Jan 062018
 
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Virgin Media network cable connections can be really rather good.

The real world issue is that they are let down by the quality and performance of their ‘SuperHubs’, hereafter referred to as their ‘Stupid Hubs‘.

There are several problems…

  • The Hub is a combination device that tries to be Cable modem, Router, Wireless Access Point and a Switch.
  • The device is heavily locked down so that only limited amounts of user-tweaks are possible.
  • Wi-Fi performance is poor, not just the range, but its ability to handle loads.
  • Routing performance can be poor under specific circumstances.
  • The lock-down can cause technical issues with some VPN connections.

In our home, literally the only practical place that the stupid-hub can live is right next to the TV.

Because the Stupid-Hub appears to have inadequate RF shielding, when the TV is switched on, the performance of the Stupid-Hub Wifi drops considerably. For reasons that are not entirely clear, even wired connections suffer horribly (but not when Wi-Fi is turned off, suspiciously). The Virgin engineer that tried to sort this out for us recommend that the hub is at least 2m away from TV’s, monitors, microwaves and any other electrical devices, like computers, phones and iPads !

This is pretty impractical in a small house. A quick survey with a 2m long bamboo cane gave me just a handful of highly impractical potential locations. The loft was a strong contender for a while, but apparently the hub does not like low or high temps. Under the bath was considered and mounted on a wall half way up the stairs was briefly discussed. Just the issues running coax and power cables to these crazy locations ruled them right out.

Something needed to be done.

In short, if you want half decent Wi-fi, you need to disable it on the Stupid-Hub and plug in a decent wireless Access Point.

The standard Stupid-Hub was incapable of getting a signal to about half the house. It reached upstairs, but barely and there was zero signal in the office and the bathroom.

There are multiple ways to solve this. We chose to use high performance products from Ubiquiti and Netgear, but I am very aware that you could do nearly all of this on a tight budget by getting a decent Wireless Router from Netgear or Linksys etc.

This entry is all about doing it really well and building a high performance network that is robust, and can be upgraded over time without relying on a specific Internet Service Provider.

For us, step one was just to fix the terrible Wi-Fi.

Step One – Fix the (useless) Wi-fi

  • Quick – 10-15 minutes plus cabling 
  • Simple – Mobile app provisioning.
  • £75 

Extensive research pointed me in the direction of Ubiquiti products, we use them in the office and talking to the network admin, they are powerful, robust, easy to configure and surprisingly affordable.

We settled on a Ubiquiti AC Access point from Amazon, plus a 10m network cable.

Configuration was a snap, simply plug it all in, install the unifi app on your phone, scan the QR code on the device, answer some easy questions and it all suddenly works. Disable Wireless on your Stupid-Hub and enjoy much more stable and faster WiFi that has a decent range.

We mounted this device behind a bookcase on a main wall. Wireless from this covers the whole of the house, except for an odd dead spot in my office. We could have fixed this with better positioning of the AP. But I had a plan for the rest of it…

This gives us a lot of control over our own WiFi and gives us massive control over guest Wifi too.

Step Two – Cover that Dead Spot.

  • Quick (30 minutes or less) 
  • Simple (if you did step one, this is a breeze)
  • £150 

I work from home 2-3 days a week and I need a bullet proof connection. I spend much of my days on video conferences, chatting with India, Newcastle, New York, Singapore, London etc. We use ZOOM for on-line meeting, plus Skype and other collaboration tools. My connection needs to be super reliable.

Because we live in an old house that was built ‘properly’, Wifi is not exactly easy.

Talking with the network guys, they suggested that I could simply add a second AP up stairs, it would talk to the existing one and act as a repeater, or I could use power-line networking and connect a slower, but long range AP up stairs and give myself wired connections for work and my Mac.

Based on recommendations, we settled on a TP-Link1200 Gigabit power line kit, also from Amazon.

