Skydog hands on: Home Wi-Fi routing done right

Skydog hands on: Home Wi-Fi routing done right

Summary: The best home networking solution for parental control of technology is also the best home Wi-Fi router, period. Skydog does well what other Wi-Fi routers usually do poorly.

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Once the kids get old enough, parents crave control over their use of today's technology. Yet even for the technically competent, it's a difficult thing to do, short of physically taking the devices away.

According to a study by McAfee this past spring, 80 percent of parents don't know how to find out what their kids are doing online. 66 percent of parents of kids ages 10-23 believe their kids are more tech-savvy than they, and that they'll never catch up with their kids.

I recently discussed one approach to this: Mobile Device Management, which would operate at the mobile carrier level for cellular devices. But there's another important point of control: The router or wireless access point. For years, wireless router companies have offered features they call parental control. These features are usually so primitive and difficult to use that almost nobody bothers with them. The few who do use them often find that they make things worse.

The Skydog wireless router from PowerCloud Systems takes a much simpler, more logical and powerful approach. It includes category-based content filtering, time of day management and can manage based on users in addition to devices. It has sophisticated routing functions not generally found in other home products.

Significantly, it also moves device configuration into the cloud, which greatly simplifies administration and opens new opportunities. The techie relative, real consultants and Skydog support can all more easily and effectively support the customer this way.

Skydog user setup
Unlike most wi-fi routers, Skydog allows you to define users and set policies for them.

Setting up a wireless router in a home is not especially tricky for someone who knows networking. But I was amazed at how easy and powerful the setup was for my Skydog. I did nearly all of it before I even plugged the unit in.

In the classic way, the admin user configures the router by connecting from a browser directly to it using a friendly address like http://192.168.0.1. With Skydog, I first created an account on skydog.com (you can also log in with your Google ID) and entered a code from the bottom of the device. Then, before even plugging it in, I could enter my users and some policies. For each user, I entered an email address and mobile phone number because the service can alert the user by email or text message. I also entered all the usual Wi-Fi router stuff like the SSID, password and security configuration, and created a guest network.

Skydog device list for user
You can assign devices to a user and apply policies, or block access for the user or a device.

I have Verizon FiOS, which uses a ridiculous proprietary router that cannot be replaced. Many other Wi-Fi routers fail in this case or require double-NATting, but not Skydog. When I hard-wired the Skydog to my FiOS router, it automatically detected what was up and configured itself for bridge mode, acting only as a wireless access point.

And of course, once the Skydog went online it phoned home to skydog.com with the same device ID I entered in my cloud account and then downloaded all the configuration data that I entered in my account.

Skydog SMS alerts
Skydog can alert the admin and users via SMS or email as appropriate

One of the configurations I made in Skydog before powering it on was to create two zones: TheFamily and Guest. I can set different policies for the different zones. Skydog permits multiple zones; I might want to create one just for business work that had looser rules and guaranteed bandwidth.

As we connected devices to the new SSID, or physically connected them through the 4 switched ports in it, the Skydog detected them and notified me through e-mail and SMS for each. I could then go into the Skydog cloud config, find the section for unassigned devices in that zone, name the device and assign it to a user.  Skydog fingerprints the device, identifying it as Windows, Android, iOS and some other characteristics.

I could set one scheduling policy for all of my daughter's devices: From 9PM to 6AM she has no Wi-Fi access. (Her iPhone still has cellular access; Skydog can't remedy that, but my proposed MDM solution could.)

Between 6AM and 9PM, I could choose to give her unrestricted access to the Internet or to subject her access to one of five sets of policies numbered 1 through 5. These policies block content matching various categories categorized at the top as Security and Privacy, Family Protection, Youth Distractions, Social Networking, Digital Communications, and Other Content Protection (see the image below). Each of these policies subcategorizes, sometimes down many levels, and you can edit the policies to block or unblock specific low-level categories or whole top-level categories.

And in another example of Skydog doing things the right way, I was able to create a new policy specifically for my daughter and checked the right boxes for her (see NadiaPolicy in the image below). If you have multiple kids, you can set multiple policies, and at different times of day. For instance, if certain hours are homework-only, you can block all "Youth Distractions" sites at those hours.

