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NexAira Business Class II (BC2) 3G/4G Router Hands-On Review

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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

NexAira Business Class II (BC2) 3G/4G Router Hands-On Review


all four sides of the NexAira BC2 enterprise router

The NexAira BC2 is a business class 3G/4G mobile broadband router that is designed to meet the requirements of any business that needs reliability, security, and advanced enterprise features. Since this is the first NexAira product that we have reviewed, you may be wondering "Who is NexAira?". NexAira is a provider of enterprise-level mobile broadband data solutions. Their products are designed to enable operators, enterprises, and home office users to to expeditiously connect to, maintain and manage high-speed data connections rivaling traditional landline connectivity with unmatched functionality, speed to market and ease of use. Features like Failover with Anti-Flap, which allows the router to switch to a backup connection within mere seconds of your primary connection going down, and Xtreme Speed Optimization, which provides the best possible speeds your connection is capable of, are just a couple of the unique features that set the BC2 apart from any other mobile broadband router we've reviewed!

Additionally, the BC2 is based on open-source Linux, meaning that NexAira developers can easily implement new features and provide updates quickly and efficiently by building upon existing modules from the open source community. This also provides better stability and reliability, as the Linux operating system has been proven to be very reliable and stable.

Who is the BC2 for?

With a plethora of enterprise-level features, the BC2 is designed to meet the needs of power users, small businesses, and large enterprises. Does that mean it's overkill for the average home user? While the average home user may not take advantage of all of the enterprise level features, they can definitely benefit from other features that the BC2 offers such as Xtreme Speed Optimization - who doesn't want better speed from their mobile broadband modem? The only category of users the BC2 is probably NOT right for is travelers and mobile users. While 3Gstore does offer a 12V cigarette lighter power adapter for the BC2, the BC2 is not quite as portable as travel routers like the Cradlepoint CTR350, PHS300, or CTR500.


The Cradlepoint CTR500 travel router (left) is considerably smaller than the NexAira BC2 (right)

We suggest reading the entire review to determine if the BC2 is right for your specific needs.

Design

At 5”x 4.75”x 1.25”, the BC2 is surprisingly compact considering all the features and advanced functionality it provides:


the BC2 (top) is considerably smaller than the Cradlepoint MBR1000

The physical design of the BC2 is very straightforward. It features one WAN port, one LAN port, and one USB port on the rear of the unit, and an ExpressCard slot on the side. Next to the ExpressCard slot is a serial port, which is not for consumer use (it's used by the manufacturer for programming the router):


left: the BC2's USB port is on the back; right: the ExpressCard slot is located on the side

The front of the router features four LED lights that light up when connections are active: one for 3G/4G modems, one for a LAN connection, one for your WAN connection, and one that indicates when the WiFi is on and broadcasting:


The front of the BC2

Not only does the 3G/4G LED show that your mobile broadband modem is connected, but it also indicates how many "signal bars" the aircard is receiving (note: this feature isn't available for all aircards - check the NexAira BC2 Router Compatibility Chart to see if RSSI is supported on your device). To show you how many bars of signal strength your device is receiving, the BC2's 3G/4G light will flash several times before pausing, and then will continue to flash a certain number of times. If you count the number of times it flashes between each pause, this is how many bars of signal strength you have! In the example below, the 3G/4G LED light is indicating that the aircard is getting four bars of signal:


Basic Features

3G & 4G Support: The NexAira BC2 provides both a USB 2.0 port & ExpressCard slot to provide support for many different 3G and 4G devices from every carrier in the United States and most Canadian carriers as well. For a full list of supported carriers and devices, check out the NexAira BC2 Router Compatibility Chart.

WAN Ethernet Support: In addition to 3G/4G datacard support, the BC2 can also utilize a 10/100 ethernet WAN (input) connection to provide connectivity from a wired connection such as DSL, cable, or T1. Having both cellular and wired internet connectivity allows for better reliability & uptime using the "Internet Failover" feature (scroll down to the "Enterprise Features & Reliability" section for more info on the BC2's failover capabilities).

