The average consumer equipment's wired ports have been stuck at 1 Gbps for quite some time. On the other hand, 802.11ac enables router manufacturers to market multi-gigabit Wi-Fi. Power users have tried to use prosumer and business switches to take advantage of multiple ports on devices and obtain multi-gigabit throughput. Netgear recently introduced its AC5300-class router, the Nighthawk X8 R8500. One of the interesting features was the availability of 802.3ad LACP in the official firmware. In the marketing material, they also pointed out that it was simple enough for the average user to utilize when combined with a Netgear ReadyNAS unit.

Introduction

The Netgear Nighthawk X8 R8500 was launched in October 2015. It is an AC5300-class tri-band router. This implies the presence of two 5 GHz SSIDs (4x4 for 1733 Mbps with Broadcom's 1024 QAM extensions to get 2165 Mbps  on each SSID) and one 2.4 GHz SSID (4x4 for 800 Mbps, with Broadcom's 1024-QAM again bringing it to 1000 Mbps). We covered the full details in our launch piece, and will not delve much into the details here. Link aggregation is made necessary in these flagship products because of the presence of multiple SSIDs capable of gigabit throughput. Since each wired port is limited to 1 Gbps, it becomes impossible for any one client to actually make full use of the wireless capabilities.

There are different ways to aggregate two network ports together. These include round-robin, active backup, balance-xor, fault tolerance, adaptive load balancing etc. Multiple modes tend to create confusion for the average user. Hence, Netgear has chosen to keep things simple by making 802.3ad Dynamic Link Aggregation (LACP) as the only available teaming mode.

Netgear assumes that most of the consumers would be connecting a NAS unit to the LACP ports. They have separate guides for ReadyNAS, QNAP and Synology units on their website.

Ideally, the configuration should be a couple of clicks at the most in the web UI. While that is true on the router side, the NAS side has a few issues. The fact that the setup will utilize 802.3ad LACP is drilled down quite a bit, but the changing of the hash type to Layer 2 + 3 needs to be done explicitly (it is Layer 2 by default). Note that choosing Layer 2 will still keep the UI status on both the NAS and the router side happy. The NAS is also accessible via the LACP ports irrespective of the hash type chosen.

This review will start off with a description of a realistic test setup to bring out the benefits of link aggregation. In the initial configuration, we will take a look at a pure wired setup. In the second experiment, we will check if the benefits of link aggregation translate to practical gigabit Wi-Fi.

Benchmarking Setup

It is important to remember that a single PC or a single transfer stream will not benefit from 802.3ad LACP. For example, a client with bonded ports can't get multi-link throughput from a server with bonded ports for any given transfer (unless one is using SMB multi-channel, for example). In any case, this is a moot point since the R8500 supports only two ports for link aggregation.

Our test setup consists of the Netgear ReadyNAS RN214 connected to the link aggregation ports of a R8500 and configured with a bonded link as described in the previous subsection. The NAS is configured with a RAID-5 volume using 4x 4TB Seagate NAS HDDs. On the clients side, we have three PCs running Windows 8.1 Pro connected to ports 3, 4 and 5 of the same R8500. Two of the PCs had an integrated RealTek Semiconductor RTL8168/8111 PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet NIC while one had a Intel Ethernet Connection I218-V Gigabit Ethernet NIC. The performance difference between the Realtek and Intel NICs is not a big factor in the benchmarks today.

In the second experiment, we configured another R8500 in bridge mode to connect to the first 5 GHz SSID on the main R8500. The three wired clients used in the first experiment were connected to the bridged R8500's LAN ports numbered 1,2 and 3. Link aggregation was disabled on the bridged R8500, but the ReadyNAS RN214 continued to remain connected via LACP on the primary R8500.

The gallery above shows some of the configuration pages on the R8500 units and the RN214 relevant to the above discussion.

The actual benchmark consisted of transferring a 10.7 GB Blu-ray folder structure from the NAS to the PC and vice-versa in a synchronized manner. A Blu-ray folder allows us to mimic a good mix of files of different sizes. Synchronizing the operations allows us to identify how the setup behaves when multiple clients are trying to simultaneously access the link-aggregated target (ReadyNAS RN214, in this case). This is the typical scenario when multiple machines are attempting to backup or restore from a backup.

Link Aggregation in Action
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  • c0y0te - Thursday, December 31, 2015 - link

    Wireless speeds will never be as fast as wired speeds. It adds a whole encode/encrypt/transmit/receive/decrypt/decode process to every block of data sent. Besides, 5 Ghz is a joke for wall penetration. Nice of the FCC to sell the 3.5 Ghz band to sprint so they could bury it, wasn't it? Reply
  • phoenix_rizzen - Wednesday, January 13, 2016 - link

    5 GHz not going through more than 2 walls reliably is a feature! Makes it much easier to implement wireless in schools where you need to worry more about capacity than coverage/range.

    With 2.4 GHz, you need to futz around with power levels and channel overlap and whatnot to support dense AP layouts. Sticking an AP into every other classroom works, but requires a lot time to make it work well.