Skydog also has a feature which will, unfortunately, be handy the next time my daughter refuses to do chores: I or my wife can easily log into the cloud account and block all her Wi-Fi access. Once again, it can't block her cellular access, but I can log into the AT&T site and do that.

Skydog content filtering policies
Skydog content filtering allows multiple custom policies for each user.

Lest you read too much into my enthusiasm, it's not like the average non-technical parent can set this device up and configure it properly. But they can physically set it up; that's just plugging in a few cables. If they don't want to do the cloud setup, someone else can do it and it doesn't matter where that person is. They could be on the moon as long as they have Internet access.

For this review I re-familiarized myself with the configuration software for the major competition: Linksys (Cisco), Netgear, D-Link and Apple. Of all of them, Apple AirPort Extreme is actually the most restrictive and inflexible, mostly because it has no web interface. You have to use a program which you install on iOS, Mac OS or Windows. The others use a web interface, but the software just can't compare to Skydog's. Some of the competition, especially D-Link, have some cloud services for configuration, but even D-Link falls far short of Skydog's cloud capabilities. Skydog has no mobile apps for cloud access, but they do have a very usable mobile web site.

How good is Skydog's cloud setup? Imagine your router has a hardware failure for some reason. With Skydog, they send you a new one, you plug it in, go into the cloud interface to the Replace Router function, enter the code of the new router and you're done. The new router pulls the configuration down and sets itself up. That's how good it is.

Skydog user schedule policies
You can schedule different access levels for users at different times of day. Thos kid can't access fun sites when he's supposed to be studying.

Like a lot of other routers, Skydog has a USB port, but it is inactive for now. At some point they can create a firmware update to add support. Speaking of firmware updates many of them in routers are for functions which are performed in the cloud for Skydog, so Skydog users can expect many fewer firmware updates.

I asked about range extenders, since they are important in many houses. Another router configured in a true bridge mode (i.e. no NAT or MACs) will function as a range extender. If the other router is on the same network as the Skydog, all devices connected through it will appear as wired devices on the Skydog. One zone will be extended to these devices, connected to the switch port through which the other router connects, so in this configuration you do lose some flexibility.

PowerCloud is working on a firmware update for the Skydog which will allow it to function as a wired range extender and support all the Skydog features seamlessly. I asked about wireless range extending, and this was the company's response:

Initially the Skydogs in Extender mode will connect via Ethernet (wired) to the Skydog in Gateway mode. At a later time we are planning to introduce mesh-based wireless connection between the gateway and the extenders.

I tested, and the screen captures were taken, with the version 1.1 Skydog software, which is released today. In many ways, it's much better, especially in content filtering.

The Skydog device costs $149 and is available today at www.skydog.com and Amazon. The cloud service, including the web ratings, is substantial enough that there is a subscription fee of $30 per year. One year of subscription to the cloud service is included with the device, and for a limited time two years are included.

The subscription fee will turn some people off, but it really shouldn't. You're not continually paying for the product, you're paying for a continually improving service. It's in the nature of security products now that they have to be constantly updated, and if you want that done well you'll have to pay something.

More of a concern — in fact, really the only concern — is the range extender delay. It should be just a temporary one, but there are many homes that need wireless range extenders, and for whom therefore Skydog may not be an option. Truth be told, it may be that some range extenders will work with it, but there are no standards for this yet and nobody, especially PowerCloud, will tell you that they will work.

Other than the lack of a range extender solution for now, Skydog is a really impressive product. I'll be wholeheartedly recommending it to friends and family, so it's good enough for you too.

Related Coverage:

06-Skydog

Topic: Reviews

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44 comments
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  • And new security risks

    "Significantly, it also moves device configuration into the cloud, which greatly simplifies administration and opens new opportunities."

    And new security risks; I hope they're doing the communication between the "cloud" service and the device right, otherwise they could have some embarrassing breaches.
    CobraA1
    • My thoughts exactly.

