Meraki Mesh Networks
(I’ll add some pictures and screen shots later tonight)
Last night I received my package from Meraki in San Fran. I’ve been tracking what they’ve been doing with with mesh networking solutions, especially their aims to provider free wi-fi across the whole San Fran area, and I finally decided that at $50 a piece for the inside repeaters, I wanted to get a pair to play around with at home.
Initially I was very impressed. The repeaters are tiny not much bigger than a pack or cards. They come with very simple instructions, a power adapter and two different means of attaching them to things (sucky cups and double sided tape).
There are a few things I have learned after setting them up that were different to my ‘understanding’ (some good some bad):
What I Learned
Meraki is Watching
You’re meraki network is VERY closely tied to meraki, they are configured, managed and monitored through an online dashboard on the meraki website. That means all information about what is data, who is connected, what their bandwidth is, etc is accessible to Meraki (suddenly makes a lot of sense why Google is so interested, it’s worth it’s weight in gold to be able to access everyones bandwidth footprints through local free wifi systems).
When you access the Internet through a Meraki product or service …… tracking technologies may record information such as Internet domain and host names; Internet protocol (IP) addresses; browser software and operating system types; clickstream patterns; and dates and times of access.
Personally I can live with this, for now. It’s no different from the ISP being able to track what I do and where I go. Although it’ll make me more aware of the transparency of that connection.
It also means you are somewhat at the mercy of Meraki for what you can do. If tomorrow they decide you shouldn’t be able to have WPA security and your network should be open, they could in effect turn that off. I have no contract with them, I have no legal expectation of what services should be available. This is somewhat worrying. I think I’ll be happier once some resourceful individual finds a way to split the repeaters away from Meraki. Not that I would do that, I like what it does, but just so I know I have that fall back in case the company goes bust or starts doing weird stuff.
The plus side is that you get a glorious interface to work with, it’s nicely laid out, makes subtle yet effective use of XHR. Have pretty graphs and google maps showing you everything you might need. I do wish the graphs weren’t in flash though, as they don’t work on my iPhone. I also get a sense that there is much more that could be done with this interface, but I’d need to sit down and work through some ideas more before going further into that.
You Can’t Just Extend Your Wi-Fi
For some reason I had the assumption that you could just connect a Meraki repeater to an existing wireless network. You do need to have one repeater at some point actually plugged (using a cable) into a connection. This made the first 30 minutes of the setup and configuration very confusing, as I had registered my repeater, added it to the map, and could see the wifi signal blinking in my connections, yet I couldn’t see how the repeater could connect to my WPA wifi. In the end I realized that I had to plug one of them into a spare Ethernet port on the back of mt Airport Extreme, then it truly does become an extension of your base network. My other repeaters don’t need that, but you do need at least one “Gateway” node (as I later found out they are called).
You could use this as a Router
Want a $50 wifi router that includes WPA security options and is a breeze to install and configure? Well the Meraki indoor node is a pretty good choice. You don’t have to make it public, you don’t have to make it mesh, in essence the node is a mini, stripped down, does what it says on the tin wireless router.
So what actual use is it?
I am happy I have one in my house, it has allowed me to have not only my somewhat Fort-Knox like WPA airport extreme wifi network with all the bells and whistles and the unlimited bandwidth and shared drives, etc. Then additionally (for $50) I have an open securely partitioned off throttled public network. This I can use to connect my DS, WII, XO Laptop, etc (all the things that just don’t need that level of security, and often don’t play well with WPA), as well as my wife can connect to it with any of her stuff without needing “tech support”, and if we have guests or visitors they can connect without me needing to give out my WPA password or have all my file sharing drives be available to them. This to me is excellent, and is well worth the $50 outlay for one of these.
I need to do more research to see if you can have multiple gateways with different base network connections be part of the same mesh (I’m not sure you can, it would make sense). That would be nice because you could then create community mesh networks where people with existing internet access (who might not want to get rid of it) could contribute to the network. For some reason I don’t think it does. UPDATE: just did some digging around and yes it seems that this should work, in theory if you had a block of 15 or so houses and 3 of you had broadband connections you could scatter a handful of Meraki repeaters and people could connect to any of the 3 gateways and out into the net. There are some limitations, like you connect to one gateway rather than being spread and things like load balancing weren’t clear, and there are possible issues if you move from being covered by a node on gateway1 to a node on gateway2 you might suffer a quick break in connection (although A: how often would that really happen? B: is it really an issue?).
I have delusions of grandeur and really want to create a wireless mesh network for my block in Atlantic Highlands, but then I find myself asking why? I would guess that 99% of the people on my block have high speed internet connection as part of their cable, they would not want to get rid of that (and I’d not want them to, last thing I want is to have people rely on me, that’s when you get 2am support calls and start to wear a pager). The 1% that doesn’t probably doesn’t have computer or care two hoots about wireless mesh networks. So what would be the point.
I would love to talk to towns about setting wifi mesh networks in downtown areas - that I can see having a major community benefit and desire and would probably have a small impact on house prices in a positive upward way (just taking my hippie free the web hat off for a second). I’m fairly sure that Atlantic Highlands would see the benefit in something like this, and I know that Red Bank would (what with their Hip City mantra). However again, you’re faced with the issue that you’re then providing a valuable service that even if it’s initially setup voluntarily it is very likely to stop working at some point and then the 2am support calls start (but this time from the Mayor).
At some point I might look into how much it would cost to set one up, and how easy the admin panels would be to manage the infrastructure and then show someone at town hall how it would all work, lay it out as a not for profit and no guarantees sort of thing.
I’m still convinced with the Meraki Messaging system, you could sell 50 slots in the rotation for $5 a month and it would easily pay for a T1 line that could be used as the base for the system, and also then be shared with Town Hall.
I need to give it some more thought, and sketch some ideas out, do the math and see what it looks like. Really the last thing I need is another pet project.
Addendum: Meraki Hacking
After doing a little bit of digging around I have found that you can reflash your Meraki router (or FON router if you happened to get one of those) with a reflash firmware called RO.B.IN, this is built on the whole WRT open source router work. This seems to be a way to get from under Meraki control and be more self sufficient, I need to do _much_ more reading before I go ahead an reflash one of my units, but it’s an option.
As a side note the FON seems to be the original (and much bigger - global) mesh in a tiny box system. They seem to have attracted great hacking interest after they gave away 10,000 Fonera routers (under the assumption that people would have to use their system, which is just asking to get yourself hacked so that people don’t have to.