RAFC, Home Edition

I previously blogged about RAFC, “Redundant Array of Flaky Connections” – a way of bundling inexpensive internet connectivity to achieve reliable internet service. When I talked about it, I described our setup at work. Shortly after that post, I replicated the setup at home. Since I hadn’t blogged in too long, I figure, I’ll share a few tips I’ve learned in the two years of living with it.

Why do this at home?

There is an increasing number of use cases in modern households that depend on internet connectivity:

  • Many people work from home on a regular basis and increasingly rely on cloud-based services when doing so.
  • VoIP, Skype and Google Hangouts are becoming the de-facto way for holding remote meetings and conversations with family abroad.
  • TV is being replaced by streaming media services (like Netflix).
  • Other media, books, newspapers, are replaced by eReaders and tablets.

When internet service goes out, the effects range from annoying to disruptive – for you and other members of your household. Unfortunately, few home ISPs have good SLAs (service level agreements), and outages occur regularly. To quantify downtime, I actually measure the uptime of my own home ISPs. Each of them has had between 15-20 hours of downtime over the past year. Just today, my cable provider was down for more than 3 hours.

How do you make it bulletproof?

Here are the steps I recommend to make your home internet connection bullet proof.

  • Get two connections. Instead of subscribing to a single, fast internet service, subscribe to two slower services that add up to similar bandwidth. In most cases, that’s almost price neutral month-to-month. When I set up RAFC, I switched from a single 50 MBit/s cable connection to a 25 MBit/s cable connection and a 24 MBit/s VDSL connection and paid only a few dollars more per month.
  • Different technologies. If you have the option, get two connections that use different underlying technologies, such as cable, DSL or fiber. Find out what’s available in your neighborhood, and, ideally, find out whether the cables travel the same path. Optimize for diversity to decrease the likelihood of a physical incident, such as a telephone pole falling over, affecting both your connections.
  • Get a Peplink. After several years of using their products now, I still have nothing but praise for them. Granted, they’re costly compared to most consumer routers, but they are supported for longer, are more stable and have the unique Multi-WAN features you need to make RAFC work. You can often find them on eBay or Craigslist.
  • Buy your own modems. Many ISPs give you a “free” modem when you sign up for their service. In many cases, these devices include Wifi and router functionality. Most of these devices are notoriously unstable, and often insecure. With some ISPs, you also pay a fee to rent the device ($3-4 per month). Buying your own modem allows you to chose a simple and dependable, well-reviewed modem for $60-80.
  • Power cycle modems regularly. Consumer-grade modems are known to become unreliable and crash the longer they run. Use some cheap digital timer switches to automatically power cycle both modems daily. Stagger the times and pick times when you’re unlikely to be online. Mine are set for 3am and 4am.
  • Get a UPS. A UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) allows your internet connection survive brief blips in power and tripped circuit breakers. This type of equipment doesn’t draw a lot of power, so a “fat surge protector” style unit with 350 VA for $40 is plenty. Run both modems, the Peplink and your WiFi Router off the UPS,
  • Run your WiFi Router in AP mode. Get a good quality Wifi router, preferably with many antennas (SmallNetBuilder is a great resource) and run it in Access Point mode. In this mode, it doesn’t perform NAT or DHCP services, but simply becomes a good Access Point. Extra tip: Position it in an elevated position, since your furniture degrades the Wifi signal considerably.

Is it worth it?

Ultimately, it depends on how much you value dependable connectivity at home. There is definitely a considerable investment to set this up. Comparing to a “normal”, good quality home network configuration, the additional items are the Peplink ($300), the UPS ($40) and the timer switches ($10).

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