Apple wireless network -- how many nodes?
February 14, 2011 7:04 PM   Subscribe

Providing WiFi to a small "campus" from a single source? Lots of Airport Expresses? Anything cheaper but robust available?

I've been asked by the owner of a very nice fishing lodge to help provide WiFi access (available in the main building) to all of the cabins and other buildings associated with the lodge.

One other requirement is that once I get it set up, no one with much technical knowledge will be around to maintain it. Ease of use and robustness is key. I don't want to get into replacing firmware or scripting anything.

My initial thought was to just get an Airport Extreme as the main base station and a bunch of Airport Expresses set up in a mesh network, or as Apple calls it WDS (Wireless Distribution System). This is described in some detail here, but I couldn't find a good source for maximum number of nodes supported (or suggested).

Creating Wireless Mesh with Apple Airport

I'm thinking that I'd need around a dozen Airport Expresses, about one in each building. So, all in, I'm talking about around $1,500 for the whole setup. I'd really like to do this cheaper, if possible, but I also don't want to half-ass it and give people a bad wireless experience. I also like the idea of the ability to use the integrated AirTunes -- little speakers throughout for announcements, music, whatever. That's not a need-to-have, though, by any means.

And I'm not married to the idea of going with Apple! I just thought it would be a robust wireless network with easy setup. I'm hoping the Hive Mind can help me discover other options (cheaper ones, hopefully!). Thoughts?

There is a map of the lodge here:

Map of lodge and buildings

To give an indication of scale,

Cabin #7 = 20 feet
Cabin #2 = 40 feet
Cabin 5/6 = 100 feet
Cabin 4 = 125 feet, maybe

Between Cabin 5 and 6 is like 15 feet
Between Fitness Center and 4 is like 20 feet
Cabin 4 and Cabin 3 is probably 35 feet

Thanks in advance for any advice and suggestions!
posted by peripatetic007 to Technology (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You can go cheaper (Linksys, etc.) as Apple is on the higher end for consumer WiFi, but it wasn't designed for the usage you're planning for. Cisco and others make commercial WiFi hardware that is weatherproof and supports many more clients than any consumer Apple hardware. Airport Extreme only supports 50 users, which doesn't sound like enough to me. What the Cisco (or other non-consumer) gear won't be is cheap, and setup also will be harder at first but should be set-it and forget-it.
posted by gen at 7:28 PM on February 14, 2011

Oh, 50 would be plenty -- maximum occupancy of the lodge is around 30, and we'd never get near that many concurrent users.

And yeah, I was hoping to avoid the professional-grade stuff, since the setup is always such a PITA.

The good news is that the walls of the buildings are relatively thin, so I was thinking that a consumer-powered set of nodes would be enough to get from building to building.
posted by peripatetic007 at 7:30 PM on February 14, 2011

I haven't used it, but Open-Mesh looks decent. Runs about $60 per node and they have a "mini-router" that is half that.
posted by markr at 7:37 PM on February 14, 2011

Oops, looks like the "half that" mini-router was an old page, so ignore that part.
posted by markr at 7:40 PM on February 14, 2011

Open-mesh does look pretty sweet -- and it would cut costs nearly in half! Thanks!
posted by peripatetic007 at 8:19 PM on February 14, 2011

WDS is a standard that many routers support. Linksys added WDS support into their stock firmware of their WRT54GL back in 2007. Here is a blog posting of someone setting it up in their home. You can get a WRT54GL for around $50. The L on the end means it can run third-party firmwares like DD-WRT, and considering it costs about the same as the WRT54G its worth getting the L model just in case you migrate to DD-WRT in the future.

The best thing to do is a buy a couple from somewhere with a good return policy and test it out. You may not need to pay for an Airport Extreme. I'm assuming all of this will be in climate controlled environments and won't require cooling or rain enclosures.

Also, these netgear models support WDS too.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:57 PM on February 14, 2011

In the event that your hardware isn't in a friendly environment, I'll suggest the outdoor PoE-powered products from Ubiquiti Networks.

