Good Enough for a Network Engineer

In my home currently, I have three main areas of tech: There is the garage which hosts my home built rack with my firewall, switch and home server, the study where my desktop and our Vonage phone gateway live and lastly the living room where the HTPC media center lives.

All of this is interconnected with two Cisco 2950T L2 switches which are 10/100 switches with a pair of gigabit ports for god measure, and a Cisco Aironet 1100 access point for wireless. Downstairs, I make use of the gigabit ports on the core switch to the home server connected to a dual port Intel server adapter in a static 2Gbps team to ensure that there is sufficient bandwidth available for multiple clients accessing media content leaving everything else to run at 100Mbps.

I’ve been long toying with the idea of a gigabit upgrade for the home including a new 802.11n access point to increase the wireless speeds from their current 802.11g 54Mbps speed. Being an enterprise grade gear geek, I love having Cisco in my home. The performance meets and mostly exceeds home gear on a 100Mbps port by port basis and the reliability is amazing (prior to a planned power down this week to install a module in my UPS, my core switch had over 300 days uptime), but this all comes at a cost; a financial one and a feature one.

To get me the gigabit ports I so crave at the core, I’m looking at either a Catalyst 2960 switch or a Catalyst 3560G switch. The 3560G is preferred in part because it gives me Layer 3 routing on the LAN side as opposed to doing router-on-a-stick with the firewall to traverse my VLANs but also because it’s an older model now replaced by the 3750 and 3750v2 switches making it marginally cheaper (although the 3560 series, including the 3560G still hold an incredible price purely due to the fact that they are one of the most commonly deployed enterprise switches). For upstairs on the access switch, I’m looking at a Catalyst 2960 Express to allow me to downsize my access layer point count as a 24 port switch for my study is crazy, but at the time served the requirement for LACP port channelling and price.  For the wireless, I’m looking at an Aironet 1140 Series.

When you price up the best of the used prices online for this gear, it’s frightening. £4-500 for the 3560G, £400 for the 2960 Express and £150-250 for the Aironet 1140 Series, totalling around £1,150, something I simply cannot afford or justify for a four or five user home network even if feature rich reliability and stability are critical to me.

After hearing my tales, a network engineer in our office introduced me to a company called TP-Link who he uses in his home and said that it’s good kit. For a network admin who normally deals in the realms of Cisco, RSA and other networking and security big boys, granting TP-Link the accolade of being good must mean they are worth a look surely?

TP-Link have a nice range of product and they actually compare if not slightly exceed Cisco on feature set when comparing like-for-like models, but best of all is their price. For a cool £300, I can get a brand new, Amazon retail priced TL-SG5428 24 port gigabit switch, a TL-WA801ND 300Mbps 802.11n wireless access point and a TL-SG3210 8 port gigabit desktop switch. For the most part, Amazon prices are actually cheaper than eBay prices for TP-Link kit.

So how do they actually stack up? I’ll start by comparing the switches. TP-Link switches are all fanless which means that the decibel from the stack in my study will become nill and garage will be cut probably by two thirds as the switch is currently the loudest item at 41dB for the 2950T. Features I use and rely on such as MAC port security, QoS mapping for voice and ACLs all exist in TP-Link land, and acutally, for TP-Link, they offer Layer 2 through 4 ACLs on their Layer 2 switches, compared to Cisco who only give you Layer 2 MAC based ACLs on the Layer 2 switches. Management options include an IOS alike CLI, Web, SNMP and RADIUS allowing me to manage the switches in the same way I do currently. Network features like LACP, port trunking, port mirroring and more are all still present on the TP-Link side of like too.

For the desktop switch there is actually no feature loss when compared to the rack mount 24 port model. All of the features listed across the two models compare equally which means I won’t suffer for taking a step down to a desktop switch from the current rack mount.

On the wireless front, my current 1100 Aironet access point supports PoE and I’m using this in the form of an inline injector which the TP-Link ships with whereas I had to buy my current Cisco one separately. All the usual wireless access point features exist on the TP-Link access point too such as multiple SSIDs, VLANs, detachable, replaceable antenna, 802.11d, 802.11i and all the managements such as the IOS alike CLI, Web, SNMP and RADIUS again.

The feedback from our network engineer has been that the throughput of the switches and their reliability are both top notch and he’s had no complaints since buying the switch many months ago nullifying the concern I had there.

The conclusion then is that the age old adage of nobody got fired for buying Cisco may stand true, but it looks as though you might not get fired for buying TP-Link either? Frankly, I was concerned over how you can even design and manufacture a 300Mbps N access point for £35 and a 24 port rack mount gigabit switch for £200 let alone sell it and turn profit, but the fact that TP-Link can and do so, and do it so well means I’m clearly paying for a badge that my home network doesn’t demand? It also means that my home network could stop suffering the two generations old only mantra that seems to flow currently. By no longer competing with  Cisco on feature and price, only being able to justify buying two or three generation old equipment, I can buy something bang up to date, giving me the gigabit I have for so long wanted and need.

Time will tell as I’m not going to be replacing everything overnight but I will be staggering all my upgrades throughout the 2013 calendar, but I’ve got strong optimism for the idea of the switch. The best part is that it will be largely free as the resale values on my old Cisco kit on eBay will cover 99% of the cost of the new kit. Who said there is no such thing as a free lunch?