Saturday, July 19, 2014

Taking Control of Your Wi-Fi

Ubiquiti UniFi APs and Controller Software on Linux


For years, I bought Wi-Fi routers and access points from the likes of Linksys, Netgear, D-Link, and Asus. Warranties would immediately be voided as I loaded alternative, Linux-based firmwares onto these devices. I started with DD-WRT before moving on to Tomato-based firmwares and OpenWrtTomato by Shibby is my choice for Broadcom chipset devices. OpenWrt supports a wide variety of hardware and has DIY geek appeal.

Gradually, I came to expand my network of Wi-Fi APs to cover the entire house, immediate yard, outbuildings, etc. If you're in an apartment or crowded suburbia, absolutely get yourself a quality device that supports 5GHz, like the higher end models from Asus. It's really crowded out there on 2.4GHz, so only use that as a fallback. Locate your single 5GHz device somewhere central and (hopefully) enjoy the speed and lack of hiccups.

On the other hand, some of us want to expand our coverage to several acres. No dead spots in certain corners of the house. Decent Wi-Fi coverage while out in the garden or mowing the lawn. Minimum lot size in my town is two acres, and it's not unreasonable to want that (or more) covered. This desire for increased coverage and easy management of multiple APs led me to try the UniFi products by Ubiquiti.

Dumb APs, Smart Control

Ubiquiti addresses the management and cost concerns of multiple APs by dumbing down the AP. The UniFi APs are simple, don't directly support web-based management, and don't really have the resources to run (comparatively heavyweight) Linux firmwares. What these APs do support is Java-based management software in the form of the UniFi Controller. The cross-platform nature of Java allows this software to run on Windows PCs, Macs, Linux boxes, and so on. You can fire up the software once to get things configured, and then not really worry about it. Alternatively, you can run the controller 24/7 to provide monitoring and captive portal functionality.

Now that I have a decently low-power yet powerful box on which to run this, in the form of a coreboot Chromebox, it's time to make the UniFi Controller run as a service on Linux. Ubiquiti somewhat supports this, but it still takes effort and research to make it right. For the benefit of myself and others, I'm going to document everything in one place.

Minimum System Requirements

Resource requirements are not especially light, considering you'll be running Java and MongoDB.

  • 2GiB RAM
  • 10GB storage
  • Single 64-bit x86 processor core
In theory, other architectures should work, but don't expect somebody to have created packages or compiled binaries. Given RAM and CPU requirements, I don't recommend planning to deploy on an embedded ARM platform like the Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone Black. If you do manage to get this running on an alternative platform like ARM or MIPS, please let me know!

Selecting a Linux Distro

Ubiquiti appears to support Ubuntu and Debian best, providing repositories from which to obtain packages. The software itself is also available in a ZIP archive, for those who are pledged to another distro and willing to put in some work. I'll be documenting the procedure for Debian 7 (wheezy) here. Debian a good, solid choice for this. If you're able run this all in a virtual machine, I highly recommend it.

Installing and Configuring the Software

We start with a relatively stock Debian 7 install. I accepted most of the defaults, deselecting the desktop and selecting ssh and standard utilities package sets. Configure networking as you'd like it once the install has completed.

We'll add the apt repositories for Ubiquiti and MongoDB.
apt-key adv --keyserver --recv C0A52C50
echo "deb wheezy ubiquiti" >/etc/apt/sources.list.d/ubiquiti.list
apt-key adv --keyserver --recv 7F0CEB10
echo "deb dist 10gen" >/etc/apt/sources.list.d/mongodb.list
aptitude update
Let's disable startup of the default MongoDB instance in advance. It's going to want to pre-allocate multiple GB of journal files, so best to avoid that.
echo "ENABLE_MONGODB=no" >>/etc/default/mongodb
Now we'll install all the packages, watching the UniFi controller fail to start. This is due to the unifi init script setting an outdated JAVA_HOME path. We can fix that in the init script or create a symlink. I'm going to recommend the symlink so we can safely upgrade the unmodified package init script in the future.
aptitude install unifi
ln -sf java-6-openjdk-amd64 /usr/lib/jvm/java-6-openjdk
Just to be safe, we can make sure services are stopped and database journal files are removed.
service unifi stop
service mongodb stop
rm -Rf /var/lib/mongodb/journal
rm -Rf /var/lib/unifi/db/journal
Now we'll edit UniFi controller properties to disable DB journaling, then start the service.
echo "unifi.db.nojournal=true" >>/var/lib/unifi/
service unifi restart
Now point your browser at http://<ip-address>:8080/ and accept the certificate to access the software interface. I hope you found this useful. Please let me know if you have problems or improvements.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Last Year's Phones: Nexus 5 and Moto X

The Lay of the Android Land

These phone comparisons have been done to death, so I'm going to come at this from a different angle. The touchscreen smartphone market has matured. In the Android space, the new Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 are both rather incremental improvements over their predecessors. With unlocked prices well above USD $600 for these new flagships, one might reasonably consider paying half that amount for one of last year's finest.

Personally, I'm a stickler for a near-stock Android experience. Samsung provides a hodgepodge of their own multiple UI efforts along with the mandated Google pieces. Other vendors provide their own enhanced experience. All of this equates to lock-in. After many years of Apple's iDevice, iTunes, App Store lock-in, I refuse to go back. Thankfully, we have our Google Nexus branded devices, Google Play Edition devices, and soon Android Silver. Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility aided the demise of the Motoblur UI in favor of a value-added, near-stock Android experience. Let's hope Lenovo, as the new owner of Motorola, stays the course.