We use some NanoStations in the backhaul of a marina WiFi system. All the other hardware (Linksys WRT54G's with DD-WRT, and a handful of OpenMesh units) have to be regularly rebooted and power-cycled and dried out. The Ubiquiti gear just keeps running through sun and ice and wind.

If I were in your position I'd buy a box of PicoStations.
posted by Kakkerlak at 9:27 PM on February 14, 2011

I came to mention Ubiquiti for proper distributed wifi and was pleased to see I'm not alone.
posted by dirm at 3:55 AM on February 15, 2011

Would those Ubiquiti products require an electrician to install? One of the things that is very attractive about the OpenMesh products is that they are plug-and-play.

The 2.4gHz OpenMesh routers should penetrate the cabins pretty easily, so I don't think I'll have to set anything up outside. I want to avoid that, because that would definitely require an electrician (this place is pretty remote, so getting any kind of professional services is super expensive). Also, they claim that they now have a "watchdog chip" (whatever that is) which will help get the network back up after power outages.

The Ubiquiti products look like the Cadillac -- high-end stuff, for sure. Probably more power and more robust than OpenMesh (and definitely a much more professional-looking website), but I'm not sure it would work for me if it requires professional installation. Please correct me if I'm wrong on that assumption, though.
posted by peripatetic007 at 6:06 AM on February 15, 2011

Also, you should look into putting your wireless clients on their own subnet that is firewalled off from your normal network operations. A wireless guest should not be able to connect to any server, POS station, workstation, etc. Perhaps even blocking things like bitorrent or enabling throttling on your router to avoid having one guy use all of your bandwidth.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:31 AM on February 15, 2011

I don't have any specific models to suggest, but I just wanted to point out that with the Wireless-N standard having been ratified and implemented on newer computers, you might consider deploying Wireless-N routers rather than plain-vanilla Wireless-G routers such as the WRT54G.

Wireless-N will give you better penetration and range, which might result in less nodes needed (and hence less expense).

Caveat: If you do go down this route, you need to be aware that if even just one Wireless-G client joins your super-fast wireless network, the whole network just crawls along at G speeds, even if the other nodes have Wireless-N cards. To mitigate that, some routers have the option of setting up 2 wireless networks, one for Wireless-N clients and one for Wireless-G clients.

Do take note if there's any other appliances like cordless phones or microwaves operating in the 2.4GHz band. If there are a significant number, you might want to consider using the often-less-crowded 5GHz band, at the cost of range.
posted by titantoppler at 6:37 AM on February 15, 2011

One of the nice things about the Apple solution is that it natively allows a "real" network and a "guest" network -- so I can put limitations on the guest network very easily.

I'm not sure about the other solutions -- I'll probably email them and ask. I've already emailed both OpenMesh and Ubiquiti to get their recommendations. One thing I like about Ubiquiti is that they seem to have a pretty active user forum, which is great. It's also easy to get answers about Airport answered online. I haven't found too much about OpenMesh, though.
posted by peripatetic007 at 6:45 AM on February 15, 2011

@titantopple -- Thanks for the advice! When I emailed the OpenMesh guys to ask the difference between their G and N offerings (which are the same price), they told me that the G router actually had much better range and penetration than their N offering. Of course, that is specific to their proprietary hardware -- they much have just under-powered their N routers for some reason. They do operate at 2.4ghz, but the nice thing is that since this is in the middle of nowhere there will be almost zero interference.
posted by peripatetic007 at 6:49 AM on February 15, 2011

One of the nice things about the Apple solution is that it natively allows a "real" network and a "guest" network -- so I can put limitations on the guest network very easily.

According to this forum it may be impossible to get the guest network to work with WDS. You may want to verify this before you make your purchase.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:16 AM on February 15, 2011

good catch -- thanks for that. I'll just have to set up security a different way, but I'm not too worried about that.
posted by peripatetic007 at 1:49 PM on February 15, 2011

It looks like the beta "enterprise" open-mesh thing does dual-networks like the Apple gear.
posted by markr at 3:43 PM on February 15, 2011

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