LAN Ethernet Support
: Like most routers, the BC2 also features a 10/100 LAN (output) ethernet connection for wired connectivity between your computer and the router. While this is a standard feature on most every router, it's worth mentioning that there is only one LAN ethernet port on the BC2. If you won't be using the WAN ethernet port for a cable/dsl connection, it can be changed to LAN mode so that you have two LAN ethernet ports that can be used to connect your desktop computers or other devices that aren't WiFi compatible. If you need more LAN ethernet connections, we recommend using an ethernet switch.


the WAN port on the back of the BC2 (left) can be used for a cable/DSL/T1 connection or it can be used as a second LAN port

WiFi: The BC2 utilizes "Wireless N" technology to provide excellent WiFi range and WiFi data speeds of up to 300mbps. It is also backwards compatible with older 802.11 wireless B/G devies as well - your computer or other WiFi-enabled device does NOT need to have a wireless N receiver to work with the BC2. NexAira claims that you should be able to get 100-300 feet of wireless range indoors, but it's important to remember that wireless range can vary depending on interference, the construction of the building, etc. In our home office testing environment we achieved about 150 feet of WiFi range before the signal started dropping significantly; in an unobstructed area we saw upwards of 300 feet.

The BC2 supports a variety of wireless encryption security modes:
  • WEP
  • WPA (Supports TKIP & AES)
  • WPA2 (Supports TKIP & AES)
  • WPA RADIUS (Enterprise) (Supports TKIP & AES)
  • WPA2 RADIUS (Enterprise) (Supports TKIP & AES)

It also supports WDS (Wireless Distribution System), which allows a wireless network to be expanded using multiple access points without the need for a wired connection between the two routers.

Xtreme Speed Optimization: The BC2 has a speed optimization feature that is specifically designed for mobile broadband connections - this unique feature is not available from other mobile broadband routers! The key to NexWare XtremeSpeed Wan Optimization is that the router does NOT make the false assumption that all packet errors are due to network congestion. Routing algorithms on most routers assume that once a connection is made, random packet errors are not related to the physical and link layers, because on Cable/DSL networks this is usually the case. However, cellular networks are more prone to those types of errors. NexWare XtremeSpeed WAN optimization accounts for the fact that packet errors can be caused by wireless technology link issues, whereas other routers would automatically respond to these errors as being caused by network congestion. In simple terms, the BC2 "understands" mobile broadband connections better than other routers and is optimized to deliver superior bandwidth performance from cellular connections.

So how much of a difference does Xtreme Speed Optimization actually provide? To test this feature, we used a Verizon V740 ExpressCard and performed speed tests in both the BC2 and Cradlepoint's MBR1200 in the exact same wireless environment. As you can see from our speed test results below, the V740's speeds while in the BC2 were consistently nearly DOUBLE what we saw from the MBR1200! To ensure this wasn't a routing issue and to confirm that the BC2 itself was definitely responsible for the improved performance, we made sure to test from the same speedtest server each time, and performed these same tests on both routers multiple times at various different times of the day; we saw similar results every time! Of course, it's important to understand that your results may vary - if you are already getting the best performance that your network can provide, then the BC2 isn't going to provide faster speeds (cellular networks can only provide certain maximum speeds). The BC2 improves performance by correcting errors when packets are dropped due to signal issues, so if your signal is perfect and your connection is already working as best as it can, you may not see as much of a difference from the BC2.

 
left: speedtest results while connected to the MBR1200; right: results while connected to the BC2

In addition to improving the performance of mobile broadband connections, Xtreme Speed Optimization can also help with the performance of wired WAN (Cable/DSL/T1) connections as well. After connecting our cable modem to the BC2, we noticed right away that web pages seemed to load quicker and our video conferences were more clear. To test the BC2's effect on a cable modem, we connected a 16mbit down / 2mbit up cable connection first to a NetGear WNDR3300 router and then to the NexAira BC2. As you can see from the speedtest results below, it didn't show the dramatic effect we saw in our mobile broadband tests, but the BC2 did provide better results than our NetGear router by allowing us to achieve more of the bandwidth this particular cable connection is capable of providing.

 
left: results while connected to NetGear router; right: results while connected to the BC2

DHCP Server: As you would expect, the BC2 includes its own DHCP server that will automatically assign an address within its DHCP range to any clients that connect to the router. If you are not familiar with DHCP, it is a service on the network that assigns network addresses to the devices connecting to it, such as your computer. The BC2's DHCP server also allows you to set up DHCP leases, so that you can ensure that certain devices will always be assigned the same IP address without having to set up a static IP address on the computer itself. This aids in avoiding conflicts when your devices are connecting to other networks.

