Recently, I wrote about leveraging some free tools from OpenDNS to allow clients to manage their own content filter and security for their children’s networks. I have now seen the light with a richer solution for parental controls: Router Limits. (Full disclosure: After reviewing the service, I liked it so much I became a reseller.)
I wrote the original article because many of our clients were asking for a way to manage our SonicWALL security or to do simple things like scheduling their children’s access to the internet.
Some clients wanted to ensure their children’s devices were blocked from porn, violence, gambling, and other unsavory sites. Some wanted to be able to just turn off the internet for their kids at a whim, or schedule certain times of day where they would have access.
Unfortunately, with the business-class solutions we sell, the OpenDNS tools are best implemented by IT administrators, not consumers themselves.
Even if I created step-by-step instructions on how to do optimize parental controls, it could be a little overwhelming for a homeowner. Furthermore, a lot of the steps take time, so they're not very useful for day-to-day changes.
If you read the instructions in my last article, you saw that the user would have to go above-and-beyond the basic steps if they wanted to keep an enterprising young kid from circumventing the protection.
A Better Way: Router Limits
As an aside, I had mentioned that a company called Router Limits already has a really nice and easy way for parents to control their kids' browsing habits. At that time the software was embedded into routers that we don’t sell. Currently we sell and recommend SonicWALL hardware exclusively because of the wealth of protection it brings to the homeowner and the very well implemented secure remote access.
Back at CEDIA Expo 2016, though, I met up with this fine company and their chief revenue officer Russ Westergard, as they were sharing space with Luxul. Luxul has already incorporated the service into their routers.
I mentioned that I was very interested in the product but lamented it would be a huge feat to have a company like SonicWALL incorporate the service into their routers.
Russ took me aside and let me in on a little secret which I’m happy to finally divulge here: They were working on a small device that could sit anywhere on the network and provide the same tools and service that users of the Luxul router enjoyed, while still using our routers or any other router for that matter.
I jumped at the chance to beta test this little guy and what I found truly excited … and also scared me a little bit (keep reading).
The RL-Mini, as it’s called, is a small device smaller than a pack of cigarettes and plugs into your network just like any other device via Ethernet.
From there an integrator would log into the Pro part of their website to activate the account. Router Limits even shares some of the monthly fee with the dealer.
Once activated the homeowner would log into their portal which has been linked to the device they purchased. From there they have the option to set “limits” or restrictions on a specific device or devices as to what they have access to over the internet.
A homeowner can set schedules for when devices can access the internet; they can specify sites that are allowed or not allowed; they can even go granular by scheduling (for example) Netflix to be available only between 8:00 to 10:00 pm if they wanted to. The best part is that it is very easy for a homeowner to do this, which in our world is quite a feat.
There are numerous “limits” you can put on the system and most of the ones you’d want are already pre-built for you (see sidebar). Of course, you can add your own custom rules and sites, as well.
They even give you the option to lock down Google and Bing’s Safe Search as well as enforcing YouTube Restricted Mode.
All of the limits above can be assigned to individual devices or you can make device groups. I found it easiest to create a KidsZone and place my kids' devices into it.
Of course, if I had teenagers in my house as well I’d probably give them access to a few more things depending on their age. You know, if I had a 20-year-old son back from college maybe I’d give him access to Tinder? Then again probably not. It’s literally drag-and-drop simple because all of the devices on your network are scanned into the system as soon as you turn it on.
The Scary Part: Exposed!
The scary part? Remember, all I did was plug this thing into my network at home. One of the most intriguing features I found was the history section. All of a sudden I could see every single site that every device in the home was connecting to or had connected to since the RL-Mini was activated.
I could see some people feeling a little uneasy about this amount of data being exposed. On the other hand, it can be a very powerful tool. Imagine you, as an employer, being able to check up on employees using company-issued mobile devices. You could monitor how much time they spend on Facebook (or Tinder), or simply shut off access to these sites and other sites unrelated to the job.