    With 5 GHz, you just stick an AP into every other classroom, and you're done. There's very little overlap between APs (even between floors), even at 100% transmit power. And you get more, wider channels to play with to boot.
    Reply
  • pixelstuff - Thursday, December 31, 2015 - link

    So why hasn't everyone tried to move 10GB connections more mainstream? Is it really that hard to build stable hardware for it or is everyone just trying to milk the top as long as possible?

    The cheapest I have found is a QNAP TS-563 with an add-on card ($800 before HDDs), and a Netgear ProSAFE S3300-28X ($500). Seems like assembly line technology should be able to make anything cheaper after 4-5 years of recouping the R&D expenses.
    Reply
  • Reflex - Friday, January 1, 2016 - link

    The problem is that 10Gbps links are very power hungry, for the vast majority of even prosumer use cases 1Gbit will be more than fast enough since 99% of a user's traffic is to/from the internet and few people have faster than gigabit home connections. So why spend the power on a single component of the PC (NIC) when almost nobody will use it at even a gigabit, much less 10Gbit? Reply
  • Conficio - Friday, January 1, 2016 - link

    My take away is that even the wired speeds are marred with limitation. No Thank you. I don't want to have to read the manual for which port does actually deliver what is advertised. At least color code and label the ports.

    Furthermore, I wished any network gear would include a bufferbloat test.
    Reply
  • TheRealAnalogkid - Saturday, January 2, 2016 - link

    I bought one of these to replace a hodge-podge of router/ap/ap and it replaced all of them and has great coverage. Speeds are a lot faster than the Netgear N900 it replaced and it has coverage not only of the house (3800sqft, 1.25 story) but the entire acre lot. I couldn't find one device at this price to do that and am happy with it. Not to mention the Genie software, which is still one of the easiest to use. I bought the CM600 Cable Modem and switched it in and out with my Motorola Surfboard SB6141 and it was not even close. I was on the phone with the Cox tech when I was switching back and forth because he was interested in possibly getting one for the 24x8 channel bonding. I had stuff downloading all over the house (2 laptops, an Ipad, Netflix on 2 TVs, and an Iphone downstairs and a Sony 4k server, Netflix, my PC, a surface 3 and my Lumina upstairs) and the CM600 was much faster. Anecdotal, but did it 4 times with the same downloads in a row and results were similar each time. It feels good to have the network DONE. For now, yeah. Reply
  • Ratman6161 - Sunday, January 3, 2016 - link

    You hit the nail on the head. It actually is better than previous generations. The issue occurs when marketing departments get hold of things. The real world advantages are difficult to explain to the average consumer i.e. the people NetGear products are generally aimed at. So rather than try to explain it, its easier to just slap a bigger number on it because consumers tend to buy into the ploy that a bigger number is better and "faster". The bigger number is kind of/sort of semi-useful in saying that "our new router is better than our old router" but pretty useless as far as comparing routers of different brands or even slightly different speced routers within a brand.

    On the other hand, most consumers won't know the difference anyway. If you are using your router primarily for connecting to the Internet and your connection is (as mine is) 60 Mb, then it won't matter how many Gb of throughput the router has. And its only with the cable company's relatively recent upgrade from 30 Mb to 60 Mb that the connection was faster than could be delivered by 802.11G. Sure, all of you smart enough to be having this discussion in the first place will know the difference. But 99% of the people who buy NetGear equipment aimed at the home will not know the difference.
    Reply
  • kmmatney - Tuesday, January 5, 2016 - link

    I did something similar to what you did, but 2 years ago with the R7000 Nighthawk. There were some issues in the beginning, but everything was fixed after a few firmware updates, and I've been very happy with the speed and coverage. I am using a SB6141 modem, which I have no complaints about - my last SamKnows report shows I'm averaging 166Mbps speed - but if I need a new modem, the CM600 looks awesome.

    So I've never hit any of the advertised Wifi speeds, but the bottom line is that I have 25+ devices in the house, and these routers handle it much better than my old Netgear WNDR3400, in terms of coverage and speeds when stressed.
    Reply
  • toyotabedzrock - Saturday, January 2, 2016 - link

    Typical, companies like to use fast parts but not actually connect them to an interface that can allow them to be used at the high speed. Reply
  • phuzi0n - Saturday, January 2, 2016 - link

    The advertised/displayed numbers are OSI layer 1 link rates which should not be confused with throughput on any of the higher layers. WiFi has tremendous overhead on the physical layer compared to Ethernet, primarily for error correction since broadcasting into the open air is extremely noisy but also for other reasons. For 802.11a/b/g the best you could expect your layer 2 throughput to be was around 40% of the layer 1 link rate, for 802.11n/ac it's more like 50-60%.

    Now in some of the cases you were getting extremely low performance and in other cases slightly low, but the review shows a major lack of understanding and it further spreads common confusion. It is important to make the distinction between the advertised layer 1 link rates and throughput achieved at higher layers so that people understand ALL WiFi IS ADVERTISED THIS WAY and to only expect ~1/2 of what is advertised.
    Reply

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