Another Long Winding Cisco Road

So, lately I’ve been investigating buying new routing and networking equipment for home, as the NBN (Australia’s FTTH roll-out) is coming closer and my old ADSL2+ modem/router (a Billion 7800NL, one of the first consumer routers capable of IPv6) was getting a bit long in the tooth; the configuration is not retained across reboots and the web interface crashes with HTTP 500 errors more often than not.

So, out with the old an in with the new. There were a few choices:

  • A new consumer-grade router, such as one of the newer models from Billion (which are quite good, but have low tinkerability).
  • A Mikrotik-based solution. This was a close call, as I’m a fan of Mikrotik and my friend Jamie is even more of one (he loves them). However, I want to get more experience with Cisco products as I want to be able to put that on my résumé. Hence, I wanted a Cisco solution.
  • I also considered the Cisco 2801, as they are not much more than an 1841, but have four HWIC slots instead of two, so I wouldn’t have to spend time deciding which HWICs to get, I could just have them all! However, the fans are apparently very loud (as professional rackmount gear tends to be) which would not suit the living room locale very well at all.
  • So in the end I settled on a Cisco 1841. Lower fan noise, still supports HWICs for swap-out fun and excitement, and has the full features of the IOS software available.
My new Cisco 1841
My new Cisco 1841

You may have noticed I didn’t go for a Cisco 1801 which has ADSL support built in. This is deliberate, as the NBN is closing in on my street and I don’t want to be left with a router that supports old technologies – all I will need for a fibre connection is an ethernet port, which the 1841 has two of out of the box. I can also add in 3G backup connections (which is more of a want than a need) as well as things like WIC-1AM or WIC-2T modules (i.e. utterly useless but kind of cool).

For wireless, I’m undecided as to what direction to go in. I definitely want something dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) as my laptop supports dual band and I want to invest in technology that will last at least a couple of years. This rules out most consumer gear quite quickly. A Mikrotik solution is another option and is probably the front-runner. The second option is a UniFi AP Pro, which supports a whole host of cool features like multiple VLANs and SSIDs etc; it’s a little cheaper than a Mikrotik solution but also a lot less flexible. Finally, the most expensive option is to buy a wireless card for the 1841. There are many problems with this approach: I’ll use up an HWIC slot, the modules are incredibly expensive, it’s not even 802.11n, likely to be a complete pain in the neck to configure, and not dual-band. The only benefit is that it keeps everything in one box.

I’ve only received the router in the last week or so, and the eBay auctions for WIC modules haven’t yet finished. There’s a long way to go yet. So wish me luck on my path to routing enlightenment!

TP-Link Homeplug AV200 Review

A few months ago I moved in with my girlfriend (yay! :D), and this necessitated the moving of all my computer equipment to her house. At my old place, I had strung Ethernet cables all down the hallway between the various rooms, and although aesthetically unpleasant, certainly did the trick. Moving in with my girlfriend meant I could no longer have the freedom to string cables everywhere. It looked horrible, somebody was going to trip on something eventually, and being in a rented house meant that we had to keep the place looking half-decent (Ethernet cables, surprisingly enough, are not everybody’s idea of a home decoration). So what to do?

My first thought, naturally enough, was to hook up some wireless adapters. This plan worked very well for one area of the house (where my server rack now sits), but horribly for another (where my desktop is). I read about the new-fangled Homeplug idea, which involves sending Ethernet frames over the AC power network in our home. I was dubious, but intrigued; Homeplug seemed to be the solution to my problems, in theory:

  • Turns existing cables that are in every home into a computer network.
  • Doesn’t use up valuable space in the wireless spectrum.
  • Devices can just plug in via standard Ethernet, without the need for drivers.

Of course I decided to give it a go! I hurried on down to my local computer store and bought myself a pair of Homeplug adapters, these ones made by TP-Link (who, despite being Chinese owned and operated, make some excellent equipment). I plugged one in near my router and cabled it in, and plugged the other end in near my desktop computer. Unfortunately I had to plug it in via the powerboard due to the size of the adapter, but according to the documentation makes no difference. I immediately noticed several problems:

  • The network is slow. Very slow. The theoretical speed of these Homeplug adapters is 200 Mb/s straight out of the box, which should compete with 802.11n very nicely. The real speed I got was 10Mb/s, which is slower than the Internet connection we have. Not good.
  • The whole Homeplug network is a single collision domain. For the un-Ethernet-savvy, this basically means that the 10Mb/s I mentioned above is shared between every device plugged in via Homeplug, instead of standard Ethernet where every device would get 10Mb/s to itself.

Worst of all though, was this:

  • If my desktop was plugged in via Homeplug, every two or three seconds, for no reason other than that Homeplug was plugged in, my computer would freeze. I have no idea why. I reinstalled Windows and used a different Ethernet adapter, and it made no difference at all. On the other hand, Homeplug worked absolutely fine in every other computer I plugged it into.

In the end, I couldn’t stand my computer pausing every three seconds to think, so I gave up on Homeplug (I handed the adapters to my housemate, who is successfully using them to plug a wireless black-hole in his bedroom). I’m now using a top-end wireless adapter and a strong aerial, and it seems to be working.

As an aside, I read that Homeplug does have serious security issues in it’s out-of-the-box configuration. You have to set up something similar to wireless network security in order to prevent your neighbours from connecting to your Homeplug network.

Basically, the short version is this: Homeplug is an awful idea, and avoid it if at all possible. Just use wireless, which is faster and far better tested. But if you are going to buy a Homeplug adapter or two, buying the TP-Link models isn’t a bad idea, they’re pretty decent.