Apple Airports Abhorrence Admission

This post started as a long email that I edited just a bit to make more sense here and I thought it made for a reasonable blog entry. Enjoy…

[intro to email removed to protect the innocent]

These devices are so dumbed down, appealing to the general consumer who has no idea how to setup any aspect of a home network, as to be virtually unusable in any advanced configuration. They are clearly aimed at the single device, router/AP/switch combo environment and only for those who plug it in and call it a day. I believe, strongly, that they have no place in a professionally installed system and I also believe that I’m justified in feeling that way. I have three times in the past month reached out to Apple support for sanity checks and found that their Airport support is nothing short of incompetent. They are literally only able to help in a single device scenario and even there, can only walk you through their poorly designed Airport Utility software….sort of.

Below, I try to outline some of the issues I have with them and why…

Firewall? What firewall? What’s going on in there? Literally no one knows except the engineers in Cupertino and they haven’t shared it amongst Apple’s tech support. This is, in my opinion, the most critical aspect of the device to have visibility of and the ability to adjust and, in the Airport case, we get nothing. No visibility = no trust.

Routing performance seems fine, good even but, we have almost no flexibility in setup. God forbid someone orders CenturyLink’s new fiber service requiring bridging incoming VLANs to prevent double NAT. It isn’t possible and I know it’s coming. VPN? Nope. Internal DNS? Nope. Scripting? Nope? Dynamic DNS updating? Nope? SSH support? Nope. VLAN support? Nope. QoS (Quality of Service) support? Nope. Solid SNMP support? Nope. The list goes on and on.

As for Wi-Fi/WLAN issues…yeah, they’re objectively terrible.

Airport Utility in Windows exposes the option to manually select channels but, only the 2.4GHz radio change will take. The 5GHz will remain in auto. There is also an option to deselect “use wide channels” but, it does nothing (and that’s bad for contentious areas or systems using more than two APs). Per Apple support, that’s “by design”. Wait, the software is “designed” to offer options that don’t affect any change? Yup. The iOS and Mac versions of the Airport Utility will allow channel selection but, will not allow you to use 20MHz or 40MHz channel widths.

Airport Utility in Windows exposes (under network options) the ability to reduce transmission power but, ONLY FOR THE 5GHz RADIO. This is objectively bad as the 2.4 GHz radios create larger cell sizes and we require the ability to reduce cochannel interference in contentious environments or systems using more than three APs (2.4GHz) or two APs (5GHz, due to 80MHz wide channel width). In any case, reducing power in 5GHz doesn’t actually take effect on the radio. Per Apple support, “it’s not meant to”. Wait…..what? I didn’t test iOS (too exasperated) or Mac (don’t carry one) versions to see if they actually work.

RRM (Radio Resource Management) cannot be tweaked in any significant way. The only thing we can adjust is manual channel selection (in iOS, don’t bother opening up your Windows version) and their auto channel selection flat out doesn’t work. For example, I worked on a five AP job yesterday and four of the five APs (all set to auto) were on channel 11  and well within “earshot” of one another. When more than one AP can “hear” another on the same frequency, they have the practical performance of one AP. This is true no matter how many APs are on the same channel and includes neighboring or contentious radios. I was able to use Airport Utility (combined Windows and iOS versions) to make what few changes I could and improved the performance on the client’s WLAN from 3-20Mbps down to >70Mbps (as high as 86) but, with better tools/APs, I could spend less time doing so and get even better results.

In short, I can hold my nose and find a way to “justify” using Airports on projects that have one or two, and in a very few instances, three APs AND are in environments with very little interference from neighboring networks. Anymore than that and we are shoe horning a particularly poor choice into our designs and doing our client’s a disservice.

[end of email removed to protect the innocent]