DMZ: The BC2 offers the ability to allow one client to be put into the DMZ, or De-Militarized Zone. The DMZ is an internal network typically used exclusively for servers that are accessed by external clients on the Internet, such as web servers. By putting a machine on the DMZ, you are allowing all public ports to be forwarded directly to this specific machine. Placing these public access servers on a separate isolated network provides an extra measure of security for internal networks.

Port Forwarding: If you don't want to forward all public ports to a specific machine by using the DMZ or wish to have different public ports going to different devices, then you can use port forwarding. Port forwarding allows you to forward incoming requests for a specific port to a specific machine. For example, if you have a web server running on port 80, you can have the router forward all incoming requests for port 80 over to the IP address of your web server. Port forwarding can also be used to allow incoming traffic for enterprise applications that require you to have specific ports open in order for them to work properly.

Dynamic DNS: The BC2 supports Dynamic DNS, which is a very useful feature if you want to run remote administration features or wish to have publicly accessible services such as a web server or networked security cameras. Unless you pay extra for a static IP address, most mobile broadband connections provide a dynamic IP address that changes each time you connect to the network. This makes it very difficult to access remote services unless you know the current IP address of your cellular data connection. With dynamic DNS support you can sign up for a free service like DynDNS, which provides a free hostname like myrouter.dyndns.org; you can then configure the BC2 with your DynDNS account information so that your hostname always points to the current IP address.

Real Time Statistics: With real time statistics you can monitor network traffic on your LAN, WAN, 3G, or 4G connections to see exactly how much data is being used on any interface at any given time. The network traffic monitoring shows both uplink and downlink stats for any interface on the router for the current session (it's important to note that the traffic statistics feature is NOT the same as a bandwidth or usage monitor - it is not a cumulative meter for monitoring how much bandwidth you've used).


traffic statistics are displayed within the web admin

Our personal favorite real time statistic is REAL TIME RSSI readings for a variety of supported aircards! The BC2 polls the aircard for an RSSI reading every 4 seconds to consistently give you the most accurate cellular signal readings. Not only does it show you the current signal dB level & percentage, but it also shows the lowest & highest range that the signal has fluctuated to. This is a very valuable tool to have to determine where signal is best at your location or where you may want to install an antenna. (Note: not all aircards support the RSSI feature - check the compatibility chart to see if yours does).


detailed RSSI information is a great tool for determining whether an antenna is needed

Enterprise Features & Reliability

Minimal Reboots: One of the features that our technicians are most impressed with is the fact that the BC2 rarely requires a full reboot when changing various settings on the router (on other routers, you have to reboot your equipment every time you make a change to one of the settings). This feature alone can save large corporations time & money as your entire workforce won't be without local network and internet connectivity for several minutes because you had to change a few settings on your network. Since the BC2 is based on Linux, it uses different modules for each feature of the router. When making changes to different modules, it only has to reload that specific module or service to apply the setting changes, instead of rebooting the entire router. For example, if you needed to change the remote administration port, it would simply reload the remote administration service to allow the service to operate on a different incoming port instead of having to reboot the entire router. This is a very valuable feature as IT administrators frequently need to change settings or services for their specific applications, and now this can be done without causing downtime for everyone else on the network!

