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Trevor contemplates Consumer Netgear gear. BUT does it pass the cat hair test?

A real life furball survivor

By Trevor Pott, 30 Nov 2014

Sysadmin blog Is consumer networking gear really crap? As technologists, we tend to have a chip on our shoulder about it because it can't do all the things the latest, greatest enterprise stuff can do, but does that really matter? The capabilities of consumer gear have been steadily increasing, and perhaps some of our ire is unwarranted.

Netgear is famous for making stuff for homes, but it has made inroads into the SMB and mid-market space that are worthy of note. For the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to work with some Netgear equipment, and I am suitably impressed.

Most of the equipment I have to hand is outdated. An older model ProSafe Wireless Access Point. A dated ReadyNAS. A virtually unlimited number of WNDR 3700 V2 routers. (With OpenWRT installed, they're absolutely magical devices.)

I also have a UTM150 that is still sold today as well as an 8-port XS708E 10GbE switch.

Recently, I've had the opportunity to work on some sites with the next-generation versions of these products. I am seeing modern ReadyNASes, business and personal Wi-Fi routers and an ever-increasing number of Netgear 10GbE switches in the various SMBs I serve.

Netgear has served me well for a while, and given its increasing prevalence in businesses, it's time to give it a once-over.

The hardware

Netgear's hardware tends to be more-or-less the same as everyone else's. A 10GbE Netgear switch is a typical Broadcom-chipset affair. My Supermicro and Dell switches are very similar hardware, just with a different OS flinging the packets about. There's absolutely nothing special about ReadyNAS storage devices, Netgear routers, access points, UTMs, VPNs etc ... at least from a hardware standpoint.

And that's a good thing. By working with well-known components Netgear can learn as much from their competitors as form their own testing. Thermals, sensitivity to radio interference, even antenna design – all these companies learn from each other as well as innovate on their own.

The result of using what amounts to white-box equipment is that the focus becomes the software, features and – hopefully – security. Depending on whether your ReadyNAS is powered by an ARM or x86 processor, for example, there are any number of applications you can install on it.

Thus far, everything I've worked with from Netgear has proven reliable well beyond the stated temperature ranges. They've all handled absurd levels of cat hair, cables pulled at odd angles, and so on; they survive real life.

Software to run a home cluster

The software on Netgear equipment is a mixed bag. I really like the XS708E switch. For a sub-$1000 10GbE switch, I think it plays well. It certainly doesn't have the sort of full feature-set that something like my Supermicro or Dell switches possess, let alone a Cisco or a Juniper, but that doesn't really matter.

The overwhelming majority of people using Netgear switches will never log into them and create a VLAN, let alone attempt any really tricky things. Most people will just create flat layer 2 networks, and at this, Netgear has proven to provide a range of reliable options.

On a fairly regular basis I hook the four nodes of my Caesium cluster up to the XS708E and create a server SAN. I have pushed all nodes to their limits and had zero problems with this switch. I've run some very intense practical multicast work through it using Caringo and it has reliably delivered.

Like the other Netgear switches I've worked with in the past, it's simple, but it works. The same goes for the ReadyNases and the access points. They're simple, and they work. You can run them at the red line all day long and they'll do fine.

But nerds are never happy with "good enough." This is where I rather like Netgear Wi-Fi routers. I have deployed rather a large number of WNDR3700V2 routers because they are truly excellent when OpenWRT is installed on them. OpenWRT and its competitor DD-WRT work well on a number of Netgear routers including the 802.11ac gear.

This is important, as the stock software is pretty limp by modern standards. It's certainly nowhere as horrible as, for example, the sort of locked-down tripe that you'll get supplied to you with your ISP's rebadged ZyXEL or Actiontech router, but it's still nowhere near as capable as something like a Microtik device. Third-party operating systems are a great way to bridge the gap.

Netgear UTMs

I am a little more cautious of the UTMs. The software in them is dated, licensing is convoluted and there are some bugs.

The UTM 150 that I have has an inability to route between multiple subnets without those subnets being on different VLANs. Considering most of Netgear's customers operate great big flat layer 2 networks, that one is just plain odd.

Also, Netgear has a mixed history of support with these units. A number of showstopper bugs have been found, reported, and far more time than was acceptable taken before fixes were issued. Two years ago things were pretty dire for Netgear in this space.

They've improved quite a bit since. After a bunch of bad press around their security handling, some dustups with staff and key community contributors, my sources – and my updates – tell me that Netgear is back on track. I still think that the UTM and VPN appliances need a massive overhaul for user friendliness, but they seem to have locked the things down and got them into "good enough" territory.

You aren't going to defend a Fortune 2000 with a Netgear UTM. These will never compete with Palo Alto Networks; they are two completely different tiers of product. But they are a good edge device for a small business looking for something a little bit more powerful than your typical broadband router, but doesn't have the money to afford the heavy artillery.

It just works

I remember being quite sad when my Linksys WRT54g died. I picked it up in September of 2003 and it gave me 10 good years of service. It was an absolute tank of a router, and DD-WRT extended its capabilities a thousandfold. With that device I could do things that – off the shelf, at least – you typically needed a Cisco router ten times the cost to accomplish.

I loved that little router.

Among a certain crowd, those WRT54g routers were legendary. The key to their importance being the ability to extend their capabilities with OpenWRT, DD-WRT, Tomato or other third-party distributions. In 2003, this was necessary. The routers on offer were crap.

Similarly, NASes in those days were awful. Consumer switches couldn't even do VLANs. "Consumer" gear in general was just unable to sustain anything beyond a handful of users working in a very simple network.

Not so today's kit. If Netgear is the middle-of-the-road provider for SMBs, what they're fielding is light years beyond what we struggled with at the turn of the millennium. You could run a 250-seat network off their network offerings. You can get decent performance from their NASes.

Nothing's perfect, naturally, but you don't need an EMC SAN running on Cisco switches to make a modest business work reliably anymore. The prejudices so bitterly ingrained about the limits of consumer hardware need revisiting. Your experiences, as always, in the comments, please. ®

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