AirPort routers practically brought the idea of Wi-Fi to the masses, along with the original iBook. There were other manufacturers working on the idea and standard (early AirPort routers actually used a Lucent PC Card for their hardware), but back in 1999, it felt futuristic and the UFO design of the early models was downright cool. After years of neglect, Apple discontinued the AirPort line of products, leaving some wondering what to do now.

First, if you’re using an AirPort Extreme or Express, it will continue to work for the foreseeable future. Apple does provide security and software updates for some time on products after they’re discontinued. As the actual radio performance has been eclipsed by many other router models years ago, an eventual upgrade probably won’t be a bad idea, but not immediately pressing.

In my opinion, many of the modem/router combos provided by ISPs are terrible, and many of the consumer-grade routers that line the shelves at Best Buy, Target, or Walmart aren’t bad, but feel like they lack some of the polish of Apple’s AirPort line. iOS apps are mediocre at best and there’s always a lousy web interface if you want to manage all of the features. If you’re fine with that, there’s plenty of head-to-head reviews of some of the models out there.

I went from an AirPort Extreme (the flat, 802.11n model) to an Asus router that had great performance, but had some firmware bugs and had the dead-space-bug look. If anything Wi-Fi needs gigantic antennas, why do almost no enterprise-grade (where functionality is paramount) access points have ten antennas sticking out?

After my day job featured a few projects involving wireless bridges from Ubiquiti Networks, I started looking into their other products. While the interface was web-based, the attention to detail felt like it was there, and the hardware was very Apple-like. It’s not surprising, as their founder and CEO, Robert Pera, got his start on Apple’s AirPort team. I decided to look at their other products for work, and after installing a few UniFi access points in some locations, have been very pleased with the result.

Since their introduction, the goal of the UniFi products has been to provide enterprise-level performance at prices more in line with consumer networking gear. It feels like the build quality is cheaper (but adequate), compared with higher-end Cisco or Aruba gear, but no worse than anything you’d buy for home use. There’s also just the one-year warranty, as opposed to service contracts found in business use.

The industry has moved on to mesh products for home use, such as Eero, Orbi, Google Wi-Fi, and even Ubiquiti’s own AmpliFi. They’re dead simple to set up, work pretty well, and help with speeds and coverage, but are locked down to one way of doing things. For someone like me with a networking background, I decided that I should invest in a more comprehensive setup.

Ubiquiti’s UniFi family of products relies on a controller, meaning something has to be running to send out configurations and manage a fleet of access points. This is how large corporate deployments typically have hundreds of access points that can be modified and changed without sending someone to each one, not to mention ensuring that your connection stays constant when moving around from one access point to the next. The controller also handles the guest portal and some other things that need to be always-on across multiple places on the network. Unlike many enterprise-grade network products, Ubiquiti’s UniFi controller is free and runs on any computer (Mac, Windows, Linux), Raspberry Pi, or even on a Synology NAS. There’s also the option to buy a CloudKey for about $80, which is a small, purpose-built device to run the controller (not unlike a Raspberry Pi). I ran it on my Synology NAS first, but eventually bought a CloudKey just for some separation. At work, we’re running it as a virtualized machine in VMware. If you only plan to use one access point, you can get away with skipping the controller and running the access point in standalone mode, otherwise it’s an easily-met requirement.

Next, if you plan on using any other UniFi products, they’d get managed in the controller, too. The misconception is that you must use all UniFi, which is simply not true. Although UniFi switches appear to be nicely priced and have held up well, if you have an existing switch, it will work just fine (we’re a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise shop at work, I have a small, basic Netgear model at home). For routing, any wired router will work (so if you have an ISP-provided model, you can use that), but there is the UniFi Security Gateway, which does routing and some firewall tasks. Ubiquiti also makes the EdgeRouter family, which is not managed through the UniFi controller, but offers a lot of features for a low price and is something you can set one time and leave.

Finally, you need to select an access point. I’m using the UniFi AP AC Pro, which covers my entire apartment. If you’d rather place some in different locations, you can either run Ethernet cabling to them, or use the UniFi AP AC Mesh family. You can mix and match UniFi products, too—an AP AC Pro for the main areas of your home and then an AP AC Lite in a far room that is just out of range. The downside to these versus consumer-grade mesh products is that you must run Ethernet cabling in most cases (you can wirelessly uplink one access point for the non-mesh models, and wireless uplink multiple for the mesh models). My recommendation is to start with one, and then add as necessary. Since the controller handles configuration, your can adjust settings across the board each time you add one.

A recent development by Ubiquiti has been been the addition of a surprisingly good iOS app for management and configuration. If you do not have a controller, this is how you’d set up an AP in standalone mode—you’d get only basic settings, but it would be really nice for one-off locations or setting up for non-tech-savvy family members. The important ones like network name and password are there, but it still makes it pretty obvious that the controller is needed. In the case of an environment with a controller, you’re able to see all of the hardware, update firmware, change settings, and see all of the connected devices. If you do add the UniFi Security Gateway, you can also manage routing settings enable Deep Packet Inspection, which allows you to see what kinds of traffic and how much is being used. Personally, the iOS app is where I spend most time interacting with by my home and multiple work UniFi controllers, and it’s as good as some of the other best-of-breed iOS apps.

Once you get your network configured and running, you can leave it alone, save for any firmware updates. In my experience, the whole system has been very reliable and coverage/speeds have been outstanding. I have not had to reboot any component randomly, unlike some consumer-grade routers that need to be power cycled every few weeks or months. If I move to a larger house, I’d just buy another AP to add coverage where necessary. Furthermore, when 802.11ax becomes more pervasive, I could upgrade my Wi-Fi, while keeping the other components the same. Even though there’s still some hardware being replaced, it feels less wasteful and less disruptive than replacing the entire router.

I had originally though of writing this as a review, but I decided against it, as it won’t work for everyone, nor am I really comparing it with any other products. There’s a level of know-how and patience involved, not to mention the cost if you’re buying the higher-end products. I see it as an option if you liked the reliability and management for Apple’s AirPort family, hate the idea of some of the other routers out there, and think the consumer-grade mesh products are overpriced or too limited. For about the same money as some consumer-grade mesh solutions, Ubiquiti’s UniFi access points might fill the void for those that are technologically inclined.

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