Failover with Anti-Flap: Failover mode allows the router to automatically switch from a primary internet connection to a backup connection in the event that the primary connection goes down (for example, a cable modem and a 3G aircard). So what makes the BC2's failover mode different from other mobile broadband routers that offer this feature? The anti-flap feature means that the backup connection is always active and ready to go in case the primary connection goes down. This means that the BC2 can detect that your primary connection is down and switch to the backup connection within 10 seconds. On other routers, failover works a bit differently - first the router must detect that the primary connection is down, and then it initiates the backup connection, which can take a couple of minutes. For large corporations or stock traders, the difference between 10 seconds of downtime and several minutes could mean a significant loss of money. Additionally, in the event that the BC2 has to switch over to the backup connection, it will continue to monitor the primary connection and once that connection is stable again it will automatically switch back to it. You can even specify how long the primary connection must remain stable before the BC2 switches back to it!

QoS: The Quality of Service (QOS) feature allows you to prioritize certain devices, applications, or ports on the network. This ensures that your most important services receive priority bandwidth over any other users on the network. For example, let's say you have an online store that is run from your own web server. If your employees are downloading large files on the same network as your web server, then customers who are trying to access your site will notice a slow down. By using QoS you can prioritze the web server so that it gets as much bandwidth as it needs, so that lower priority data transfers don't affect time critical applications and services.

VRRP: Virtual Router Redudancy Protocol (VRRP) is a proprietary protocol for switching to a backup router in the case of failure. The BC2 can be set up with one or more additional routers to reduce downtime to a single second in the event of a connection failure. One of the routers in the setup is elected the "master" and continuously sends advertisement packets to the backup routers; if the advertisements stop (which would indicate that the master failed), one of the backup routers takes over and becomes the master. (Note: in order to use VRRP, you'll need additional routers that also support VRRP).

IPSec VPN Tunneling: The BC2 allows you to create up to 5 virtual private network tunnels like corporate networks etc. IPSec VPN Tunneling allows anyone connected to the BC2 network to access remote network applications just as if they were at their corporate location connected to the local network. VPN allows users to remotely access a variety of network applications, including:
  • Access to network drives/files (SMB, AFP, etc)
  • Access to printers at the office
  • Access to intranet (internal websites that can only be accessed from local network)

The BC2 also allows for VPN passthrough. This allows a user to use VPN client software on their computer to connect to their VPN server, which only allows their specific computer to connect to the VPN.

IP Pass Through: IP Pass Through mode allows the BC2 to act as a mobile broadband bridge. This means that you can provide any ethernet or WiFi device the public IP address of your mobile broadband card (instead of a local IP address), without the router's firewall in place. This feature can be very useful for certain applications or hardware that specifically require the public IP address of the internet connection, including:

  • POS / point of sale / retail or informational kiosks
  • Power, Water, Environmental utility sensors and monitors
  • industrial automation and monitoring
  • HVAC monitoring and support
  • Traffic surveillance, monitoring and control
  • Homebound medical patient monitoring
  • On-site security video surveillance
  • Remote Device Management
  • Building Automation and Security

While other mobile broadband bridges provide similar functionality, the BC2's pass through functionality is superior in one key way: even in pass through mode, users are still able to access the administration page, SSH server, and other remote administration features. Other mobile broadband bridges require that you turn off passthrough mode to be able to access these services.

Remote Administration: With remote administration and DDNS enabled, you can easily access the BC2's administration interface without having to be connected to the local network. This allows you to change ANY of the settings on the router without having to visit the physical location of the router just to make simple setting changes to the router's network - a major boon for off-site IT managers!

SSH Server: The BC2 has its very own SSH server built in that can be accessed locally or remotely if you choose. This allows administrators to easily access every single detail of the router using a command line interface. This is very useful feature for administrators who want to monitor several routers remotely, and it works very well even in low bandwidth conditions since its a text only interface. There are so many SSH commands that can be used to check every detail of the routers status that NexAira created a 52-page document: Download the NexAira BC2 SSH Commands Document (PDF).


Using the SSH Terminal to see cellular data card information

SNMP Server: The BC2 has its own built-in SNMP server which allows administrators to use SNMP client software to remotely monitor:
  • 3G Interface Info
  • 4G Interface Info
  • WAN Interface Info
  • LAN Interface Info


Interface Info includes uptime, real-time bandwidth stats and more!

