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Wireless Reviews

Ubiquiti UniFi

At a Glance
Product Ubiquiti UniFi 3.0 Enterprise Wi-Fi Platform [Website]
Summary Business-grade Wi-Fi Management system for Ubiquiti access points
Pros • No license or support fees
• Clean and simple user interface
• Map integration including Google Maps
Cons • Documentation could use more details and examples
• Can't output report data

Introduction

Most WiFi access points (APs) have web configuration utilities enabling individual management of the device. For wireless networks with multiple APs, it can be efficient to deploy a wireless controller to manage and collect data from the APs. Adding a wireless controller to your network typically involves using a dedicated vendor-specific hardware appliance to communicate with the APs. For example, I reviewed the Zyxel NWA3560 APs awhile back. In a deployment of multiple NWA3560s, one of the NWA3560s can be converted to operate as a dedicated wireless controller.

Ubiquiti has a clever solution for wireless controllers with its UniFi product line. The UniFi line consists of several different APs (that I'll list at the end of this review) plus wireless controller software. While other companies' wireless controllers require a dedicated hardware controller, Ubiquiti's UniFi controller software is free and runs on a Windows, Mac or Linux, as well as on a virtual machine running Windows or Linux. The UniFi controller can be local to the APs or even in the cloud, as long as the controller and APs have two-way Layer 3 connectivity.

Ubiquiti's UniFi AP controller software allows for the control of one to "thousands" of UniFi APs and can be run from a simple PC. This review will focus on Ubiquiti's UniFi controller software, although I will reference different models of UniFi APs I used while testing the controller software. We also have hardware reviews of Ubiquiti's UniFi UAP-AC and UAP-LR.

Software Installation

The controller software is included on a disk that comes with each UniFi AP and is also available to download from Ubiquiti's website. The software includes both the controller application and a discovery utility. The current production version on Ubiquiti's website is v2.4.4. UniFi 3.0 is a newer version of the software, currently in beta. I used version 3.1.3, which is a beta version available here for this review. Release notes for version 3.1.3 are available here. Ubiquiti has recently released version 3.1.4.

I was able to install the UniFi controller software on a Windows 7 and Windows 8 PC, as well as a Mac. I used my Windows 7 PC as the controller PC. I used my Windows 8 PC for AP discovery (see screenshot of the discovery utility below) and to connect remote APs to the controller. Depending on the version of Java running on your PC, you may get prompted to do a Java update along with the software installation. The minimum requirement is JRE 1.6 or above.

Discovery

Discovery

I initially had some difficulty getting the APs to connect to the controller software and discovered I had to configure Windows Firewall to allow communication between the APs and the software. There is no manual for the UniFi controller software specifically, although the manuals for the UniFi APs include instructions on how to use the controller software.

A lot of information on how to use the UniFi software is available on line in Ubiquiti's knowledge base, such as this post that lists the network ports that must be open on a firewall for full connectivity between APs and the controller. Personally, I like to have a manual to reference instead of having to search for info. But I was able to either fumble my way through configurations or find what I needed via the knowledge base.

Installing and administering the UniFi controller software on the cloud is a bit DIY, but seems reasonable for a seasoned networking professional. If I were to run this controller in the cloud, I'd run it on a Linux Virtual Machine. Ubiquiti has a knowledge base entry describing how to create a virtual controller via Amazon Web Services.

AP Installation

APs get their IP address from a local DHCP server, which the UniFi controller does not have. However, once an AP is connected to the controller, you can change its IP.

I used Wireshark to observe the messages sent between the UniFi controller and the APs. Ubiquiti's UniFi APs send out broadcast messages every 10 seconds looking for a UniFi controller. The discovery utility and the controller software will listen for these broadcasts and provide the option to let the controller "adopt" the AP.

If the UniFi AP is on the same LAN / Layer 2 network as the controller PC, it can be discovered and connected to the controller software using the controller PC. If the AP is on a different LAN than the controller PC, you can run the discovery tool from a second PC connected to the AP's LAN. The discovery tool will find the AP and allow you to configure the AP with the IP address of the Controller PC, as shown in the Set Inform URL field below.

Set IP

Set IP

Once an AP is connected to the controller, either on the same Layer 2 network or from a remote Layer 3 network, it is fully manageable via the controller software. For example, software updates for the AP can be handled by simply clicking an upgrade button via the controller, shown below. There is also a button labeled "start rolling upgrade" which will upgrade APs one at a time.

Upgrade

Upgrade

Several of the APs I used for my tests of the UniFi software had been previously configured to work with a different controller. The discovery tool allows you to reset the AP so it can connect to a new controller. UniFi APs also have a physical reset button to restore the device to factory defaults if needed.

Once an AP is connected to a controller, it no longer sends out broadcast messages. Instead, communication between the APs and the controller software is maintained by a series of unicast messages. Traffic statistics and other network data are sent from the APs to the controller via HTTP messages every 15 seconds. STUN (Simple Traversal of UDP through NAT) messages are sent from the APs to the controller every 30 seconds to maintain the connection. Configuration data is sent from the controller to the AP via TCP based messages as changes are made to the AP's configuration.

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