      Moving configuration into the cloud actually means the configuration of your router is relying on the integrity of someone else's computer systems.

      For EU citizens, this is especially undesirable. It means relying on a foreign corporation, located in a country that is notorious for the unlawful spying on its citizens, controlling and potentially spying on your router.

      The possibilities for abuse are endless.
      mrgoose
      • Multiple regional data centers keep data where it should be

        Skydog utilizes a geographically distributed data center architecture that keep data in the respective geographies of use. This is is a best practice approach we have adopted to ensure compliance with regional laws but also to respect the privacy needs of users.
        andreap1
        • So...

          If the NSA orders your parent company in the USA to hack my router in Paris or Budapest, you would refuse to comply?
          mrgoose
          • As stated above if you are asinine enough to believe

            that your Gov't in France and Hungary are not spying and checking on it's people inside and outside - good luck with that childish thought.
            ScanBack
          • Are you seriously suggesting that...

            If my own government can spy on me, then I should hire an internet service that allows a foreign government to spy on me too?

            Now that IS a "childish thought"!

            If my own government spies on me unlawfully, I have a chance, albeit a slim one, of some sort of recourse, perhaps at the next election. I can take legal action in our national courts or report our government's wrongdoings to the EU Commission. My MEP can raise my concerns in the European Parliament. If all that fails, then I can take my case to the European Court of Human Rights - citing Articles 8 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

            However, if I hire a service that allows foreign government to spy on me, particularly a foreign government with secret police agencies as notoriously dishonest, invasive and militaristic as those of the United States, then I have no chance at all.
            mrgoose
          • If they can spy on heads of states we can forget laws...

            You're right about the control, access, and hackability....

            No point in talking to yanks about privacy though. They think its fine to 'respect' their law in USA but the rest of the world doesn't have those rights. It's a crazily stupid, arrogant, dumb situation. We have NO rights in their eyes. And if a drone strike should hit you, or me, it's just too bad. They know best as we've seen all too often lately :-)
            johnmckay
        • Compliance with laws is the problem when the government can't be trusted.

          Now that our government has sidestepped the Bill of Rights and granted itself permission to illegally monitor all of our online traffic, having tools that have direct access to our router configuration stored in the cloud opens our private networks to governmental abuse via NSLs served to Skydog.

          This would be a fantastic idea, if we had a government which actually followed the rules we wrote for them. Sadly, ours doesn't. Then again, a lot of people don't care about the government monitoring their lives, so those folks are going to love this technology.
          BillDem
      • And you are silly enough to believe that

        the countries of the EU do not spy or look at data? Well you keep drinking that Kool-Aide who do you think has helped the US after 911 - the EU, because all of the terrorist activities the EU has had to deal with. It cracks me up what the people of the EU buy. From Finance to security - WOW
        ScanBack
    • Cloud config is probably *more* secure

      Yes, it's possible that Skydog could botch their site security and expose the configuration of your router to malicious actors. This is way down my list of computer security concerns, far behind my bank and the government exposing what they have in their systems, and it's also far outweighed by the benefits of a managed configuration.
      larry@...
    • TLS encryption guarantees a secure connection with the cloud service

      Enterprise-grade, certificate-based TLS encryption guarantees a completely secure connection between the Skydog Router and the Skydog Cloud Service. As the Skydog Router connects to its cloud service, it immediately establishes a secure link using the same approach employed in online banking transactions, further reinforced by the use of a unique security certificate and a hash key. All configuration, reporting and status information is then transmitted utilizing the encrypted link.
      andreap1
      • So the transmission is encrypted. Good!

        But what about the data itself, when it is stored on your regional servers? Is that encrypted, too? I believe it should be. Skydog does not need access to that information; it is only a convenient repository for their users. Therefore, the data should be compressed and encrypted before it even leaves the router in my home, and stored that same way without further ado.

        Does your company do it that way?

        Thank you for taking the time to join this conversation.
        bart001fr
  • Internet access is like water - it flows around blocks

    I like the combination of cloud configuration and smart router set-up, however like many technical solutions it is based upon a fundamentally flawed view of reality. You see people are smart... and teenagers are exponentially smarter than the adults that wish to control them. What is required is parenting 101.

