The Right way to go about upgrading your Home Network

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I have written several articles about home networking so far:

I have come to the realization that this is not enough to really help someone who knows their network has issues, but is not sure what to do next.

  • What do you get — a faster connection or better network hardware?
  • What will make the most difference? — a router or a switch?

For me, some of these decisions were easy because I had to get a router which could support Xfinity Gigabit Pro which needed dual WAN with an SFP+ port as well.

  • There was basically one vendor widely known who had a hardware solution at reasonable cost.

Once I got the UDM Pro, it was a matter of simple extrapolation to get the aggregation switch to have a 10/ 20 gbps backbone (LAG supported!!) + expandability to any other switches in the future, and the gigabit switch with SFP+ up link ports.

What about the rest of the people, the 98% who don’t have a multi-gig fiber ISP connection?

This article is for the majority of people who have a regular coaxial internet connection. Basically me from three months ago.

Relatively tech savvy, but not really a networking nerd. You do have the funds to buy 3–4 Google/ Nest/ Eero Routers, but you are just not sure which one to get.

  • Google has privacy issues
  • Netgear software is super flaky
  • Linksys died on you a long time ago, you have never trusted it since.
  • Eero may not be as user friendly and simple as Google
  • You have heard about Unifi, but it all seems very complex and hard to setup.

What do you do? You are stuck with coaxial internet, you are working from home, you have done everything you think you can do, but you still want something better.

This is the target audience for this article. You don’t want to deal with too much complexity.

I think the biggest problem most people would have is that with most home networking gear available today does not really provide any useable statistics to let you know anything about your network. Without data, you cannot really determine anything.

So, if I were to recommend something, this is the order in which I would think about upgrading:

  • Get a router like the UDM Pro so that you can start seeing the stats. I can assure you that if I can set it up, you can as well! It really is not that difficult to use.

If you only plan to use it for routing, and you have coaxial internet, you may not need a rack mount router. It could be the smaller ones which may work perfectly and the rack mount maybe overkill.

  • Then, most likely like me you will see that your switches are no good. I would get a solid switch to power my LAN — because your switch is what really makes your LAN.

The switch is definitely something which could be rack mount and large. It really depends on how many clients you have on your network. Don’t get the tiny unmanaged/ managed switches if you have 20+ devices. They maybe fine with upto 15 devices — but it would be a stretch beyond that.

Once you replace your LAN and router with a solid managed solution like Unifi, you will understand your network. You may get pretty mad when you realize what you have been missing.

  • You should know that I have done minimal tinkering with the Unifi gear.
  • I deliberately used most of the default settings. I want to be able to reset and get 99% up and running without any custom changes to be made.
  • I have not setup VLANs yet
  • No jumbo frames, smart queues or flow control — the more I read, the more I see the list of issues and bugs because of these customizations.

Companies who don’t create really good software have real trouble dealing with complex configurations in said software. This is just my inner software engineer gut feeling I have always followed.

  • My goal is a high performing, scalable, home network with a 10 gbps Ethernet backbone, keeping 1 gbps as the default network interface speeds for all devices.
  • I may setup a simple VPN in the future — but I see no need to open anything in the internet when I am going to be wfh for the foreseeable future. When we go back, then I will setup the VPN — not before.

Here are some sample screenshots. I have to tell you that it has opened my eyes seeing the loads of information I now have about my network.

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How busy is your router?, What is the peak bandwidth usage in the current day/ week/ month?, What is the current bandwidth usage?
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Which client does what?
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Do you know the CPU & Memory Usage of the primary Switch used in your LAN?
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Which devices consume how much bandwidth? And how much is upload vs. download

Based on the analysis of data, you can decide:

  • Do you need a faster ISP or not?
  • How much bandwidth do you truly need? (both up and down)
  • Do you need to upgrade your router as it is running above 80% cpu or memory most of the time?
  • Do you need to upgrade your switch as it is running above 80% cpu or memory most of the time?
  • Aha! Who is using 100 mbps up and down right now? Oh! It is the ps4 pro…

I think you may find that the ISP is the last thing you need to upgrade and you may need less bandwidth than what you think you need. My realization is that the bandwidth from your ISP does not really matter as much as the quality of the connection.

1 gbps and 250 mbps coaxial internet may make no difference at all if the quality of the service you get at both speeds is the same. Similarly even with fiber internet, even if you use only 100 mbps in an hour — the quality of that 100 mbps is 10x that of coaxial.

I have started to believe that beyond a certain bandwidth (say 512 mbps), given that there is not much improvement in upload bandwidth nor latency, it really may not make much sense at all to upgrade to higher speeds. Sure a single file download maybe faster, but if you look at how the network is being used, I believe you will find that is not the typical use case.

  • WiFi calling on cell is < 2mbps
  • Video calling over platforms like FaceTime is again < 2mbps
  • PS4 pro gaming did use < 200 mbps
  • 4K video streaming is < 50 mbps

For all the above numbers, what really matters is strong and consistent bandwidth. There is no use of having a gigabit coaxial ISP connection if it cannot deal with ~ 1.5 mbps consistent usage without any packet loss or high latency — which is a real challenge — I know because I had it, and it sucked big time!! (Even sometimes on Business Coaxial Internet).

I think if you have a 200 mbps symmetric fiber internet, the latency you get with that along with the full upload bandwidth of 200 mbps would give you a much better experience than a 1 gbps down, 35 mbps up, high latency coaxial internet connection.

  • So those 50 mbps Verizon fiber plans maybe a lot better than you think they are when compared to a 512 mbps coaxial internet plans.

It is not that capacity cannot be scaled up in a coaxial system. You are simply not going to get the pure quality of service of even a 50–100 mbps fiber connection on a coaxial line. I believe the technological gap is just too much for it to really make a big difference.

Unless you really analyze the data, you cannot make the correct decision. This is why you need Unifi and this is the true value proposition of these products

One thing has stood out again and again as having issues over WiFi or even hardwired through WiFi pucks. Video especially 4K video is hard for small mesh WiFi routers to deal with. You may see a whole class of issues vanish if you do not wire TVs or TV like devices through WiFi pucks over Ethernet or wirelessly. Audio does not seem to affect these devices in such a way even when they are 24 bit, 48 KHz like Sonos.

Jan 6, 2021: Don’t underestimate the power of the humble ethernet cable

I found these amazing CAT8 cables on Amazon for my “tank” laptop. Once I saw how well made these were, I got one more to connect the ethernet cable from my Juniper Switch to the router:

I had to get these to find CAT8 cables which were long enough to reach my Nest Wifi router and the unmanaged switch which connects to the IoT devices:

These are the results after replacing the cable connecting my main Unifi switch to the Nest Wifi Router:

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Massive improvement in download speed on Nest Wifi after replacing my ethernet cable from CAT6 to CAT8

CAT 5e, CAT 6 & even CAT 7 cables have similar thickness. And this article is an interesting read:

There is a significant difference in “thickness” between the above mentioned cables and CAT8. As an Electronics grad, I can say looking at these cables that this is a big jump in quality over the previous cables.

So, if you are using ethernet cables for connecting key network equipment at home, I strongly suggest you use CAT8 cables. The quality of service will be superior in everyway with these cables. Perhaps the only better cabling would be fiber, as they use light instead of electrical signals.

Every Electronics Engineer knows that electrical signals are susceptible to interference. So better shielding and technology makes a significant difference.

To be continued…

“If you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, do something about it. Say something. Do something.” — Rep. John Lewis

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