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Story of multiple rural lines and dropping connections
on 12 June 2016
I wanted to share a little story we have with load balancing and ADSL routers.
We live in a rural area in the UK with rather slow & unstable 2-3.5 Mbps ADSL lines. The only way to increase this was to have multiple lines. The cost per one line per month is around 30 pounds including telephone line rental. To have a leased line for 10 Mbps is around 800 pounds (around 6 times more expensive). So we opted for multiple lines, with load balancing.
To manage the lines, we purchased the TP-LINK ER5120 v1 load balancer for around 120 pounds in 2013. Since we have a rack cabinet, we purchased this version from TP-LINK. We used is for almost 2 years, but had quit some issues with it:
1) Reboot every 8-12 days. The load balancer seems to slow down and not efficiently balance the load anymore.
2) Daily lost of PPPoE connection. Manually reboot the 4 modems (they were in bridge mode). Somehow the load balancer was not clever enough when the PPP connection was lost either for just 1-2 seconds or longer than 5 minutes, it seems it didn't attempt to reconnect. It will show the line is DOWN, but not action taken. So we had to reboot the modem, rather than reboot the load balancer. --> later we changed the bridge mode, to normal router mode on the modem. So this increased the reliability, because the modems were smarter in keeping the connection and also better in reconnecting afterwards. But the loadbalancer would not be quick enough to test whether the modem/router was online or offline. So often users will end up with sites that took (never) forever to load.
3) the load balancer has an option to check whether the WAN was healthy (up) or not (down). You could choose to do this by checking an IP address or DNS. But this was not always accurate, sometimes it said it was down (the load balancer will stop using this WAN) but it was up and vice versa.
4) minor issue: there is a section called application, where you can block this. It ask to import a list, but the support team told us that this list is not available and this feature does not work.
So, all in all it did the job of load balancing, but it cost us a lot of energy in the last 2 years (and many users were not particular happy).
After hunting some information about load balancers, you really get to narrow it down to one particular brand (unknown to many) that is talked about in this range: Peplink. Well... honestly it could have been any name, it just didn't provide the right confidence as let's say: Netgear, TP-LINK, Cisco, Microtik and the like. So we were hesitant, and it was also in a higher price range a bit less than 500 pounds to combine 4-5 lines. Anyway we got the Peplink Balance One Core with license to have 5 WAN (buy the license directly from their site with your serial code, and it was cheaper, cost $100).
So what changed?
1) Stable: no more issues with going to reboot the modems or anything. This load balancer can check the WAN port every second and will check the standard DNS servers and/or Google DNS servers or other way you want it to check. It also will attempt to reconnect for hours until it the WAN is back up again.
2) No need to reboot the load balancer, while we only have it for 3 weeks, it hasn't been rebooted at all. (quite a change)
3) Easy to use interface to give priority to some traffic. For instance it is a few click to prioritize imap, and give low priority to video streaming for instance. Also you can choose how certain internet protocols (http/https + which port) are using the 4 lines, either always 1 particular line, or least crowded one, or divided over all the lines, or the one with lowest latency. Pretty cool. The best is actually the option to have all HTTPS traffic consistently going over the same line. So especially with banking sites we used to key in the ip address in the TP LINK to go over WAN 1, 2, 3, or 4. So when the WAN was down, it didn't change it. But this load balancer will somehow always use the same WAN for that particular device. Furthermore there is a simple option to block content like pornography or P2P sites. Quit similar, but more simple, as in OpenDNS. It does save use from applying for OpenDNS and configure extra things somewhere else. But the frustrating bit is that you don't know what domains it 'blocks.' For instance youtube falls under the pornography header, so we had to explicitly allow youtube to pass.
4) Data! We got much more information about how many users/devices are using the internet, which device use most, how much bandwidth is in real-time/per hour/per day/per month. That is all on the device. It gave us a better idea when peak hours were. But if you reboot the device, most data is lost. They offer for 1 year (or more if you buy...) this online tool that connects your device to it. The load balancer basically send all the statistics to the site (called InControl), and you can monitor your device(s) from there. The advantage is that is provide some useful data for us, that is WAN up and down time. While you can perhaps go through the logs and look, on their site it just have a quick overview per WAN when it was down and how long and when it was up and how long. We could quickly derive a certain pattern. So we changed some modems and tested the lines. This helped enormously for stability.
5) More responsive web interface (vs TP LINK). Perhaps it is also the price class difference, but it was notable quicker and easier to apply changes.
6) Small device. We were used to a full rack size load balancer, and heavy weight as well. This particular device is no bigger than a standard 16 port switch (non rack model), it was small and light.
So all in all it was a tremendous improvement in our load balancing experience.
From then on we could isolate another issue we had on our rural lines: ADSL modem/routers.
Our lines are quite challenging, 6 ADSL lines: Attenuation (dB) 55, SNR 6-9 db, Rate (2500 - 4000 Kbps). The lines keep dropping with our provided Zyxel VMG1312-B10 router. With the InControl site mentioned previously, we could see the connection (bridge mode) dropped sometimes a dozen times each day, either for seconds to sometimes hours. We called our telephone provider and asked them to test the lines etc etc etc, to no avail. It was chasing a ghost, because the ADSL lost sync randomly over all the lines (we could see the patter clearer with the Peplink device, because it reacted much quicker and had better stats).
So we went hunting again for information about rural ADSL lines asking Mr Google. One site keep popping up with lots of information, but the site looked too slick to be unbiased. Also they keep saying on the site how great Billion ADSL routers were (and basically nothing else), which added to much more suspicion. But looking more in forums there are many who praise these Billions modems for their stability on rural telephone lines, and also praises the ability to easily tweaking the SNR margin (while it does take some time to understand what number to put in to tweak). So we got 2 of these Billions Modem 8800NL, this was cheaper than the 7800 series, since we will mainly use them in bridge mode (no wifi, NAT or any fancy features).
Guess what... this 'weird' and pretty 'unknown' brand (compared to netgear, zyxel, tp link and the like), just like Peplink, has done the trick so far, the Billion is keeping the connection rather than dropping 10-15 times a day, it might need to resync once a day! We are currently running for a week.. and the difference is amazing. Also the sync speed increases overtime due to the stability of the line, the exchange reduces the SNR margin and therefore increases the sync speed.
We don't really know how this all works, some say it is the broadcom chip, but it is apparently similar as the Zyxel model we used. I guess that is the best part so far. We will leave it like this and tweak the SNR margin in the coming weeks to see whether we can get a bit more juice out of our internet lines. This is only a bonus, the best part is that the ADSL lines and load balancing remains stable, without us need to hassle with it every day or week.
So I recommend anyone having issues with load balancing --> Peplink and anyone with difficult rural ADSL/telephone lines --> Billion.
Try it.. and see for yourself.
p.s. after a week, we got in total of 6 Billion modems for all our 6 lines.