    Here's a real world example that non-technical folk can relate to: Recall that movie, you know the one, the one which depicts a teenager leaving the house "after curfew" by jumping out of their bedroom window and climbing down to meet their friends?
    ...in this example the parent locked the doors but forgot there was a window.

    In the case of the SkyDog and all other router based parental controls, you can lock-up access to your WiFi, but your kids will just connect to the nearest open connection. You feel that the doors are locked, but you forgot that there are many windows!

    My advice:
    1. Take the devices away when they are not allowed or deserved.
    2. You can't control what your kids look at when they are on the Internet, just as you can't control what they talk about when they are at liberty. You can take steps to guide them in what is appropriate and you always revert to step #1 when faced with inappropriate behavior.
    si.cruse@...
    • RE: Internet access is like water - it flows around blocks

      Meh... I sort of agree. Not that it matters but I've worked in IT for 17 years, 15 of which at my current employer at a 300 person firm. I mention this because I'm very familiar with all this and we used websense which was a phenomenal web filtering solution at an extremely expensive cost. I just snagged one of these in a NIB factory sealed box for $112 shipped and since I have a 6 year old 1st grader I like the filtering. Its too soon to know for me how effective this will be but so far I have been impressed with the setup, monitoring and notifications it sends. You can review what sites people have been visiting and can reduce or schedule access by time and date range. Again, my kid is 6 and there w ill always be ways kids work around various roadblocks but that doesn't mean you should just give up and not even try. I do agree that proper parenting is the best preventative measure but this could be a cheap way for parents to monitor them when they do connect, and there aren't a lot of unsecured wireless networks out there as there once was. ymmv
      imnitguy
  • A free alternative...

    ...without many of the bells and whistles (many of which are useless, in the scenarios si.cruise listed - and what about 3G/4G on the phones and tablets?) is OpenDNS. It improves routing, and has some nifty blocking configurations.
    Just sayin'....
    hockeybum
    • exacltly

      just block outbound dns from all but your dns server and it's impossible to bypass
      everss02
    • A few steps up

      There are a number of fundamental differences between what Skydog offers and Open DNS, but the critical ones though are:
      1 – With OpenDNS, when configured at a router level, you get a one-size-fits-all approach and you cannot have per-user customized policies. Skydog instead allows you to configure the behavior on a per-user basis and has a scheduler that allows to automatically change policies applied on hour/day/week basis. It is also capable of cutting off access to the Internet completely on scheduled per user basis and you can override policies for specific users and specific times –such as when you kid needs an extra 10 minutes to finish watching a movie.
      2 – Anybody can override the content filtering by applying a different local DNS configuration on their computer using something like Google’s DNS service (8.8.8.8 or 8.8.4.4). Skydog prevents that. The policies are always enforced, regardless of the local configuration.
      andreap1
      • yes, but...

        While you are correct that the coverage offered by openDNS is much less granular, you have to look at what you're trying to accomplish. As many have pointed out already, kids are technically savvy and if they put their minds to it, they can find a way around anything. So, if you are trying to control your kids, you are probably doomed to failure (though it may take longer on the skydog system). If, however, you are simply trying to protect your kids (and maybe even yourself) from stumbling upon offensive content on the internet, openDNS is an excellent solution.
        kiz
  • Nice idea, but overly simplistic for real kids.

    Kids are tech savy these days. One can wrap tech policies till you turn blue, but its pointless. Examples: Open access points in your neighborhood, tethering cell phones, switching NICs, bluetooth tether to your laptop, borrowing hardwire connection from another appliance in the home, cell phone based browsers, IM, facebook, skype, web proxies, and on and on.
    Morality is taught. Technology is never going to replace teaching kids how to function in society and stay safe.
    Iozone
  • You lost me at..

    I stopped reading when I got to this point: "it also moves device configuration into the cloud,"

    Sorry, but I don't want my router management based on "cloud" access.
    Hemo2