With today’s technology exploding at an extreme rate, there is always a need to get better and better WI-FI. One of these companies is one that everyone has heard of, Cisco. Cisco is a Networking company that was founded in 1984 in San Francisco. Most major and minor server rooms have at least one thing that is made by Cisco, for a good reason too! The equipment (and service) is second to none. I have some leftover “test” routers that I used to train on in college and they still work. Cisco became the defacto standard for the longest time, just because not many people knew how to code in the Cisco IOS, so they were also very secure. As more and more people started liking and using Cisco products the better they became by buying different technologies. Some of these would be Linksys for home networking and Meraki the cloud-based networking company. The Latter is what we are talking about today.
The other company is Ubiquiti (people often think Unifi is the name, but that is a model). Ubiquiti was founded in 2005 in New York (not everything needs to come out of Cali). They had a really easy business model… make it affordable! I know it sounds like a crazy concept, but it really went against the grain. Computers and Networking are generally really expensive. If a new iPhone X could cost almost $1,000 dollars imagine how much the infrastructure was to get the phone going in the first place! People suddenly realized they could get Cisco like quality (almost) but at a really affordable price. Why buy one Cisco Access Point (AP) for $800 if you could get 8 Unifi Access Points for the same price without sacrificing quality. If one of them broke then just replace it. They took this idea across the entire product line up, which is everything from Point to Point, to video cameras, etc. Everything also has a brand identity, They all have this ring of light (sometimes it’s a rounded square) and the color will tell you how it’s feeling. It’s on everything from the switches to the AP’s.
Now that we are all caught up on history, we can talk about the enterprise-class WI-FI. I have used and installed both with the company I work for many years. Cisco’s Meraki WI-FI is very much like any other Cisco setup. You have high-quality metal equipment with a really clean look. When you get your plan together and talk with your install team (in-house or from Cisco) you will need to make sure you get all the licensing together right away. With Meraki, you can program everything from the cloud without a lot of the stuff in place. You can register everything ahead of time so that when your team is installing the hardware you can be set up all your security settings and networks. This saves a lot of downtime and stress when trying to roll out everything on time. With Meraki gone are the “old” endless programming screens and instead you have a rather pleasant looking white, green, and grey layout that is point and click! This cuts the setup time in half without having to endlessly copy and paste hundreds of lines of code while hooked up to an energy drink I.V. drip. I am usually getting average speeds of around 30Mbps with bursts over 50 down and 20 up from my iPad. The Meraki is really steady, you will know exactly what you are getting with the equipment you are using.
I also like the fact that you get a nice reporting menu so I can see places that I could tighten up a little more. So if you have that one employee that always seems to be on their phone instead of working, you can see that as soon as you log in. I always find myself in the “Network-Wide” and “Wireless” menus checking daily activities.
Now for the not so nice… Some of the Meraki AP’s are known to be not the best when it comes to reliability. This is mostly the outdoor AP’s, but there are some indoor ones that go too. I’ve had three outdoor “MR66” models die all within a couple of months of each other (and out of warranty) so you are then stuck paying $700-$800 each! I haven’t had any problems with any of the other equipment, but how often do switches really go.
There are also regular firmware updates for all the devices which help out fixing problems and adding new features. Overall the Meraki setup is the standard for modern cloud-based WI-FI and Networking.
The new kid on the block is the Ubiquiti Unifi WI-FI. This is also cloud-based (kind of). You will also start of installing it the same way as the Meraki, just don’t think about taking out your old WI-FI until this is fully configured. The Unifi system runs off of a server located on your network… that you install and configure! That’s right, cheaper prices do come at a price! The Unifi system will take quite a bit longer to install than the Meraki (esp. if you had Cisco install it for you).
The good thing is that just like the Meraki portal, once you get the server running (which you download from their website) just log in to your new server and start configuring. You can run the server on Windows, Mac OSX, or Linux. I have done all three and found Linux (Debian or Ubuntu) to be the best. I actually had one controller running for over 421 days straight! I am usually averaging 35ish with bursts around 90 down and 23 up. The Unifi WI-FI is a really quick setup but may not be 100% solid all the time like the Meraki is. It’s up to you what you feel more comfortable with, highway driving or racing between stoplights.
Start by plugging everything into whatever type of switch you want, it just has to be Power Over Ethernet, if not they do come with power injectors for free. the Unifi software will automatically find the equipment and put it in a list for you to provision into your network (just like Meraki). The portal has gotten a really nice update and looks a lot better than it did a couple of years ago. The updates are downloaded and installed manually instead of automatically like on Meraki. The AP’s will automatically update after the controller just as long as the option is checked.
The Unifi System isn’t without its flaws either. The AP’s can sometimes act up by randomly shutting down or losing connection, or even slowing way down, under 10Mbps. The easiest way to fix it is to simply reboot the device and it will pop right back up. I dropped an AP when installing it once from 10-15 feet in the air, thankfully they are made of plastic instead of metal (like Meraki) and it literally bounced around and was fine, not even a scratch. After looking around to make sure no one saw me, I popped it in the middle of the ceiling tile because there are no brackets to mount them to a drop ceiling (like Meraki). The rest of the rack-mounted hardware is actually just as nice as the Meraki hardware, all slick aluminum with clean lines.
So which one is better? Since I actually use both in the same company (Ford/Lincoln requires Meraki) and I use the Unifi System in the other 5 buildings. I like them both for different reasons. The Meraki portal more than makes up for some rogue AP’s dying all the time. You can really manage an entire Cisco certified network all from all from a webpage or an app on your phone/tablet. No longer are you needed to lug all your stuff down to another building climbing ladders to plug into the access point messing up, just sit at your desk drinking your coffee and click a couple buttons. This has helped me when I am off (I live 20 minutes away) and getting that call on Saturday at 7:30am is made just a little easier by logging into my iPad instead of driving up to work. If you like the Meraki setup be prepared to pay… and I mean a lot! A small network with 10-14 ap’s a Security Appliance and Switch could easily run you in the 10K – 20K range, after all, is done. Then you have to pay licensing fees every couple years just to keep it running. This has been standard Cisco for years now so people are kind of used to it.
The Unifi System requires more work, and with the monthly updates, they are always adding more and more features. Recently they added a cloud plugin (chrome actually) so it will upload everything to the Ubiquiti servers, now I can also log into my iPad app and choose which building/controller that I need to control for each given time. I have had Unifi WI-FI for more than three years in the other buildings and even though it has more random bugs that take up some time… I have never had any Unifi device fail! There are more and more companies that are realizing that you don’t need to have Cisco equipment just because that’s what you always used. I took a real big chance bringing Ubiquiti into the company when it was still an unknown. If you are setting a controller up for the first time I would recommend using a Windows computer first, then upgrade to Linux later… you will thank me! With the price of these things just buy one access point and test it to find out if it will work for you.
Hopefully, this has been a non-biased (1st ever tech) review. I really like Unifi better but I will still use Cisco (Meraki) in certain circumstances. Both of these cloud-based networking systems would be good for any small home office to fortune 500 company. There are much more cloud-based systems coming onto the market every day, so it all comes down what fits with your business model and company.
Specs and Product Pages
Unifi Specs – https://store.ubnt.com/products/unifi-ap-pro
Meraki Specs – https://meraki.cisco.com/products/wireless/mr33