Router Limits exploses everything, even the apps running in the background that you forgot you installed years ago will show up.
The history section gives one great control and visibility into their children’s browsing habits. I can choose to allow something that was previously blocked, for example. Router limits highlights activity it thinks may be suspicious, so I don’t have to scroll through every single item.
How does it do this?! How can I plug a device into my network and suddenly all of my traffic is routed through it with no intervention anywhere else on the network to allow this to happen?
The answer is surprisingly simple and makes use of a well-known method called ARP (Address Resolution Protocol) spoofing. Usually used in the hacker world where you’d want to gather someone’s data as a “man in the middle” attack, here it is being used as a force for good.
That said, I for one don’t really want my wife's or my own data to be tracked constantly. In this case, one of the features lacking in the RL-Mini is the ability to be used across VLANs: If you have more than one VLAN you cannot apply the RL-Mini across more than one, meaning that you are either 1) stuck putting it on one subnet or 2) forced to purchase additional units and subscriptions for each.
Router Limits does plan to add better VLAN support in the future.
In any case, the fact that Router Limits can't see all of my subnets … it ended up being a good thing for us.
Users cannot hide a device from being tracked. Thus, the only way to stay anonymous is to wall yourself off on another VLAN, which is exactly what we did in our home.
I went back to the VLAN I created for my kids and put the RL-Mini there. I put my KidsZone wireless network back into play and Voila! The RL-Mini is on their network and now only has access to any device that connects to the KidsZone SSID. Problem solved.
So Good, Even CTOs Like It
I have to say I really like this product. It is so easy to use and the fact that it can be used with any router, modem, or other networking gear is just wonderful.
The product's ease of use makes for an excellent opportunity for integrators and technologists to get some real recurring revenue. All they need to do is sign their clients up and the checks roll in.
Anyone with children is currently looking for something like this, and I know because I get asked all of the time. As this product is always online and always updating automatically it’s easy to push new features.
Some additional and very welcome features to be added in the near future are bandwidth monitoring and control. Bandwidth monitoring will come in handy especially now that Comcast has limited many clients to 1TB a month. Clients will want to know who is hogging up all of the juice, and now you have a way to empower them … potentially eliminating those service calls.
I think that’s the best part about this product. You are giving the homeowner the ability to make these important changes and important decisions on their own and they’ll thank you for empowering them with that ability by continuing to pay the monthly subscription fee, for which you benefit directly.
In fact Eric Smith, the co-founder and CTO of Control4 who has seven children recently told me he “tried almost every solution under the sun to manage internet screentime and content.”
He finally tried the Router Limits service embedded in a Luxul router, replacing Disney Circle and several other parental-control services.
“I love that this solution can reside in the router and is so easy to configure and manage,” he says. “I would recommend Router Limits to anyone that wants to manage internet time and content, or protect their home or business from inappropriate content. It's like easy access control for the internet and it sets integrators and service providers apart as technology experts.”
There are just two problems I have with the RL-Mini that are not problems if you use a router embedded with Router Limits software.
One of them, the VLAN issue, could be looked at as a good or a bad thing. On a router that has VLAN capabilities and Router Limits, you can manage all of your subnets. With the RL-Mini, as explained above, you are restricted to the one VLAN.
The second issue will not be an issue for most, for now, and if you’re using an embedded version of Router Limits you probably won’t be affected either. The NIC (Network Interface Card) in the RL-Mini is limited to 100Mbps. This was done to keep cost down and because, according to Speedtest.net, the average speed in the US is about 50Mbps, including both residential and business.
Personally I think it’s worth the extra money to have a gigabit NIC in there but hopefully this will be included in the next revision. For now, as an early product, this thing is well worth it for the vast majority of people out there.
I came away so impressed with the RL-Mini that I now offer it to our clients — integrators who require our networking expertise. So, now that I've taken on the line, I'm really not an unbiased reporter. But honestly, at the behest of CE Pro's Julie Jacobson, I was planning on writing this article even before I fell in love with it.