REVIEW Members of the IT community rave about networking kit vendor Ubiquiti. You'll find praises sung both on Spiceworks and amongst vExperts for their UniFi devices. Unfortunately, my recent purchase of Ubiquiti's latest offering, their EdgeMax EdgeSwitches, has proven that Ubiquiti are also capable of putting out gear that is outright dire.
On paper, the EdgeSwitches are fantastic. The two models I have tried thus far are the Ubiquiti EdgeSwitch-16-XG, which offers 12 SFP+ and 4 RJ-45 10GbE ports and the Ubiquiti EdgeSwitch-48-Lite, which has 2x SFP+ 10GbE ports, 2x SFP 1GbE ports and 48 RJ-45 1GbE ports. We got the 16-XG for $620 USD and the 48-Lite for $430 USD.
For small networks where SFP+ and RJ-45 10GbE systems have to be combined, the 16-XG is particularly attractive. It's hard to find something equivalent without paying significantly more. The 48-Lite seems a lovely switch for folks who have a lot of 1GbE endpoints that they want to aggregate back up to a 10GbE core. I've been waiting years for switches like this to come down to price points like these.
Unfortunately, the utility of the switches in question is predicated on the thesis of their functionality, something which empirical testing does not support.
Hurry up and wait
My curiosity was piqued during initial testing when attempts to connect the EdgeSwitches to my SSX-X24S via SFP+ direct attach cable failed. Given that the SSX-24S has worked with every cable I've tried in it thus far, I thought this was kind of odd. Nonetheless, SFP+ devices can be picky about cables and transceivers, so we brought them back to the lab for further testing.
Friends were called, multiple switches, SFP+ network cards and cables of varying descriptions were tried. We tried all the optical transceivers we had to hand, and went through a number of fibre cables. At this point, curiosity was verging on ire.
In an attempt to find out what cables I needed to use, I perused the Ubiquiti website. All attempts to find support sent me to their support page, which doesn't have a phone number, nor any obvious (to me at least) means to e-mail Ubiquiti.
There is a "chat live" button that should appear in the bottom right of your browser. However, it did not do so for me unless I browsed the site in incognito mode. Apparently a standard browser defence loadout of AdBlock, Ghostery and Privacy Badger is enough to prevent it from popping up. When you do discover it, the chat box says it is only for UniFi and airMax products. EdgeMax gets no love.
Clicking on the EdgeMax button reveals support documents for EdgeMax devices by device category. The only two documents currently present: how to upgrade firmware and VLAN walkthrough with EdgeSwitch using sample enterprise topology. These do not contain information relevant to my problems.
The individual product pages contain a data sheet and a quick-start guide. The EdgeSwitch Lite contains an Admin guide and a CLI reference user guide. None of these contain any information about supported cables or transceivers for these units.
Getting a little desperate, I tried asking on Twitter. Ubiquiti's social media folks pointed me to a support document located in the support section for EdgeMax under "getting started", but not under the section specific to EdgeSwitches.
The document states: "The following SFP transceivers have been tested by community members" and lists a disquietingly small number of supported transceivers. The list contains both 1GbE and 10GbE optical transceivers, with not very many of the latter.
It also lists a single direct attach Twinax cable as "supported", with notes that it will only train up at 1GbE, and that the cable hasn't actually been traffic tested, as the community member's other switch (a Juniper) wants to use the cable at 10GbE.
Current firmware doesn't support DAC very well in ES-16XG. We will look into it. Please use SFP+ modules for now. Sorry for the inconvenience.
Astonished, I cast about for a way to confirm this. I'd played this game before, waiting months for Ubiquiti to release a firmware that enabled the VPN functionality in their EdgeMax EdgeRouter. I was not eager to repeat the experience.
After some searching, I discovered that in the footer of both Ubiquiti's main website and the community forum there is a small contact us link that leads to an e-mail form. This link is not available on their support website. Selecting "Technical/Customer support" in the first stage of the e-mail form sends you to the technical support website.
A fellow vExpert set me straight and pointed out that at the top of the support page there is a button labelled "Submit a Request" that gets you the ability to e-mail an actual human tech support nerd. I was somewhat mollified by his assertion that "everyone misses it" but naturally still felt I'd wasted a lot of time trying to chase down support.
