Every aspect of Obvious is an opportunity to apply design thinking to situations and our infrastructure is no exception: we live on the internet —and therefore, our internet should always be alive. When it was time to redo our office network, the question I asked myself was: can it be a pleasure to set up, manage, and derive insights from something as mundane as our network connection?

I have deep doubts and misgivings about WiFi (reasons in detail here), so one of the key requirements that I gave our architects when we were renovating our office was that every desk should have an ethernet port, directly connected to our network backbone for full-duplex, gigabit internet access at every workstation. One post which I kept going back to while designing our office was Joel Spolsky’s “Bionic Office” (from 2003!):

Every office has its own 8-port network switch, so you can plug in your laptop and your desktop and your Macintosh and that old computer you keep around to read Joel on Software when your main computer is rebooting to install today’s Windows Update, and still have 3 ports left over (attention math geniuses: no need to email. One port is the uplink.) I sneer at silly building managers who still think that one LAN port per office is about right. For lawyers, maybe.

However, in addition to dedicated ethernet ports, we also need to have excellent WiFi — as our work and our devices are far more mobile than when Joel wrote about the Bionic Office.

Enter Ubiquiti

It was unsurprising to find that Ubiquti was founded by an ex-Apple engineer. Their products are elegantly plain, mostly white and glow gently, a-la the old Macbook breathing LEDs (which I miss sorely). Their wireless access points blend into the surroundings, unlike “high-end” consumer routers (Exhibits A, B, C and oh dear god what).

Unifi’s Wireless Access Points even have “skins” to match their surroundings

Ubiquiti (and other semi-professional networking equipment) separate out routing, switching and WiFi access into separate devices which perform one function well. Our internet comes into their router — the Unifi Security Gateway Pro, which supports multiple ISPs for failover and load-balancing.

Our router

The next piece of equipment is our core network switch — a managed switch with power-over-ethernet. This powers a bunch of smaller devices, including our network controller, a RIPE Atlas probe (courtesy @louiswu) and potentially thin clients or IP cameras in the future.

Any port in a storm

The cool thing about a PoE-switch is that the wireless access points don’t require a separate power cable, and draw their power right off the network cable. This really simplifies where you can place them — you don’t require a power outlet to set up an access point. We have two AC Pro routers, which are honestly probably overkill for the amount of space that we have.

Software

Enough about the hardware — the coolest part about Ubiquti is what they call “software-defined-networking”. Their control interface is fantastically cool — and looks something like this:

The Unifi Dashboard
Speed tests (L) and Network Topology (R)
Live coverage maps (L) and detailed port statistics (R)

I can easily spot issues with either our network traffic, see if there are particular access points which are overloaded, upgrade firmware on all the network connected devices — it even has an extremely well-designed mobile app, which you can use to login to all your networks from anywhere in the world, and perform fixes, diagnose problems, all the sys-admin-y tasks that you would usually have to be on the same network to perform.

Tips

Don’t buy any Ubiquiti gear off Amazon/Flipkart. Prices there are highly inflated. Look at Ubiquiti’s prices on their US website, and don’t pay more than 5–10% extra. We’ve had good results with the following dealers:

To redo your home network, all you probably need is an access point (or two). You can run their controller on any computer, and can reuse your existing router. You can then add to your network iteratively, adding in the Security Gateway or a managed switch over time.

Alternatively, for an even simpler approach, where you sacrifice some configuration ability, look at their Amplifi range. This is a mesh system, with beautifully designed hardware.

Pretty fly for a WiFi…

We accomplished all our goals with this network gear:

  1. Fast and reliable internet across our entire office
  2. Easy to set up failover, load-balancing and scales to hundreds of users
  3. Simple enough for a non-technical person like myself to set up and run
  4. Isolated guest networks with simple login, bandwidth restrictions
  5. Passes the critical Designer Test: looks and works elegantly

It looks like we’re also in good company:

Postscript

The only unfortunate part of this entire story is that now having seen how elegant and stable this network is, I am undertaking an expensive exercise to replace all the routers and access points both at home and at my parents with this gear.

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