Unifi Wireless- K-12 1:1 Winner

In my quest to update my school’s wireless to support our ever growing 1:1 initative, I’ve looked at pretty much every vendor under the sun when it comes to wifi. You’re big names, like Cisco, HP, Motorola. Smaller brands, like Aruba, Ruckus, Meraki. You name it, I’ve more than likely demo’d it, reviewed it, tried it, or laughed at it. While looking, I was requiring a few different things that to me were very important.

  1. Easy to manage. This system was critical to our 1:1, which means if I needed to change something, I didn’t want to futz around for 30 minutes trying to remember the exact location in a menu madness or the command to type in. I wanted this to be, dare I say it, IOS easy.
  2. Stable. This was going out into the wild to be used by students, staff, and community. If you’ve worked in a school environment before, you know that these three types of users can, and will, destroy any kind of item placed in front of them, regardless of how much it benefits them or not. I needed this system to take the beating, and keep going.
  3. Solid technology, less bells and whistles. Tech over the last few years has been, in my eyes, adding more and more extra junk to their software/hardware and not focusing on the core of what they should be doing. For this system, I wanted a solid set of wireless AP’s that do their job on a solid layer 2 network. I don’t want them to also serve as cameras, I don’t want them to do any fancy layer3 routing. I don’t need that. If I need layer3, I’ll put in a layer3 device.
  4. The cost has to be right. We’re a school, not business. That means we actually need to buy for value, not for names.

I didn’t really think that those requirements were that far out of bounds, but boy was I wrong. You talk to any vendor, and of course their solution will meet all those requirements. You just need to buy Controller X with AP Y, and don’t forget to license it with License Z, and you’ll be golden! You’ll also get feature A, B, and C, but you need to pay extra for feature 1, because that’s our expanded firmware. Oh, and if you want updates, you better subscribe to our Horribly-Priced-Update-Service, which is available for the low low price of Way-To-Much!  Yep, it was looking like a long road ahead, until in my searching, I stumbled across Ubiquiti.

A great day in Wifi Land

Unifi UAP
The Unifi UAP in all it’s glory

Now, I’d never heard of Ubiquiti before, but after some minor Google-Fu, I learned tons. A younger company, they had been pumping out all kinds of networking equipment for the last few years, mostly focusing on the carrier level. They had their own kind of Wifi, called Unifi, that was priced at a level that made me think that it had to be crap. I mean, come on. 3 AP’s, with PoE injectors, and no licensing fees for $200 bucks? Something was off here. But at that price, I had to pick up a pack to give a shot. Off to Amazon I went, and ordered up a 3 pack. Thanks to Amazon Prime, they came fast, and arrived on my desk that week. Later, when I found time to actually continue researching instead of putting out fires, I was ready to give them a shot. The packaging wasn’t anything special. A decent sized box with 3 AP’s placed inside. It included 3 POE injectors, all branded with the Ubiquiti logo, and 3 ceiling mounts. These mounts weren’t impressive in the slightest. Basically cheap rings of steel, you were meant to drill through you’re ceiling tile with them to mount to the back plate of the UAP. Yeah, that wasn’t happening any time soon. But I set them aside, and looked into how to set these bad boys up. Here’s where I found the really cool part about Unifi from Ubiquiti. The controller was software based. It ran on Windows/Mac/Linux. Oh, and it was free. Free. A free WiFi Controller. Holy crap, had I just died and gone to EdTech Nirvana? I got to getting this setup as fast I could. I fired up a fresh Ubuntu 12.04 VM (14.04 wasn’t out yet), gave it 1 cpu with 1 core, and a gig of Ram, and got into how to install the controller. Super easy.  This is literally it. I’ve listed this as a Image, as for some reason, my host’s mod_security didn’t like the code..

Sorry for the image. My host was weird.

That’s it. I went to the local url, and it walked me through a wizard to setup a username/password, and then an SSID. I was then dumped on a dash board, which was reporting  that the AP’s I had plugged in were ready to be adopted. This turned out to be a 2 click process, and then I was live. I decided I wanted to add a Guest network, too, to see what it could do. Into the settings tab I went, and there was a Guest Policies tab waiting for me. This allowed me to setup a captive portal, complete with numerous login methods (even billing!), or just turn it off. I opted for the latter. But the really cool part was where it let me choose what networks guests could and could not access! By default, it blocked private Class A, B, and C networks, which was just fine with me. But if I had wanted to give them access to just one IP, say my block page for content filtering, I could do that there as well! Now that my config was built, it was time to make the ssid. I went into the Wireless Network settings, hit create, gave it a name, chose my encryption method, and found a lovely check box called “Is Guest Network”. Clicking it applied all my guest policies automatically. Within 3 minutes, my AP’s started serving this new SSID. This was impressive. It hadn’t tried to setup a DHCP or DNS server. It wasn’t offering a web host. It was just providing me with good, solid WiFi at a fantastic price.

Final thoughts

I’m really happy with Unifi. They’ve been running now in my network for 2 months, without missing a beat. The equipment, which feels fragile in the hand, has turned out to be very reliable. Network speeds are fast, even with 20+ clients on them. They tend to start choking at about 27 concurrent users, I’m finding. No biggie though, as the controller has auto-balancing between AP’s at a point you decide. I just set mine to 25 and was golden.  Signal strength and coverage was maybe 60% of my Cisco system, which at first was disappointing. However, then I realized that for the cost of 1 Cisco AP, I was getting 3 Unifi’s, and that disappointment went away. For the price, you can’t beat the Unifi system.  I’d encourage anyone looking for a simple to use, simple to manage, with just enough features to get your hands dirty Wireless solution to look into them. I’m sure happy I did. **Note: I received nothing from Unifi or it’s vendors for this review. Though I wish I would, some AC Ap’s for home would be great!**

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