This put a single gigabit point in the office, so I connected that to a cheap but, again highly recommended Netgear Switch, also from Amazon – are you seeing a pattern here yet ?

Obviously we needed a couple of cables.

To this switch I can connect my Mac, my work laptop, the printer and the AP. Leaving me one spare, just in case. Had I thought this through a little more, I would have bought a switch with more points.

At this point we had solved WiFi and internet access for the house.

If all that you need to do, is solve WiFi, then stop here.

 

Step 3 – Fixing the Router Issues.

  • Laborious (allocate at least a couple of hours) 
  • Complex and mind bending to set up.
  • £200+ 

This section can safely be ignored unless you are adventurous and have issues with the Stupid-Hub as a router. Or you just want to spend a lot of time getting annoyed with inadequate instructions and you know my phone number and are prepared to send me bottles of wine.

For the average user, the Virgin Stupid-Hub is a perfectly adequate router.

‘All’ that a router needs to do is simply pass traffic from devices to and from the internet.

  • The more devices you have, the more the router has to work.
  • The more complex the internet becomes, the more is has to work.
  • When you start to really stretch the limits of the Stupid-Hub, routing performance suffers
    • It seems that the routing table garbage collection abilities degrade when heavily loaded.
    • Thus the ability to deal with complex traffic degrades.
  • Rebooting a stupid hub, vastly improves performance until the garbage collector degrades.

I never managed to get to the bottom of this, but a combination of Netflix in UHD and traffic that was funnelled through a VPN for work and maybe an iPhone update or two would cause DNS resolution times to extend and for packet dropping, which was not restored once we killed all traffic. The only solution was to reboot the Stupid Hub.

We got tired of rebooting the router to restore routing performance so we looked into getting a router and switching the Stupid Hub into Modem Mode..

Additionally, because the router config options are locked down, it is not possible to change the default subnet from 192.168.1.n. This can be an issue when your office VPN uses the same range and you rely on services that are hardcoded as 192.168.1.10 and 192.168.1.254 and they clash because the Stupid-Hub is stupid (by which I mean locked down just too far)

Once more after a degree of research, based on recommendations, we added a Ubiquiti Edge Router (from Amazon). This is an carrier-class router that is able to handle up to 1 million packets per second.

In other words, this is massive overkill. This is not a consumer oriented router, it is difficult and awkward to setup. Once setup, however, it flies. Because it is massive overkill, I doubt that it will ever give us cause for concern.

Configuration was challenging to say the least. There are some guidelines on line elsewhere, but basically, you need to connect it to a device and update the firmware before you do anything, then you have to follow the guides to match your use-case. It is not easy. It took me two attempts to get it right.

Once we were happy that it could route data, we switched the stupid-hub into modem mode and hooked it all together. What this setup gives us is the ability to control our own DHCP and subnets if we need them. We chose a DHCP range that was ‘different’, 10.10.10.n, to accommodate my work VPN.

Because the stupid-hub sits by the TV, I wanted to connect the TV, Sky box, BluRay player and a couple of other devices to a wired connection. While they all cope with wireless, it felt like a good idea to reduce the load on the wireless side. I also need to be able to connect the power line networking too.

So I once more turned to Netgear and the rather excellent GS108Ev3. From Amazon obviously. This does the job and is barely stressed.

Everything is hidden away and everything just works. 

Conclusions

Many thing are way better.

  • Performance is excellent for every single device on the network.
  • The Wifi reaches to the bottom of the garden and half way down the street.
  • Fine grained control over classes of devices is neat, it allows us to reduce the bandwidth available for IOT devices that are susceptible to bot-net usage.
  • Being able to see which devices use bandwidth is cool – again it helps us to highlight issues.
  • We have not rebooted the modem or the router in months.
  • If we need to unplug a single AP, all traffic seamlessly roams to the other.
  • Load is balanced over the two AP’s at all times.
  • The router throughput is truly extraordinary.

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