External Portal Server Build v Buy
It is always a good feeling to get a new UniFi site setup and have everything working and in place. Coverage is good, vlans are working, payment terminals are connected and all is well in the world. That is until an email arrives from the venues marketing team asking to capture guest email on the WiFi network. “How is that going to work? How can I capture email on UniFi networks?” you ask yourself. After a quick lookaround the guest control section you realise that this isn’t just a matter of clicking a checkbox and that there are some decisions to be made. In the article below we highlight the factors that need to be taken into consideration.
What is an External Portal Server for UniFi
UniFi provide several options for guest WiFi portals including their own default Hotspot option, Facebook WiFi portal or an external portal. The first two are structured templates that you can make limited changes to and they will provide basic functionality for getting guests online via a captive portal. The external portal server option is much more powerful, as it allows you to create your own custom portal and authenticate users for guest access using the UniFi API. UniFi also offer a voucher option, but this is incorporated into the native UniFi hotspot service.
Why would you need an External Portal Server
If you would like to anything customizable or interesting with the guest data that you capture then you will need the flexibility that the external portal option provides. The UniFi hotspot and Facebook WiFi, while being functional and effective simply do not provide the scope to maximise the opportunity to create value from the data. The most simple use case here is collecting guest email data for marketing, and to do this you will require an external portal service. That is before you consider all of the other valuable features that you could get from an external portal server for UniFi. The external portal option creates the opportunity to engage much more with the customer
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The Choice - Build vs Buy
The requirement for an external portal service may be clear at this stage, however getting to the end result requires more thought. Here you must consider whether you want to build your own custom external portal or if you would like to buy a ready made UniFi external portal product that will do the job to the same or a higher standard. There area number of factors that you need to consider before making you choice
Building an External Portal Server for UniFi
You may want to build your own external portal server, and there are several reasons for and against this course of action
Reasons to Build:
- When you require something very specific that is not currently available on the market
- You need something to deploy at scale with full control over all aspects
Reasons not to Build
- Lack of Focus – is this your main business
- Opportunity Cost
- Resource Constraints – Time and Money
Buying an External Portal Service for UniFi
If you are consideirng buying a guest portal service for Ubiquiti UniFi networks then you will need to consider the following points
Reasons to Buy
- Ready to Go – need something now
- Known Costs
- Typically much more advanced feature set
- Road tested with UniFi
Reasons not to Buy
- Limited ability to add functionality
- No control over where service is hosted
Other Factors to Consider
Of course it is never as simple as a chart showing you what to do and not do. There are many other factors, some unique to UniFi Guest Portals that should influence your final decision on whether you build your own external portal server or you buy it.
Do you have the Resources
Do you or your team have the resources to build a captive portal service. By resources, we mean time and money. Software development is very expensive and most projects overrun their budgets significantly. Considering the fact that pricing for third party alternatives is usually a low monthly dollar amount
Is software development your core business or do you provide support or services as your main business. Is this really the best way you can use your time, if indeed it is not your main focus. Are there other opportunities that could add more value to your business, considering the low dollar amount of a ready made alternative?
Get ready for the long term
Most of the cost with in house development go towards maintenance, not initial development. This will require interminable recurring costs and a dedicated support function going forward. Server updates, code refactoring, industry change being just a few examples of the types of things that will need regular attention. Going for an off the shelf guest portal solution that is regularly maintained and updated takes all of these worries off the table
Do you really know who I am?
Creating an email field and writing it to a database is one thing, but it is quite another when you or your client uploads all this unverified data to an email marketing platform and attempt to send out an email campaign. Unverified or unclean data will almost certainly trigger spam detection systems and you will find your email marketing account blacklisted before you reach the end of your first day. All email data that you provide your marketing team or client must be verified and clean data. If they use email then they must have went through an email verification step before it can be considered verified
Data Security and GDPR
If you are building your own external portal server service then you will have just undertaken a significant responsibility, that being the security and protection of the data that you hold. Are you ready to build a system to protect the data from attack and make sure that only those who need it, can access it. If your service touches Europe or a European person then you will also need to consider GDPR compliance. While not being a blocker to capturing email on UniFi, you will certainly need to build substantial processes around how you capture, manage and store the data should you opt to build your own external portal.
Moving Fast and Breaking Things
If you are reading this this blog post then you will be familiar with the Ubiquiti UniFi and their range of products. You will also know that they tend to do things differently than many other WiFi vendors and it is this unique approach to R&D that has been the foundation of their growth story into one of the most successful networking companies in the world. Their focus on R&D means they move fast and launch very regular firmware updates for the UniFi controller and the UniFi range. From time to time, some of these updates will disrupt your custom external portal service, and the first you will learn of it will be from an angry customer. You can avoid some of these surprises by taking part in the beta program, but either way you will need to stay very much up to speed on the UniFi firmware releases
Guest Portal for UniFi
Art v Science
You may well be able to build a software app to capture email on UniFi but will it be a good experience for the WiFi guest? Fast, lightweight, mobile first and being able to easily navigate the captive network assistant? What would your marketing team or client like their customers to see when they logon to their WiFi. Being honest, customers would rather captive portals did not exist, however they want something for free – WiFi and the venue wants their data, so it is a trade off. At the very least you should provide a good experience for the WiFi users
License to Share?
As well as email registration you will want to provide a way for WiFi users to register using their social network profiles. Facebook would be the first choice for most, but then you have Google, Instagram, WeChat and many more. Social registration is a must if you are building a consumer facing external portal server for UniFi. Firstly, because it automatically gives you verified and clean data (see above) and secondly, because it provides additional demographic information that your marketing teams will almost certainly want. To be able to provide this as an option, you will need to register you app with all of the social networks you would like to use and complete varying degrees of certification before you will be able to integrate these features
Data Needs Context
Having email data on its own is of limited value, and marketing teams will often want to know more about this customers behaviour, such as:
- When did they sign up?
- How many times have they visited?
- What part of the location did they use?
- When were they last here?
Consider these factors before you embark on your project of building your UniFi external portal service as including these features will significantly increase project scope.
Things never stay still too long in technology and that is also true of Ubqiuiti, who tend to move faster than others. Recently we had a host of issues around DNS and the external portal that flooded the UniFi forums with unhappy posters. Thankfully this issue was resolved after a few weeks, but not without considerable pain for some. The issue wasn’t that serious for companies like MyPlace as we had the systems in place to deal with it. A recently released feature which allows us to test the quality of the UniFi controller connection was very helpful in this scenario. As pointed out above, there are times when using a third party service can really be to your advantage
Dream Machines and Cloud Keys on UniFi OS
As mentioned earlier in the post Ubiquiti do like to move fast with their product ranges. The recent introduction of the UniFi OS platform and the new naming terminology for the various applications is case in point. The new UniFi OS platform completely changed the underlying methodology for how the external portal service operates. At MyPlace we spent considerable time upgrading our applications for the new UniFi OS and so that we could work with UniFi Dream Machines and Gen2 Cloud Keys. This highlights one of the key advantages in buying an external portal service as you automatically keep up to date with all new UniFi products and features
Which is best?
So there we have it. All the reasons for and against buying a captive portal service over nuilding your own. Every use case is different. We at MyPlace are biased obviously howver we would say that unless you need some level of configuration that is not commercially available then you shoudl almost certianly just pay a small monthly fee for an off the shelf product. ON the other side, if your requirements are really simple and commercial alternatives have more features than you need then maybe building you own is a good option. Either way, we hope that this post has been a useful guide to help you make the decision.