Ensuring QoS: A router transition delivers tangible results

-January 15, 2013

Several weeks ago, I finally tackled a long-delayed and much-needed hardware swap. As is usually the case with things I procrastinate, it ended up not being nearly as difficult (nor taking nearly as long) as I'd feared. Although it wasn't speed bump-free ... but more on that later ...

Some background; as I've previously mentioned, all of my telephony options here at Chez Dipert are broadband-enabled. They include AT&T and Verizon cellular options, both augmented by femtocells, and Ooma's VoIP service. My new full-time gig, however, involves heavy broadband usage, specifically with large-payload video; back and forth with contractors via Dropbox, uploaded to YouTube, and archived at my employer's servers via VPN. With a download in progress, I can't reliably hear the person on the other end of the line. During an upload, the other person can't reliably hear me. In either case, it's a problem.

To clarify; it used to not be a problem. I've long owned Apple routers (and HDD-inclusive Time Capsules), which don't offer user-accessible QoS features. I've therefore supplemented them with external QoS adapters (specifically Hawking's HBB1 and Linksys' OGV200), which sit between the router and the cable or DSL modem. While they can't manage the intra-LAN traffic, they adroitly handled the packets traversing the WAN link, which is the fundamental bandwidth bottleneck, anyway.

Unfortunately, the OGV200 was incompatible with my AT&T 3G MicroCell, so I retired the Linksys QoS device. Therefore the need to find a QoS-cognizant successor for my Apple Time Capsule, which I was stubbornly continuing to use as a router even though chronic overheating issues compelled me to stop harnessing its HDD (I was instead relying on a Netgear ReadyNAS as my Time Machine backup repository).  

Linksys' high-end E4200 was particularly interesting. The v1 variant supports 300 Mbps (theoretical) bandwidth on the 2.4 GHz band and 450 Mbps at 5 Ghz; the v2 successor claims 450 Mbps peak capabilities on both bands. The router's brand-new MSRP gave me pause, but when I saw a v2 refurb for $59.99 (which ended up being $69.99, but was still a bargain), I took the plunge.

I went through a typical sequence of steps in migrating from the Time Capsule to the E4200:
  1. Replicating the old router's 2.4 and 5 GHz band SSIDs and encryption schemes
  2. Mirroring the old router's IP address and DHCP assignment range, among other reasons so that my VPN connection to my employer would still work
  3. And cloning the old router's DHCP reservations for LAN clients, along with its firewall port "holes", both so my browser bookmarks would still work and so I could access LAN clients via the WAN
I should note that the router came with the latest-and-greatest 'classic' firmware, dating from late March 2012, pre-installed. I've so far decided to decline the opportunity to upgrade to the newer "Smart Wi-Fi" firmware, which enables cloud-based router configuration but also caused no shortage of controversy last summer. I'm assuming that Cisco will push fundamental bug fixes and feature set upgrades to both firmware image versions, but if the "Smart Wi-Fi" firmware ends up being the only one getting maintained, I'll probably be forced to upgrade.

There's a lot to like about the E4200. It offers one more GbE LAN port than does the Time Capsule, which has already come in handy, since I'm out of spare ports on my external switch. It doesn't natively support Apple's iCloud "find me" facilities, of course, but its built-in support for TZO.com and DynDNS.com dynamic DNS services is an acceptable substitute. Speaking of "find me", I've long expressed a preference for hardware that offers web browser-based configuration, versus requiring a custom utility such as Apple's AirPort Utility.

Although the E4200 doesn't embed a HDD, you can tether an external one to its USB port. The other key v2-versus-v1 enhancement (besides 300-to-450 Mbps peak 2.4 Ghz performance) was a faster and otherwise beefier CPU, an upgrade that reportedly was specifically done to improve USB mass storage performance. And did I mention that the E4200 supports not only conventional FAT32 and NTFS formats, but also Apple-friendly HFS+...along with integrating a FTP (but not HTTP or Bittorrent, alas) server, along with a UPnP server?

Guest network support is implemented differently on the E4200, but no less robustly (at least IMHO). On the Time Capsule, it employed a distinct 2.4 GHz SSID (which I'd called "RockyMountainBri Guest") with a dedicated encryption key. With the E4200, it also employs a dedicated SSID (automatically named "RockyMountainBri-guest", and non-changeable by me) but encryption-less. Instead, after connecting to it and initiating the first web browser (HTTP) access, you're prompted to enter an admin-configurable password before you're able to proceed.

And what about QoS? So far, so good, I've been glitch-free in both cellular and VoIP conversations, in spite of intentionally doing heavy uploads and/or downloads at the time as experiments. This may indeed be one of those cases where factory firmware suffices for the desired tasks. But if not, I've got an E4200 v1 back in CA that I can bring back here and try out. Unlike the Marvell-based v2, it's Broadcom-based and therefore DD-WRT-supported.

Alas, my E4200 so-far experiences haven't been perfect. Particularly, its Wi-Fi behavioral discrepancies versus the Time Capsule give me pause, particularly for an 802.11n technology that's supposedly six-ish years old at this point. For all of the sordid details, see my next post in this series.

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