For quite some time now, I’ve been wanting to upgrade my office network, which doubles as my home network as well. From the business standpoint, I wanted some more reliable equipment along with some added security by enabling me to connect to the office network over a VPN when I’m on the road. From the home standpoint, I wanted to add a couple of ethernet outlets upstairs, mostly to enable the quick transfer of media from the file server downstairs, as wireless can be pretty slow.
A few weeks ago, I finally took the initiative and started looking at some equipment. For networking, no one is going to blame you for ordering Cisco equipment, so I started there. Their routers start at about $350-400 and move up from there pretty quickly, which is more than I originally was looking to spend, so I started looking at a few other brands. Brands like ZyXEL offer less-expensive business-grade equipement at about half the price, and I checked all the high-end equipment offered by consumer brands like Netgear and Linksys.
It didn’t take long to rule out the consumer equipment. While a lot of the features were there, I was constantly running into reviews complaining about reliability issues, and to me that was a key issue. Another common issue with consumer equipment was bandwidth capacity. A lot of them only handled around 15MBits, with some others moving up to 50-75MBits. VPN speeds were definitely slower, most of the time running around 10MBits because of the extra processing required to encrypt the packets. Ignoring VPN, these routers were faster than my network connection (10MBits), but I was looking more for something to handle up to 100MBits so it would grow with my connection for many years to come. Despite this limitation, a lot of them had gigabit connections on the WAN side. Not sure why…
While doing my research, I kept going back to look at the Cisco router. I was looking specifically at their ASA line of products. The ASA line replaces the older PIX routers, and there is quite a model spread from the 5505 for small office environments, all the way up to the 5580 for the enterprise. Even at the low-end, the 5505 was able to handle 150MBits of throughput for unencrypted traffic, and an impressive 100Mbits of VPN traffic bandwidth. All of the reviews said the device was rock-solid and never crashed. Setup seemed to be a bit more difficult, with a lot of it taking place on a command line, but I have some past experience with Cisco’s IOS and thought this would be a good time to brush up on my knowledge. Finally, with support for VLANs, an 8 port Cisco switch built-in with 2 power-over-ethernet ports, and an insane 10,000 simultaneous connections supported, it was hard not to like this device.
I ended up going for it, and shiny new 5505 is sitting on my desk. The device is a lot easier to configure than I originally expected. The device arrives with a dynamic configuration by default, so it just worked when I plugged it in to my network. There is an online Java application that is hosted on an HTTPS server. Configuring the VPN end-point and getting the iPhone to connect to it and split-tunnel all traffic through the router took all of 20 minutes. It’s taking me a little longer to configure my Mac to connect over the VPN, but I just need to spend some more time on it. I find it ironic that the iPhone is more prepared for the enterprise than the Mac is. Overall, I couldn’t be happier with my decision.
Switching gears a little bit here, from the home side of adding additional outlets, I bought a 24 port patch panel to punch down all the cabling on, and 500 feet of Cat 5e to wire it all up. Cat 6 was definitely a consideration but it cost twice as much, and with Cat 5e handling gigabit just fine I saw no need to spend the extra money. If 10-gigabit starts becoming standard, I’ll just upgrade the cabling in my office.
Dropping the lines from upstairs has been a bit more difficult than I was expecting. I naively expected to be able to look up the wall from the basement and see the outlet connection box from below. Of course, this isn’t the case, as each wall has a bottom 2×4 to complete that edge of the frame. I’m still working on finding the best way to send the wire through a small hole in the connection box, and target a small hole at the bottom of the wall frame.
I still have some work to do, but will try to update this with photos when the job is completed. Stay tuned.