Upgrading my home network

For a number of years, I’ve been using a TL-WR1043ND running DD-WRT as my home router, even going as far as replicating the same setup for friends and family, as it struck a happy midpoint of being powerful enough to be useful, but also simple and stable enough for the slightly less technically literate to manage. The DD-WRT setup was surprisingly simple, and I’ve been reasonably impressed by the performance and capabilities of the software, even on such a basic consumer model of router. That said, around 12 months ago I realised that my home network was rapidly outgrowing this basic setup, and I felt the need to lean towards something a bit more “prosumer“. There are quite a few different companies targeting this market, but one in particular stood out to me – Mikrotik.

Around 12 months ago I took the dive and bought a RB2011UiAS-2HnD-IN (that’s quite the product name!) – one of their mid-line models which seemed quite reasonably priced, and got stuck into learning the intricacies of RouterOS. Their own WinBox software provides a very usable GUI for configuring their hardware, granting a view to the myriad of different features of the board while keeping the learning curve shallow enough to avoid you becoming swamped by options. I’ve gradually tweaked and enabled more and more services, to the point where the single device is providing:

  • PPPoE to my ISP
  • DHCP
  • DNS (local and external)
  • Firewall
  • WiFi (more on this below)
  • L2TP connection to a VPN provider, with certain traffic automatically routed through this
  • … and a whole lot more!

Additionally, when I moved into my new house earlier this year, I set about removing the need for using HomePlug to connect various devices in different rooms, as I found that these tended to be unstable, causing slow transfer speeds and a high rate of dropped connections. I ended up running CAT6 from my study through to several other rooms in the house (I may blog about that project some time in the future!), which eliminated the need for the HomePlugs, but highlighted how poor my WiFi setup was (having previously blamed this on the dodgy connections). While researching ways to improve coverage, I struck upon a feature of RouterOS that I hadn’t yet taken advantage of – CAPsMAN (Controlled Access Point System MANager). This essentially allows you to delegate control of various MikroTik device radios to a central ‘manager’, which pushes out the WiFi configuration to create a seamless network across all access points. I picked up a couple of Home Access Points (hAP) and set these up as slaves to CAPsMAN running on the main router (as well as the radios on the router itself being delegated to CAPsMAN, not something that’s recommended officially but seems to work for me), and I haven’t had any complaints about sub-par WiFi performance since!

My next step involves upgrading the heart of my network to something with a few more gigabit speed ports – I’ve already run out of capacity in my “rack” (a re-purposed IKEA bookshelf) – so I’m looking at getting a CRS125-24G-1S-2HnD-IN (there we go again with the brilliant product names!) to act as the core router, and demoting the current RB2011UiAS-2HnD-IN to act as a switch and access point in the living room instead of the “dumb” switch in there currently.

While I realise there are quite a few alternative offerings coming to market that simplify home networking (Google WiFi, Ubiquiti Unifi etc), I’m more than happy with what Mikrotik have to offer both in terms of the hardware and software, and I continue to be impressed by how straightforward yet powerful my home network has become now that there’s something more powerful behind it. I might even start suggesting an upgrade to the parents network!