Stepping Up to 5GHz 802.11ac Wireless for the Home Lab

I’ve been on the prowl to upgrade the home lab wireless network to the 5 GHz range for many months, especially after chatting with fellow Tech Field Day delegate and all around Wireless Genius Jennifer Huber at Cisco Live! during the summer. With the release of 802.11ac allowing for significant speed increases, I figured now was the time to pull the trigger and realize the benefits of both advancements. After hearing some chatter on the Twitters requesting more details, I put together this post outlining my wireless upgrade.

Wireless Network Topology

The wireless segment of my home lab runs in its own network segment. Access is provided by way of a Linksys EA6900 wireless router for both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. I chose this particular device based on the recommendation from this article from Paul Braren over at TinkerTry, which puts three 802.11ac wireless routers up against one another.

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If you plan on buying the EA6900, I suggest using the link on Paul’s website to toss him a small % of the sale as a “thank you.”
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Rather than using the routing features on the EA6900, I’ve set it to “bridge mode” and use it to simply provide access into my physical network. All of the needed domain services, such as Active Directory, DHCP, and DNS are provided by servers running in my vSphere environment so as to provide a single point of management over all of my services. My core switch, which is an HP V1910, acts as the layer 3 router for all VLANs, hosting a number of SVIs (switch virtual interfaces) for inter-VLAN routing. The gateway of last resort is my Untangle firewall + router device, which passes along traffic to an upstream cable modem.

The overall topology look as follows:

How wireless fits into my network topology
How wireless fits into my network topology

As you can see from the graphic, the Linksys EA6900 is running two unique wireless network frequencies: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Each range is represented by a unique SSID to ensure that an endpoint is using the 5 GHz range. The 2.4 GHz range is simply on to allow any legacy devices, such as my Nintendo Wii, onto the network. Because the EA6900 is in bridge mode, there is nothing really to configure. Using traditional MAC learning, the wireless access point learns layer 2 addresses and passes traffic upstream and downstream as needed.

The EA6900 is configured as follows (SSIDs and passwords have been removed):

Linksys EA6900 wireless configuration
Linksys EA6900 wireless configuration

Connecting the Endpoints

While many of my devices support 802.11n and the 5 GHz band, few of them natively supported 802.11ac. Since my primary goal is to get all of my endpoints onto the 5 GHz range, I used the following decision tree:

  1. If the endpoint supports 5 GHz, connect using the native 802.11n adapter
  2. Otherwise, purchase the Linksys AC1200 (WUSB6300) USB dual-band wireless adapter

All of the family Android devices supported 5 GHz. So did my HP Spectre XT laptop and other family laptops. The only oddballs left over were two desktops in the house, which were upgraded to the Linksys AC1200 USB dual-band wireless adapter. I left our Nintendo Wii on the 2.4 GHz band because it is primarily used to update the console, which is rare.

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Want more details? Watch the Linksys AC1200 Wireless AC adapter unboxing video on YouTube
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speedySpeeds and Feeds

The improvement I’ve seen migrating from the 2.4 GHz range to the 5 GHz range has been dramatic. Many household items interfere with 2.4 GHz band (microwaves, cordless phones, etc), and the neighborhood is filled with other wireless devices on that same band. I now see much smoother and stronger signal ratios when I wander around the house using Wifi Analyzer on my android tablet.

Additionally, the devices that have the Linksys AC1200 dual-band connection are getting speeds just above 800 Mbps, which I call “near gigabit.” I was lucky to see over 100 Mbps using the older 802.11n over the 2.4 GHz band. This has made playing with the lab over wireless much more enjoyable, especially when I’m shifting around packages or ISOs from my mobile lab to the home lab.

Thoughts

spongebob-speedoI’m extremely happy with my shift to both 802.11ac and the 5 GHz band. My main goal for this shift was to move into a cleaner and stronger band for wireless (5 GHz), and I decided it would be a great idea to ensure that I was also ready for 802.11ac. Speeds have improved to some degree over all the devices, but more importantly, my signal to noise ratio has diminished and I’m able to get a steady connection regardless of where I am sitting in the house.

A special thanks to TinkerTry for taking the time on his end to make my 802.11ac wireless router buying decision so simple.