Hello again – some advice on wireless networking hardware

Thought I would get back into the groove of things here.

Let's start back up on wireless hardware.  Seeing as how I live in an apartment complex, getting this right has been a bigger issue for me as of late.  I've run through more wireless hardware than I care to admit, but I've finally settled on the right combination of stuff for me and I'm going to share that with you in the hopes of saving you folks the same pains I went through.

First of all, if you want the simple advice…buy the D-Link DIR-655 as a home router or wireless gateway.  I use it personally and have recommended it to tons of friends, all with basically flawless results.  Check out the review of this device at www.smallnetbuilder.com for more info.

For more complicated advice, read on.

Solving the home gateway/wireless access point problem

Initially, I had a cheap 802.11g Netgear router.  This was crashing and slowing down constantly, so I decided to upgrade.  I'd already had pretty bad experiences with a lot of networking hardware, so this time I decided to try something with a bit more of a reputation … Apple hardware.

I bought the AirPort Extreme 802.11n (Fast Ethernet version) and installed it.

Initially, I was pretty happy with the AirPort Extreme.  Aesthetics matter to me and this thing actually looks nice in addition to doing its job.  However, after a couple of months I eventually ran into a problem.  I was testing a lot of Ubuntu based server installations, including a DHCP server on my home network.  The problem is that you simply cannot disable the DHCP server on the AirPort Extreme.  This isn't an issue for most people, of course … but keeping up to date on this stuff is important to me both personally and professionally.  So I reluctantly went looking for new hardware.

I eventually stumbled across SmallNetBuilder and read their review of the DIR-655.  Without a doubt, SmallNetBuilder is one of the most thorough sites around to review networking hardware.  I purchased an DIR-655 to replace the AirPort Extreme.

The DIR-655 is a great piece of hardware … it did everything that the AirPort Extreme did, but was more configurable, handled P2P traffic better, and even has a Quality of Service engine that prioritizes gaming/VOIP traffic over other types of traffic.  It's also extremely stable.

I'm currently using the gaming variant of the DIR-655 today.  We'll get to that in a moment.

Solving the wireless bridging problem – Intro

The next problem I had to solve was that only a couple of rooms in my apartment are wired.  The unwired room needs a high speed connection in it because that's where I hide the big ugly servers I own.  I did not want to run a cable between the rooms for aesthetic reasons.  So that left only one option … a fast wireless bridge.

Wireless bridging does not appear to be a very common scenario in consumer networking hardware…and is even less common amongst draft 11n hardware.  I was going to need draft 11n performance, though…bridging HD content over the wireless wouldn't be acceptable over anything slower.

We're not done yet … most networking hardware today uses the 2.4GHz band.  This is fine, but if you live in an apartment complex, there are tons of other people around using similar networking hardware…on top of the microwaves and cordless phones that are all sharing the same frequency.  Do you want to lose the connection to your HDTV server if someone decides to microwave some food?  Not a good idea.

A much better alternative is the 5GHz band.  Because the channel spectrum here is so uncrowded, you can bond two channels together to double the throughput.  You're also unlikely to have interference from anyone else around you because of the huge legacy investment in 802.11b/g.

So … now it becomes clear what the ideal solution is.  A wireless 802.11n bridge that supports 5GHz, without any other weird gotchas, will let you create a high performance bridge between rooms in your home or apartment without having to run ugly wires or knocking holes in walls.  Splendid!

It's not that easy to search out the above requirements, but long story short, I eventually realized that the AirPort Extreme has an "Extend a wireless network" function which actually does exactly what I needed at the time … creates an 802.11n wireless bridge.  It's highly unlikely that wireless bridging will work with hardware from different manufacturers… but I just happened to have one AirPort Extreme lying around, so…

Trying the AirPort Extreme as a wireless bridging solution – Spotty at best

I went out and got another AirPort Extreme (Gigabit version).  The DIR-655 would be the home gateway and the two AirPort Extremes would bridge the unwired room in my apartment.

In theory, this should have worked.  In practice, it didn't, and it was for the following reasons.