Email Notifications: The BC2 can automatically send email notifications to multiple system administrators with a system log for the following events:
  • Notify on Bootup
  • Notify on Interface Failover
  • Notify on Interface Up/Down

Summary:

What we love about the BC2:
  • Failover with minimal downtime: NexAira has really spent a lot of time perfecting each enterprise feature that it offers, and it really shows with the way they designed their internet failover with anti-flap. We really like how they have reduced actual downtime to only 10 seconds by already having the backup connection active and ready to go when the primary connection fails.
  • Xtreme Speed Optimization: Everyone can benefit from the extra performance that the BC2 offers by using the optimization feature that this router provides, especially 3G/4G users who are in fringe areas where performance is suffering due to signal issues.
  • IPSec VPN tunneling that really works: The BC2's VPN tunneling functionality worked with just about every IPSec VPN server we tried connecting it to, which is a big relief since we've seen VPN tunneling issues on other "enterprise-level" routers.
  • IP Pass Through Mode: With IP Pass Through Mode, the router can function as a mobile broadband bridge to provide any device with the public IP address of your mobile broadband device instead of a local IP address. This is very useful for devices that you need to have remote access to. We really love that you can still access the SSH server, remote administration, and other monitoring features when the router is in pass through mode which is something that no other mobile broadband bridge offers.
  • Status monitoring: The amount of resources that NexAira provides for monitoring the status of any particular function or service of the router is going to be an extremely valuable tool for IT administrators at any large corporations. Since it provides remote web administration, remote SSH access, and an SNMP server, administrators have the flexibility of using different tools to monitor their networks based on their requirements and specific needs. We also like that you can configure the BC2 to automatically email multiple administrators for emergency events such as a connection failing in case an IT administrator isn't always available on site.
  • Minimal Reboots: Not having to wait for the router to reboot every time you change a setting is great and eliminates lots of downtime.
  • RSSI support: It's not supported for every modem, but for the ones that are supported, it's great to be able to see your true signal strength within the router's admin and the number of "bars" indicated by the flashing LED.
  • LOTS of compatible 3G/4G modems: All of these great features would be worth little if the router wasn't compatible with many modems! The BC2 is compatible with just about every currently available modem from all the major carriers in North America (check out the full compatibility list here).

What We Wish The BC2 Had:
  • Load balancing: The BC2 has a lot of useful features that are targeted towards enterprises who need the best reliability, but we wish that there was also the option for load balancing (balancing the overall network traffic across multiple internet connections). In addition to having failover mode, we think that load balancing would be a useful feature for large businesses who are only able to rely on cellular data connections. Having both an ExpressCard & USB would give them twice the bandwidth to allow their employees to get work done online more quickly since there would be more bandwidth available overall during peak usage times.
  • Gigabit Ethernet: While the BC2 does offer 100mbps ethernet connectivity, we wish the BC2 offered gigabit (1,000mbps) ethernet connectivity. Gigabit ethernet (or lack thereof) doesn't affect the performance of your internet connection, but it would allow for faster file transfers over the local network.
  • Wireless N on the 5.8Ghz frequency: The BC2 does utilize Wireless N technology for better WiFi range & performance, but it only offers the option to broadcast on the 2.4Ghz frequency. None of the currently available mobile broadband routers offer Wireless N on the 5.8 Ghz frequency, but it is something that a lot of higher end Cable/DSL routers offer for even better performance by reducing any wireless interference.
  • GPS: The ability to utilize the A-GPS feature available from most Sprint mobile broadband devices would be a nice addition to the BC2. While this may not be a necessary feature for most enterprises, some business that have fleets of ships or trucks may wish that the BC2 offered this functionality.

Checkout our hands-on video review!



The NexAira BC2 is now available at 3Gstore for $189.99 (MSRP $209.99). Save an additional $20 if you're also signing up for a Sprint, Verizon, or CLEAR 2-year contract!

All routers purchased from 3Gstore include our exclusive support CD (with the 3Gstore Nexaira Tip Sheet to help you set up your router) as well as our esteemed technical support.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 19 August 2010 )
 
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