A helpful fellow by the name of "Simon M" replied to my inquiry:
Thanks for getting in touch with us!
Sorry for the trouble caused to you.
It is said by our experts that the issue will be fixed in the next firmware release.
I'm sorry but we don't have an ETA on the firmware release.
If you have any other questions, please let us know!
I have several questions, Simon. I am, unfortunately, of the opinion that it is highly unlikely you will be able or authorized to answer them.
The switches themselves
The switches themselves are feature-packed. If they worked, they'd be an astonishing find at the rock-bottom prices they're selling for. Unfortunately, I need to place some pretty heavy emphasis on "if they worked".
Shortly after Simon's e-mail came back I decided I would finish testing these EdgeSwitches and write a proper review. After the initial working title of the document turned out to be "under no circumstances buy this worthless box of fraudulence", I decided perhaps I should stop trying to get cables to work and focus on the rest of the system. Both units came with RJ-45 ports, so I ditched the SFP+ attempts and focused on the ports that would connect to things.
Unfortunately, the current firmware in the EdgeSwitches is outright unstable, at least if you are using the GUI to manage the units. I managed to crash one switch trying to perform basic VLAN operations and completely cratered the other trying to get Link Aggregation to work. A reboot of the switch restored the one I was testing VLANs on, but did not save my settings. The Link Aggregation one had to be manually reset.
Being fair, those were the only two real bugs on the UI config tests I ran. Everything else seemed to do what was required and responded to basic testing just fine. I suspect that if Ubiquiti decides to resolve the firmware issues, these could be truly great switches. Given the featureset and the price, operational versions of these switches could easily become crowd favourites for the next several years.
It is incumbent upon the customer to do some research into the widget they are buying before they buy it. I deserve a right good smack for not having actually checked to see what cables the Ubiquiti units would work with.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't give it a lot of thought. Over the past year, every single switch and network card I could imagine has worked wonderfully with cables bought from FibreStore. I figured I would have to do some research when the switches arrived to figure out which cables FibreStore would have to clone, but it never occurred to me that anyone, anywhere would ship a switch that didn't work with direct attach cables at all. I am absolutely gobsmacked. Even Cisco don't pull stunts like that!
So, rap on the knuckles for me. The cheap switches will only play with a narrow range of (relative to FibreStore) expensive optical transceivers, and we'll have to go with fibre optics instead of being able to use the significantly more resilient Twinax cables. A learning moment (and a gigantic pain in the ASCII) for me.
Ubiquiti, however, has also made some pretty awful decisions here. These products should never have seen the light of day with their current firmware. The narrow range of connectivity options in these switches makes them unusable in practice.
Ubiquiti's website doesn't actually list officially supported transceivers or cables for these models, leaving the job up to a generalised, community-curated list. Worse, getting hold of a human at Ubiquiti to help you isn't particularly easy, and the best that they seem to have to offer is the tantalizing hope that the issue might be resolved at an indeterminate point in the future.
Ubiquiti's Twitter team has said that Ubiquiti is in the process of making their own SFP+ modules. The date for this is unknown, as is the rationale. If Ubiquiti had the environmental alertness of a runt amoeba they'd simply get on the horn with FibreStore and support the raft of dirt-cheap transceivers and cables they offer. The combination of cheap switches and cheap cables would make Ubiquiti exceptionally hard to compete with.
I'll take my slap on the wrist and admonishment of "caveat emptor", but for the appalling condition in which Ubiquiti released their EdgeSwitches, they deserve far more. In the EdgeSwitches, Ubiquiti have released a supposedly enterprise networking product with a beta-test-on-live-customers philosophy that would make Microsoft's Windows 10 team proud.
A note from fellow vExpert Jim Millard regarding similar issues with Cisco (arguably the vendor with pickiest switches out there): "I've run across Cisco devices that are blasé about the cables or SFP/SFP+ that are used, while others are crazy about using only the spec'd kit. Example: I just figured out that a 3600X will *only* accept 1M, 3M and 5M 10G Twinax; if you use a 1.5M, it'll go into 'errdisable' and even putting in the correct cable won't work until you do an admin "shut/no shut" on the port to reset it. Again, in contrast to UBNT, that's totally documented. Or at least documented on what's supported, but not how to fix broken kit when you use unsupported!" ®