Idiot-proofing the network

Enterprises with proper network infrastructure and the people to manage it, often forget that their mobile users connect from all sorts of less-than-wonderful places. Users may be willing – happy, even – to connect from the couch or hammock to get that extra bit of work done, but by doing so, they may be unwittingly putting the company's secure infrastructure at risk.

Why? Because their home routers may be misconfigured or improperly secured, and as we all know, a network is only as secure as its weakest link.

The cause usually isn't malice, it's ignorance. The average computer users isn't a networking guru, nor a security expert. He or she is just someone who wants and needs to be connected. And sometimes that isn't easy.

Google looked at the state of home and small business networking (let's face it, small businesses often resort to consumer-grade gear) and determined that the big problem is that it's just too difficult to set up and manage. And decided to do something about it. In conjunction with hardware partners (today TP-Link; with an ASUS model to follow) and the company’s own Waterloo, Ontario-based software engineers, Google has developed a WiFi router that can, more or less, take care of itself.

The Google OnHub 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wireless router, with dual-band simultaneous 2.4GHz and 5GHz function providing speeds up to 1900Mbps, isn't cheap at $270, and it doesn't contain a lot of features that more experienced users may want. However, its strength lie in what happens quietly, under the covers.

OnHub top
OnHub top

First, there's the look. Most WiFi routers are squat boxes bristling with antennas. They're ugly, and Google's research found that because they're unattractive, they tend to get stuffed into places that are not ideal for the dissemination of a wireless signal. The OnHub is a cylinder that can sit on a bookshelf and not look out of place. It's not the first router to use this design (D-Link has done so for a couple of years), and the form factor serves several purposes. It conceals the thirteen antennas arranged beneath the device's shell, and because it can only sit upright, it keeps said antennas in the proper orientation for optimum signal dissemination. And it's attractive enough to be placed where it can shoot out its signal to best advantage. There's even a built-in reflector that focuses signal to the front, where it needs additional range. In place of a collection of flashing lights, the OnHub has a single bulb circling the top that shows its status. A teal halo means it's configured and happy. Blue indicates it's in setup mode, or being factory reset, and amber means it's unhappy. You can learn more from the app.

Where other routers ask the user to connect them to a computer with a cable and configure them from a browser interface, the OnHub just requires an iPhone or Android device running the free Google On app. Setup is a matter of plugging the router into the Internet modem and an electrical outlet, firing up the app (which requires you be signed in to a Google account), and following the instructions. With Android, you're asked to hold your phone over the OnHub while it sends the phone a series of audio tones that tell the app all it needs to do the configuration (hint – hold the phone with the microphone facing the top of the OnHub).

Once the network is running, the app displays a map of all connected devices, and even tells you how much bandwidth each is using – handy for those times when someone is sucking down a huge file when you're trying to watch Game of Thrones on Netflix, and you need to find the culprit. You can also run an Internet speed test to confirm that you're getting the bandwidth you're paying for. The app allows you to prioritize certain traffic, too, a feature both video viewers and gamers will appreciate during playtime, and one that's invaluable during teleconferences.

OnHub app
OnHub app

Of course, there's one small glitch – devices aren't always identified properly. Regardless of the name it's been given, an iPhone just shows up as "Apple", for example, and my ASUS Zenfone 2 enjoys the monicker "Unnamed device". If there's more than one such device on the network, it's tricky to track down which one is not playing nicely.

The OnHub is not designed for locations with primarily hardwired devices. It only has one Ethernet port, not the four most wireless routers offer, so if more than one wired connection is required, you'll need to plug in an Ethernet switch. While switches aren't that expensive, and are not difficult to connect, they still add a level of unwanted complexity.

The app – or at least, the Android one we looked at – demands rather more access that it probably ought to. In addition to the expected requirement for WiFi connection information, it also wants to peek at device and app history, identity, contacts, and location. It might be smart to set up a Google account just for the router, so private information from your regular account can't leak.

Giving the WiFi password to someone else is so easy it's also a worry – you just click a button on the app's WiFi Access tab, and are shown the password in plain text and offered a list of apps you can use to share it. It's sent in plain text too, so if the recipient is being snooped upon, your password is instantly compromised. There needs to be a more secure mechanism, especially for users that intend to connect into corporate apps and data.

The device uses Google On cloud services, and stores and sends back information to Google on the device, network, and app. You can opt out – check the privacy settings to see what you're comfortable sharing.

On the plus side, the app lets you monitor and manage the router remotely, and to delegate management to another person if need be.

Google plans to continue to add features and correct bugs in the OnHub, again, without user intervention. The app will just let you know the router's software has been updated. This could be a mixed blessing; there's been no indication whether users can decline new functions, for example. However, some of the currently missing features, such as enabling Bluetooth Smart Ready, and making the built-in, but currently useless USB port actually do something, may quietly arrive through software updates.

Simple operation is nothing without solid WiFi performance, of course, and the OnHub has that nailed. Part of the reason may be that thirteenth antenna, which exists solely to detect conflicts with nearby networks. The OnHub detects interference and channel conflicts, and automatically adjusts itself to provide the best possible experience.

Even so, there's a lot you can't do; in fact, many of the things you can do even with a router costing less than half the price. Changing DHCP or LAN settings, having separate network identifiers (SSIDs) for the 2.4 and 5 GHz networks, setting the channel, creating separate subnets for guests, creating parental controls, VPN, offering DDNS, and other items, are not present in this iteration. Software updates may or may not add them; I suspect Google will listen to user feedback and tack on the most requested features first.

If the limited functionality and configurability is sufficient, the OnHub can be a viable, albeit pricey, choice. What you're paying for is simple. But if for work productivity, you want control over every nuance of your network, forget it, at least for now.

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