RAFC, Home Edition

I previously blogged about RAFC, “Redundant Array of Flaky Connections” – a way of bundling inexpensive internet connectivity to achieve reliable internet service. When I talked about it, I described our setup at work. Shortly after that post, I replicated the setup at home. Since I hadn’t blogged in too long, I figure, I’ll share a few tips I’ve learned in the two years of living with it.

Why do this at home?

There is an increasing number of use cases in modern households that depend on internet connectivity:

  • Many people work from home on a regular basis and increasingly rely on cloud-based services when doing so.
  • VoIP, Skype and Google Hangouts are becoming the de-facto way for holding remote meetings and conversations with family abroad.
  • TV is being replaced by streaming media services (like Netflix).
  • Other media, books, newspapers, are replaced by eReaders and tablets.

When internet service goes out, the effects range from annoying to disruptive – for you and other members of your household. Unfortunately, few home ISPs have good SLAs (service level agreements), and outages occur regularly. To quantify downtime, I actually measure the uptime of my own home ISPs. Each of them has had between 15-20 hours of downtime over the past year. Just today, my cable provider was down for more than 3 hours.

How do you make it bulletproof?

Here are the steps I recommend to make your home internet connection bullet proof.

  • Get two connections. Instead of subscribing to a single, fast internet service, subscribe to two slower services that add up to similar bandwidth. In most cases, that’s almost price neutral month-to-month. When I set up RAFC, I switched from a single 50 MBit/s cable connection to a 25 MBit/s cable connection and a 24 MBit/s VDSL connection and paid only a few dollars more per month.
  • Different technologies. If you have the option, get two connections that use different underlying technologies, such as cable, DSL or fiber. Find out what’s available in your neighborhood, and, ideally, find out whether the cables travel the same path. Optimize for diversity to decrease the likelihood of a physical incident, such as a telephone pole falling over, affecting both your connections.
  • Get a Peplink. After several years of using their products now, I still have nothing but praise for them. Granted, they’re costly compared to most consumer routers, but they are supported for longer, are more stable and have the unique Multi-WAN features you need to make RAFC work. You can often find them on eBay or Craigslist.
  • Buy your own modems. Many ISPs give you a “free” modem when you sign up for their service. In many cases, these devices include Wifi and router functionality. Most of these devices are notoriously unstable, and often insecure. With some ISPs, you also pay a fee to rent the device ($3-4 per month). Buying your own modem allows you to chose a simple and dependable, well-reviewed modem for $60-80.
  • Power cycle modems regularly. Consumer-grade modems are known to become unreliable and crash the longer they run. Use some cheap digital timer switches to automatically power cycle both modems daily. Stagger the times and pick times when you’re unlikely to be online. Mine are set for 3am and 4am.
  • Get a UPS. A UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) allows your internet connection survive brief blips in power and tripped circuit breakers. This type of equipment doesn’t draw a lot of power, so a “fat surge protector” style unit with 350 VA for $40 is plenty. Run both modems, the Peplink and your WiFi Router off the UPS,
  • Run your WiFi Router in AP mode. Get a good quality Wifi router, preferably with many antennas (SmallNetBuilder is a great resource) and run it in Access Point mode. In this mode, it doesn’t perform NAT or DHCP services, but simply becomes a good Access Point. Extra tip: Position it in an elevated position, since your furniture degrades the Wifi signal considerably.

Is it worth it?

Ultimately, it depends on how much you value dependable connectivity at home. There is definitely a considerable investment to set this up. Comparing to a “normal”, good quality home network configuration, the additional items are the Peplink ($300), the UPS ($40) and the timer switches ($10).

Out with the old…

This Christmas break, I revamped zier.com. Let me explain why and how.

Web Site: Old

Old Site Design

Old Site Design

Back in 1999, I registered zier.com and signed up for a hosting account at pair networks. I then painstakingly came up with the web site design that was on the site for the past 13 years. The HTML was hand coded, the (sparse) imagery manually cobbled together in Photoshop. This took a considerable amount of time, mostly since I’m a web design amateur, at best. Getting the design to “look right” simply involved a ton of trial and error.

The site content evolved over time, and I added several “features” to it:

  • A blog, via blogger.com.
  • A photo site, using home grown HTML generator.
  • Calendars to manage capacity in our ski leases in Kirkwood.

All of them were crude, and tedious to run. Lack of time and laziness got the better of me, and I replaced the features gradually with other services:

  • Twitter/Facebook instead of brief/sparse posts on my blog.
  • flickr for pictures.

Earlier this year, a colleague smirkingly noted that I hadn’t updated my blog since 2007. I had to agree with him – all of the content was stale. I resolved to scrap the site, and replace it with something simpler when I got the time.

Web Site: New

Today, I set up the new site. I signed up for wordpress.com, selected a theme. Customized it a little, until it looked “good enough”, then started writing a little. Setting this up took about an hour. It looks more modern, since a professional designed the theme I selected, and I have the peace of mind that a group of professional worries about security, uptime, etc.

Email: Old

pair networks includes email as part of their hosting offerings. You can set up mailboxes, access them via POP3/IMAP and a crude web interface. Over the last 13 years, I’ve set up @zier.com email addresses for all my immediate family members, and cobbled together mechanisms to get those emails to them: My mom’s PC was set up to pull via POP3 into Windows Mail. For my dad and my brother, the email addresses were simple forwards to their GMX accounts. I myself had originally used POP3 directly into my mail client, but later on switched to Gmail, configuring Gmail to pull the emails from pair via POP3.

This setup had a number of disadvantages. Some of the mechanisms introduced lag, wherever POP3 was used, email landed on a single machine, and if that machine was lost, so was the email archive. Multiple spam filters along the way could potentially eat up non-spam messages.

Email: New

Luckily, I signed up for a free Google Apps Standard account a few months before Google discontinued offering it. Having managed Google Apps at Sumo Logic, switching our email over to Google Apps felt like the path of least resistance, and I knew Google Apps was a solid offering. After switching everything over, I just had to spend a few minutes showing my family how to use it. Now, I don’t have to be nervous about lost emails.


At this point, I’ve not moved DNS hosting for zier.com over to wordpress.com, but instead dropped a PHP redirect into zier.com. Once I’ve convinced myself some more that hosted WordPress is sufficiently flexible for me, I’ll pony up the $13 per year for a hosted domain.


Overall, I feel like I finally moved zier.com into the 21st century — better late than never, as they say…