Home Network gear

Fri, 28 Apr 2023

Home Network Gear

You will probably laugh at this


This post is something of a confession. Not looking for absolution, just telling a story.

The newest bit of home networking gear I owned (prior to this week) was built in 2011. It was an Apple Airport Extreme, 5th gen. That’s right, 802.11n.

Purchased near the sunset of my 2nd Apple phase, this stalwart device (and another just like it, as a second AP) spread internet-bearing non-ionizing radiation throughout our home for a decade. Honestly, even in a mostly Windows household, it was a great Router/AP. Every previous home network of mine was composed of scrounged Linksys WRT devices running DD-WRT, Tomato, OpenWRT or whatever else sounded fun at the time.

If you’ve been there, you know the dance. Power it on, tickle the magic button with a ballpoint pen in juuust the right manner, unplug it, say an encantation, plug it back in and voila - magic internet powers.

Those setups were never particularly reliable, but they did allow for experimentation and learning. VPNs and port forwarding and DDNS. Spying on the unsuspecting, flipping images upside down…all manner of WiFi hijinks. All of which was obviously unrelated to the reliability issues.

The Airport

The Airport was exactly what a newly married IT professional needed at home: WiFi which didn’t break. Ever. Until this week. Seriously, we went years without ever powercycling the Airport. Cisco Catalyst 3650-type uptime.

The Airport was one place where Apple didn’t treat Windows users as second-class in any way. On the contrary, Windows users of the Airport Utility (software required for managing the thing) had more configuration options than Mac users. Once I received a 1st gen(!) Airport Express to play with and was unable to configure it using the Mac version of the software. Not so on the Windows side! Yes, our network included two identical Airport Extreme 5th gens and a 1st gen Airport Express, used as a printer host. Couldn’t even do that with updated Mac software. The 5th Gen Airport was also the last to support Syslogging to an external server. Cool!

One unique thing about the Airport which endeared it to me, it didn’t run any flavor of *nix. A common issue with consumer (or really all) network gear is going on for years with unpatched OSes, exposing low-hanging-fruit vulnerabilites to the port-scanning masses of h4x0r$. But not the Airport. It ran Vxworks. Just like the Mars rover! Woohoo!

The Crisis

Or it did. Until this week, when the trustworthy green LED became an ever-blinking yellow. At which point Bluey stopped streaming. Facebook would not load. From the Chromecasts, silence. My phone pinged incessantly with downtime notifications and my lovely wife gazed unapprovingly as I, the employed I.T. professional, tried and failed to revive the Airport using the age-old method of unplugging, then plugging it back it.

There, in the basement, surrounded by a tangle of where-does-this-go ethernet cables and broken promises of ‘one more Bluey before bed’, two roads diverged in a wood. The nerd side of me called out: buy a MikroTik. Run some cables. You’ve wanted to for yearsssss. What is good hardware for OpenWRT these days? OR it could be a used ASA. The options are endless! Think of all the configuration…

But the answer was clear. This is not the network for experimentation. Those days are gone, distant memories like my 20s and boot-cut jeans. And woe to thee if thy Disney+ stream is interrupted.

I ordered a set of TP-Link S4 mesh access point/routers. Yep. That’s where I’m at.

The Mesh

I used to rail against those things. No freaking way would an AP dangle from electricity alone in my house.

And to be fair, old ‘wifi extenders’ in relatives homes were the bane of many a holiday visit for years. But this is 2023. Tom Brady just retired. This is a new era.

So the set arrived next day and, as hoped, the setup was fairly simple. It’s all app based (blegh whyyyy) but all the important bits are there. You’re viewing this site through it (until I get cloudflare tunnels figured out). DHCP reservations, port forwarding…the stuff I need to be happy is mostly present and useable, though again only through the app. There is a local webpage to view the configuration, but no changes can be made there.

Hopefully TP-Link continues supporting this model in their app for a long time. One of my great fears with these is that in a few years we’ll be forced to purchase new ones due to obsolescence in their app. I may try to pull an APK down of the current app, just in case.

The Setup

Setting these things up was as easy as I’d hoped consumer gear would be in 2023. Really, if you’re OK with the defaults it’s very nearly plug-and-play. I wanted a particular number in the third octet and particular DNS settings (currently using CloudFlare zero trust routing). It’s mildly irritating that the thing sets up with a bunch of defaults at first and then you have to change settings such as that later.

Upside If you want plug and play decent WiFi, this will do it. Downside, if you want to tweak a little, you have to go through all of the config steps, then go undo the defaults and set things the way you want.

BUT after all of that, I’ve got my subnet, reserved IP addresses, a couple of port forwards, basic QOS and some other odds-and-ends all set up. AND it went quickly. The biggest irritation at this point was having to do it all on a phone app, but the app is snappy and mostly gets out of the way.

Bonus Points

TP-Link provides access to a DynamicDNS service. I’ve paid for one elsewhere for years, but having it included for libre is pretty handy. Setup was as simple as everything else in the app. Just tap the button, pick a subdomain and you’re done. This wound up being handy becase, in the process of many modem reboots troubleshooting the Airport we received our first new IP from our ISP in years. No biggie, I’ve got DDNS in a cron job to take care of that. BUT, my DDNS provider was having an issue with updates at that moment. So I did have a brief panic, during which is was nice to have TP link’s DDNS service as a backup. And it was a good opportunity to check in with the other DDNS provider and see how they’re doing :-)

Wrap up

OK this is more words and taking much longer than I’d intended so I’m just going to publish. I have no idea why anyone would read this far. I guess a useful takeaway is, if you’re a nerd and want to play with your home network a little bit BUT must have uninterrupted Bluey streams AND don’t want to pay a high price or odd subscription for your home wifi to justwork, the TP-Link Deco system is a good solution. I think we’ll even add one more unit in the garage for a less-frustrating youtube experience when working on vehicles.

OK I’m really going to post this, becase it’s not a blog with only one legit post.


Today I learned that if you use TP-Link’s mysterious ‘Optimize’ button, the main unit will be OK, but the satellites may disconnect and not automatically reconnect. I think it swapped the bands used for backhaul and the remote units missed the memo. Anyway, I did that remotely and Bluey stopped streaming. Ugh.