My Journey to Home Network Nirvana – Phase I: Acquisition

For a while now I’ve been thinking about setting up a custom home network l in our house to enable faster, more controlled traffic and better security. So I did a bit of reading up, and I discovered that Ars Technica has a great series reviewing home routers and comparing their performance to commercial ones. The bottom line: a homebrew router provides the best performance, especially for high-bandwidth connections. Intriguing – now that I knew, I couldn’t let it go. Visions of a home network closet danced in my head, with a custom-built router, firewall, media server, core switch, and a newer mesh wifi system like the Linksys Velop humming on all three floors. The germ of a plan began to form…

First I did some more reading. To my great satisfaction, it’s totally possible to ditch the Verizon-provided router and provide your own! I honestly didn’t know that the Verizon router was optional, I had thought I’d have to jump another router off the current one and do some double-NAT setup that felt really hinky. But since I’ve long since turned off the wifi on the Verizon router there’s no reason not to consider swapping it out for something that will give our house better performance, security, and customization. Pushing me further in that direction is that our current AirPort-based wifi setup is showing its age – my Extreme AC router won’t even show up in the AirPort util anymore, and I don’t feel like fiddling with it. Plus Apple is dropping wifi altogether, which means that the universe is telling me it’s time for a wholesale change. In phases, of course.

The fine print reveals a few caveats – turns out that only Internet-only FiOS customers can do this – bundles with phone, TV, or both need the standard router(s) Verizon provides, because of reasons. The biggest obstacle is that the Verizon Optical Network Terminal (ONT) is default configured to output over the coax cable, even though it has an ethernet port nestled right in there on the customer-accessible side. But by all accounts one can simply call Verizon and, with a bit of coaxing (or de-coaxing – see what I did there?) get them to switch the signal to output from the RJ-45 jack instead. Still a few steps between here and there, however.

Phase I is to acquire the necessary hardware. (Phase 0 is to check Mint and make sure my fun-money account is charged up. It is – auto-saving ftw! Also, I highly recommend Mint.) Since I now knew enough to be dangerous about building a homebrew router thanks to Jim Salter’s excellent Ars Technica article, last night I pulled the trigger. I ordered a barebones PC, a 120GB mSATA SSD, and 8GB DRAM. (I also had to grab a cheap VGA monitor, VGA cable, and USB keyboard/mouse combo because I’m a bad geek and don’t actually have any of those lying around.) I chose to get the 120GB SSD just like Salter, because I also have visions of running a Plex media server off of this box and loading it up with family photos and videos. (My children never, ever get tired of watching themselves in old home videos, and having Plex to serve those up from anywhere is another dream. 120GB will almost certainly not be enough!)

Phase II will be to download Ubuntu Serverget it on a bootable USB stick, and install it on the barebones box. Seems simple enough, even for a relative Linux newbie like me.

I’ll take pics of the setup when it all arrives, and document my journey through config and testing. First I’ll just configure the PC to be a router, DHCP, NAT, and DNS device, so it will pass traffic. Then I’ll get a long Ethernet patch cable and run it from the ONT to our family room setup directly above. Since I demo’d our recently-renovated basement myself and know where the speaker wire ran, I think this will be straightforward. I’m most nervous about the ONT changeover with Verizon – my worst fear is that I take my family offline for a day or two, which would be doubleplusungood. Also since I’ve recently learned, thanks to Circle with Disney, that we have nearly 40 devices hooked up to our wifi, and everything going down at once would be apocalyptic. The Internet of Things is Real, people! I’m still going to have to reconnect those devices to a new router system…good times await.

Next up: I’ll document my process of setting up the homebrew router and switching over to Ethernet. After that, it will be the process of choosing a new mesh wifi setup – not surprisingly, my new guru Jim Salter at Ars Technica has a great review of the current crop, and I’m torn. Stay tuned!

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