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Wireless Reviews

Wireless Mesh

"Wireless mesh" is listed as a feature of the UniFi controller software, but the term isn't referenced in a manual. But you will find the Wireless Uplink feature described. Ubiquiti says Wireless Uplink enables the installation of an AP in an area without access to a wired network (an "island") via a method easier to set up and change than WDS and more reliable than other "mesh" methods.

I took one of my test UniFi APs and disconected it from the wired network. Shortly after disconnecting, it went into an Isolated state. At that point, I had the option of connecting it to an AP within WiFi range. As shown in the screenshot below, the AP I labled as Rec Room is in a "Connected (wireless)" state. Once connected, the AP continued to broadcast the SSIDs it had provisioned.

Wireless Mesh / Wireless Uplink

Wireless Mesh / Wireless Uplink

Wireless Uplink might be more reliable than mesh or WDS, but it still uses a single radio. So clients connecting to the "uplinked" AP will get at best only half the throughput it receives from its hardwired link partner.

Zero-Handoff Roaming

One of the challenges of multi-AP wireless networks is not all clients can seamlessly transition from a weak signal from one AP to a stronger signal from a closer AP. Sensitive devices, such as VoIP phones, could suffer performance problems such as call dropping while moving from one AP zone to another.

With UniFi's "Zero-Handoff" (ZH) roaming, multiple APs appear as a single virtual AP to the wireless client, thus the client doesn't have to switch APs as it roams. The UniFi system determines the optimal AP to provide the connection to the client. They can do this without the UniFi controller connected.

Utilizing this feature requires creating a WLAN group with ZH enabled (shown below), then creating one or more WLANs in that group and applying that group to multiple APs.

Note, not all of the UniFi APs appear to support ZH. I noticed the UniFi AP-Pro, AP-LR and AP-Outdoor allowed me to add them to a WLAN group with Zero-Handoff enabled, but the UniFi AP-AC did not.

Zero Handoff

Zero Handoff

When multiple APs are broadcasting the same SSID as they do in normal operation, each AP will show up in a wireless network utility, such as the recently reviewed Metageek inSSIDer, with a unique MAC address. Using inSSIDer, I noticed that once I enabled ZH on multiple UniFi APs, I saw only one MAC address for the ZH configured SSIDs instead of two MAC addresses. This meant my PC saw only a single AP and thus would not have to switch APs as I moved from one AP zone to the other.

I ran a simple test by running a continuous ping from a wireless laptop while connected and standing close to one AP configured in a ZH SSID. I then walked my laptop next to a second AP in the same ZH group. The pings continued uninterrupted, meaning I hadn't lost a connection. Yet, via the UniFi controller AP overview screen, I could see my connection changed from one physical AP to the other. Neat!

Events, Alerts, and Reports

The UniFi controller, if configured with SMTP credentials, will alert you with emails about network changes and conditions. The controller also maintains a running event log with time-stamped messages such as when a user or guest connected to and from an AP, when an AP was adopted by a controller and other activites on the WiFi network. Log events can also be sent to a remote syslog server.

Alerts, such as when an AP becomes disconnected from the system are also provided by the UniFi controller. An active alert is visually indicated by a blinking light on the bottom menu bar of the controller GUI. I found that a resolved alert needs to be "archived" in the controller software once the condition that triggered the alert is cleared.

Numerous status displays, statistics and reports provide "detailed analytics" on the UniFi system. Clicking on a access point or viewing its details on the map will show how many users and guests are connected to it. As shown in my discussion on maps, you can quickly see how many users and guests are connected to an AP. A quick count of total clients connected to an AP is also shown in the AP overview section, which you can see in the screen shot shown in the Wireless Mesh section above.

Clicking on an AP brings up multiple configuration options, in addition to a detail information page, shown below. This detail page is a nice quick view on the activity level of an AP. It shows uptime, download and upload traffic usage, dropped packet percentage, and number of users and guests.

Detail View

Detail View

The Statistics tab provides a graphical dashboard showing data on clients, AP usage, most active AP, most active client, and all-time top client. The Insight tab (shown below) provides data on wireless users and guests, rogue access points, past connections and past guest authorization.

Reports

User Report

With all this data available for a system that can support thousands of APs, I was surprised there wasn't an option to output data to a CSV or Excel file. But then again, you do get syslog support.

Closing Thoughts

The UniFi controller software is free and only works with UniFi APs. So, how much do UniFi APs cost? Ubiquiti sells its UniFi products in the US directly or through distributors. (You can even buy them on Amazon.) Below are Ubiquiti's list prices for the UniFi APs, with links to Amazon for current prices.

Product Price Class Band
UniFi AP (UAP) $69 N300 2.4
UniFi AP Long Range (UAP-LR) [review] $89 N300 2.4
Unifi AP Outdoor (UAP-Outdoor) $135 N300 2.4
UniFi AP Outdoor 5G (UAP-Outdoor5) $135 N300 5
UniFi AP Pro (UAP-PRO) $229 N750
(2.4 GHz N450)
2.4 & 5
UniFi AP AC (UAP-AC) [review] $299 AC1750 2.4 & 5
Table 1: Ubiquiti UniFi APs

By comparison, Amazon shows the ZyXEL NWA3560 mentioned at the beginning of this article going for over $300. Cisco's entry level wireless controller is the 2500 series wireless controller (AIR-CT2504-5-K9) that is over $600. Cisco also has a virtual wireless controller costing around $50 less licensed for five access points. Entry-level Cisco APs that work with a controller are Cisco's Aironet 600 series APs (N300) starting at around $225.

Clearly, Ubiquiti's UniFi free controller software has met its objective of "disruptive pricing." Granted, even though the UniFi controller software is free, you'll still have to supply a PC. Since this PC is running your wireless network, you'll want a reliable computer, so there is some cost. Moreover, as you grow your UniFi wireless network, you'll have to monitor CPU, memory and storage utilization on the PC to ensure it is handling the load. You'll also want to back up your controller configurations (there is a simple option in the Admin menu to backup and restore configs).

As stated on Ubiquiti's support site, "UniFi APs can run by themselves without the controller unless features like guest portal is enabled (the UniFi controller also functions as a captive portal). Restarting the controller won't restart your APs." Thus, once the APs are configured, your wireless network isn't completely dependent on the controller.

I came away impressed with the UniFi controller software. This gallery below highlights some of the features I found most interesting. With the simplicity of the menu, I initially got the impression that Unifi's wireless controller software would be lacking features. But the more I poked around, the more I found it could do.

With the world moving to cloud based services, I think it is brilliant to eliminate unnecessary hardware as Ubiquiti has done with the UniFi wireless controller. The beauty of the UniFi solution is you can start out with a wireless controller solution for even small wireless deployments with a very small investment and grow it as your network dictates. Kudos to Ubiquiti for pushing the wireless industry to a more economical and flexible solution for wireless networks, both large and small!

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