1. Reconfiguration of the AirPort Extreme can be unstable.  By this, I mean that you can set things a certain way on the base station and they won't work.  However, if you reset the base station to its default settings and configure it from scratch, things do work.  Because I was switching frequently between AP/bridging modes to test certain parameters, I would spend an hour trying to figure out why something wasn't working, only to reset everything and have the AirPort Extreme suddenly fix itself.  This leads to tough issues with troubleshooting since you have many "What the hell, I did that already, why is it working now?" moments.

2. 7.1.1 firmware transmits at an amazing 10MB/sec using WPA2 encryption.  Unfortunately, the latest firmware is 7.2.1.  7.1.1 is also, as I learned with some pain, unstable with P2P traffic running over it as a wireless bridge.  Last, but not least, the newest Gigabit versions of the AirPort extreme are only valid with versions 7.2 of the firmware or higher.

3. 7.2.1 firmware fixes the stability issue mentioned above, but kills bridging performance.  You can actually get 10MB/sec throughput over two bridged AirPort Extremes with the 7.1.1 firmware on the main AirPort Extreme, but 7.2.1 on the main AirPort Extreme drops that to around 2.5 MB/sec.  The throughput rises to around 6MB/sec if you disable encryption, so presumably there is something weird going on with accelerated onboard encryption and the AirPort Extreme.  Frankly, 2.5MB/sec for most people is still OK, but if you want to stream HD wirelessly, it's too close to the edge to be decent.

4. Several advanced options are hidden by default and can only be accessed if you know to ctrl or option click on the dropdowns.  For example, the stability of the connection on my AirPort Extreme to other 5GHz band hardware was spotty until I manually forced the channel to a high band frequency (153 instead of the default 36).

You would not believe how much time it took to track down all of the above issues. =)

Well, I put up with the junky throughput of the 7.2.1 firmware for a while, hoping that Apple would release some firmware to fix these ridiculous problems.  They didn't.

Solving the wireless bridging problem – DGL-4500 + DAP-1555 = success!

After a few months of putting up with low throughput and no new firmware in sight, I decided to try again. Some things had changed.

The D-Link DGL-4500 was released a couple of months ago and is the gaming equivalent of the DIR-655.  I have no idea why the DGL-4500 would be better for gaming compared to the DIR-655 as they both have the same QoS engine…but the major difference in terms of hardwar
e is that the DGL-4500 can use either the 2.4Ghz or 5GHz bands.

On top of that, the D-Link DAP-1555 was also recently released.  This is a product designed specifically to be a wireless 802.11n bridge and works with either the DGL-4500 or another DAP-1555.

Since I was so pleased with the DIR-655, I bought the DGL-4500 to replace the DIR-655 and packed up the DIR-655 as a Christmas gift for a lucky and unsuspecting friend.  The DGL-4500 has behaved exactly like the DIR-655 in other respects … remarkably stable and fast.

The DAP-1555 arrived and was very simple to configure via a web interface.  It immediately bridged to the DGL-4500 and has been working flawlessly ever since.

Final thoughts

1. The DGL-4500 is now acting as my home gateway and as a 5GHz access point.

2. The DAP-1555 is wirelessly bridged to the DGL-4500 and is getting around 5MB/sec of encrypted throughput…no weird gotchas doing so  either, which is remarkably important, as you can see from the above.  It's not the 10MB/sec of the AirPort Extreme with the 7.1.1 firmware, but it's enough that I'm happy with it.

3. I reconfigured one of the AirPort Extremes to be a 2.4GHz b/g/n access point for visitors.

4. I brought home the other AirPort Extreme to be a 5GHz access point at my parents' house.

So, the story is over.  After all of the above … I finally have a home networking setup I can be happy with.  The wireless bridge handles P2P downloads easily and has plenty of bandwidth to stream the TV I record to the other rooms in my apartment.  Simple in theory, but difficult in practice to implement.

I'll leave you with these words.  Every time I go through something like this, I am reminded constantly of how much of a gap there is between saying something like "I want to stream HD wirelessly around my home" and actually implementing it.  Good product philisophies find a way to magically translate those English statements by normal people into reality with a minimum of fuss.  And we're not even close yet, folks.  Not even close.

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