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My patience wears thin…

I like experimenting with my computers and network gear. It is even fun sometimes when things don’t work properly at first, so long as I can work out a solution.

But even my patience with technology has its limits. Late last year, for example, I more or less “gave up” (at least for the time being) on Vista and Windows, and switched to using a Macintosh as my primary machine. What has me on the warpath now? My network… and specifically my Linksys/Cisco gear, and even more specifically my Linksys RV016 router/switch.

The RV016 is not a cheap device- it cost me about $600 when I bought it a little over two years ago. When I bought it, I was thinking that this would be my last network router for years to come: it supports multiple WAN (Internet) connections with load balancing, has a stateful packet inspection (SPI) firewall, and provides 16 ports for lots of expandability. But as I’ve grown and upgraded my network, it has started to demonstrate some flaws.

The first thing I found, shortly after I bought it, was that it did weird things with packet size. Specifically, I had to change the MTU size in order for several services to work through it. That was an esoteric enough problem that I was willing to let it slide. More recently, I started running into LAN bandwidth constraints… the 100 Mbps ethernet supported by the switch was no longer adequate. I got around that by moving all my network connections to an inexpensive Gigabit ethernet hub, and just routing my Internet traffic through the Cisco. I can’t really blame the switch for supporting exactly what it says it supports (I.E.: 10/100 Mbps Ethernet), but that doesn’t change the reduced usefulness factor.

The final straw came today. I have added a second Internet provider (ISP) to my household, the plan being to have both Telus ADSL and Shaw Cable and use the load balancing features of the Cisco to provide both better performance and redundancy. Unfortunately, the RV016’s load balancing features are apparently a heap of broken promises.

It took me several hours of testing and reconfiguring, but here is what happens. If I connect my computer directly to the Shaw cable modem I get 8.5 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream (I have Shaw’s High Speed Extreme package). If I have the just Shaw Cable attached, I get about 8 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream: a little overhead for the firewall, certainly not worrisome. If I disconnect Shaw and just have Telus, I have 3 Mbps downstream and 600 Kbps upstream. As soon as I attach both, I get 1.5-2 Mbps downstream and 300 Kbps upstream…this happens no matter what I do, even if I tell the switch that Telus is much slower than it really is so that no traffic (in theory) should be routed via that connection.

What is going on here? Well, my best theory is that the Cisco RV016 has a tremendously under-powered processor, grossly inefficient software, or both. When both networks are attached, the RV016 simply can’t keep up with the processing requirements of managing more than one WAN path. Alternately, there could simply be a really specific bug in the RV016’s software. Either way, it is broken for the purposes I bought it for.

Of course, the most irritating factor here is that pouring through the Internet using Google does not give any conclusive “the RV016 is broken” data. I find a number of “it is really slow when load balancing” posts, and a similar number of “the RV016 is the best thing for load balancing”. I certainly don’t want to spend a bunch of additional money on an even more sophisticated switch so… I’ve decided to order a Xincom TwinWAN DPG-502. It is comparatively cheap (under $200), and I’ve read a couple of posts in various places by people who had problems with the RV016 which were “solved” by the Xincom product. We shall see…

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