Anyway, enough background. As an early adopter of the LG-made Nexus 5, I'm now transitioning to the slightly older and lower-spec Moto X. My home's metal siding and roof make for very poor indoor signal. Republic Wireless provides a clever solution, and their customization requires a Moto X or G. Thankfully, prices on the Moto X have dropped significantly since its introduction. Both the Moto X and Nexus 5 are in the $300-400 range without contract. Now, on to the phones.

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Use

Nexus 5 (left) and Moto X (right)
With its 4.95-inch display, the Nexus 5 is a somewhat larger device than the 4.7-inch Moto X. Some have critiqued the N5's "lack of style." To this, I must respectfully disagree. The Nexus 5 is a debadged, dechromed, monochromatic slab of a device. This in itself is a style statement. This is a device that exudes power without ostentation, making some competitors look like they're overcompensating. The only other distinguishing features are the the circular ear hole speaker and the unfortunate bezel "chin" extending below the display. The slightly rubberized back are sides are nicely grippy, if a little bit wide and angular in the hand.

The Moto X, on the other hand, has an understated class... and sexy curves. Its slightly rubberized back has a simulated carbon fiber look. The curvature not only feels perfect in the hand but is practical as well, encasing a stacked battery. The front glass extends to the sides, making them somewhat more slick than the N5. My only complaint would be the slightly too obvious microphone hole in the lower left of the front glass. If the N5 is a muscle car, the X is a sleek luxury coupe.

Upon use, the relatively minor size difference between these two devices appears to magnify. The ~5-inch display and full HD resolution bring the N5 into borderline phablet territory. Phone apps can feel like they're underutilizing the display. As an example, the Amazon store app feels limiting in a way that it just doesn't on the Moto X. The N5 is crying out for the ability to choose between phone and tablet apps. Thus, in the current state of the Android ecosystem, the Moto X is great as a phone and the Nexus 5 is a near-phablet that can't run tablet apps. Here's hoping that Google figures this out. This issue may not be obvious to users until they've had their phone for a while.

Display Comparison

Aside from the 0.25-inch size difference, display resolution and technology contribute to the perceived differences mentioned above. The N5's 1080p IPS LCD display makes small text and detail highly visible. Extended periods of reading are not a problem. The front glass is a perhaps a little more reflective than ideal, and the backlight can only get so dim for nighttime use, a typical issue with LCDs.

The Moto X sports a 720p AMOLED display. Text is less clear than on the N5, partly owing to the lower resolution and partly to obvious color fringing around object edges. It's not clear to me whether this is more an artifact of intentional anti-aliasing or the nature of the AMOLED subpixel matrix itself. The AnandTech review of the Moto X is informative.

Thus, the Moto X is definitely no e-reader. That all said, AMOLED has some benefits that are put to good advantage by Motorola. Blacks are black (no backlight), and display power draw is proportional to the number of subpixels lit. This sets the stage for Motorola's exclusive Active Display feature. With the display off, motion sensing and software are able to detect when the user has picked up or unpocketed the phone. The display then kicks in to show the current time and notification updates in white on an otherwise dark background. Just pick up or nudge the device and you'll get status without touching a single button or tapping the display. This is both useful and seriously cool.

Voice Controls: Ok Google (Now?)

Both the Nexus 5 and Moto X allow voice control of a number of phone and search operations. With the N5 switched on, unlocked, and at the home screen, the Google Now Launcher will respond to a spoken command of "Ok Google" followed by a directive or query. This experience is awkward to say the least. Once one has pressed the button to wake the phone and exited the current app by touching the home icon, is it really helpful to speak to the phone instead of just use it?

Once again, Motorola adds a feature that addresses real world use cases. The Moto X contains a subprocessor that is always listening for the phrase "Ok Google Now." It's necessary to train it, and perhaps the additional "now" was added to further prevent this feature from triggering accidentally. Still, this turns voice control from a novelty into a truly useful feature. I'm even finding myself saying "Ok Google Now, launch app-name" as I reach to pick the phone up from the desk, saving precious seconds. Can you tell I like this feature yet? I'm hoping this works decently with background noise in the car.

Miscellany and Conclusion

Cameras on both phones are passable, not great. It's a pity that so many OEMs are cutting costs and corners on sensor elements, optics, and imaging software/firmware. There are many reviews and comparisons out there with images taken from these and competitive phones.

Processing performance on both the N5 and Moto X seems entirely acceptable. They are subjectively faster than the 2013 Nexus 7. Benchmark results are available out there. The Moto X loses the spec war by having only two general purpose processing cores versus the more common four (or eight) in today's flagship devices. I can attest that browsing with Chrome, an activity that benefits from parallelism, does appear faster on the four core N5. For other activities it's kind of a wash. Looking purely at specs yields little practical information, as mobile processing is severely limited by power and cooling constraints.

Battery performance is somewhat low on both of these devices. The Moto X should do slightly better than the N5, but I don't have enough data yet to draw any conclusions. I'd generally accept a little more thickness and weight on all fixed battery devices to reduce mid/late-day charging hassle.

To draw some final conclusions, the Moto X is a great last-gen phone with some very unique features. Discounts have allowed this device to stay appealing despite it's age. The LG-made Nexus 5 is a very capable near-phablet with great potential. One hopes that future firmware updates will permit the N5 to come closer to realizing the potential of its hardware.