Getting connected, now and into the future
As reliance on home connectivity grows, Geoff Meads takes a look at the five main design considerations for building your next home network.
If there’s one lesson we can take from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s that the home network is no longer an optional luxury. It is now an essential utility. With more of us working permanently or more regularly from home, network design and installation has never been a more important service for integrators to offer.
So how to do we go about designing a great network? How can we design a system that, not only works well now, but also offers flexibility and reliability in the future?
Let’s look at the most important design considerations for any network project.
The Incoming Service
The first question we must ask is where the incoming service (the Internet connection) terminates. We call this the ‘demarcation point’ and it is where legal responsibility for cables and equipment changes for the service provider to the homeowner.
Unless the house is a new build project it is often impossible or, at least, very expensive to get the service provider to move their connection point. However, if we can either move it to be close to our network ‘head end’ or install the
head end close to the demarcation point this will provide the router with the best quality incoming signal to work with.
The Head End
The ‘head end’ is the central cabinet where we will install the main network components. Typically, this includes the router, switches, wireless management controller and NAS drives. It will often be a small rack that may or may not contain other types of equipment too.
While access will not be needed to the head-end on a regular basis it should still be accessible for service, upgrades and easy power cycling.
Several locations are commonly used. Cupboards close to the incoming service termination point are useful since this keeps the connection from the service to the router short. This is preferred for fast, reliable internet connectivity. Other options include basements, loft spaces and under-stairs cupboards.
Wherever the head end is positioned, we also need to plan to locate our infrastructure patch panels close by. These patch panels are where the ‘horizontal’ cables (those in the walls that run out to the wall sockets in each room) terminate. These are brought into a patch panel so they can easily be patched into the network equipment in the network rack.
Who, where & when?
One option when planning a network is to simply ‘flood’ a property with cabling in the hope that there will always be an available cable somewhere close to where it might be needed. However, there are much better methodologies. A far better approach is to think carefully about how the home network will be used, by whom and when.
A good starting point is to create a simple ‘heat map’ of the home. This can be based on a floor plan. We start by marking up the plan with a time period (say ‘breakfast period’) then mark the plan with details of who will be in what area of the plan and what they may be doing on the network. We then create similar heat maps for each individual time of the day (say ‘morning’, ‘lunchtime’, ‘early afternoon’ and so on). These maps clearly show how busy each physical part of the network might be at any given time.
This kind of heat map will also illustrate the type of device and type of connectivity in use. For example, how much WiFi bandwidth is being used in a specific area at a given time. If there are budget constraints this means money can be allocated to higher specification Wireless Access Points in busy areas while fitting lesser spec ones in low use areas.
Put simply, a ‘trunk route’ is a traffic connection that will experience a higher level of usage than others.
A great example might be a wired connection between the main head end of the home and a local switch within a home office. As the local office switch will be dealing with multiple devices (PC, printer etc.) the traffic from all of these devices, for both internet access and connection to other LAN devices in the main house, will combine over the single connection back to the head end.
Where trunk routes exist, we should consider carefully the cabling scheme we install along these routes. It may be prudent to uprate these connections (from Cat6 to Cat6a for example). Or, if very high usage or long run lengths are anticipated, a fibre optic connection is now a very practical solution.
As a final consideration for trunk routes we should also consider a higher number of redundant cables running for each trunk route. If you normally fit two category cables along each route a trunk route might be better with three or four cables to ensure there is always a spare cable or two along the most important routes. These can be then brought into use if other cables fail.
Many customers (and some installers) try to tackle WiFi coverage as the first stage of a network design when, in fact, it’s perhaps best considered as the last in the design process. While this approach may seem a little ‘backwards’ it really helps to focus our design towards pushing as many host devices as possible onto wired connections where they belong. This is especially true for Smart TV’s and other high bandwidth devices that remain physically static.
Considerations for WiFi coverage can be as simple as ‘how do I cover the whole property with a single wireless network?’ However, we can add in some subtlety here to make the system both more effective and flexible.
Firstly, we can consider and eliminate any areas that really do not need coverage. For example, the perimeter of a large room may not need good coverage. After all, people rarely stand against a wall of a large room unless, perhaps at a feature window seat or similar. We can also de-emphasise the coverage in doorways and some hallways.
Secondly, we can think about the most likely areas of rooms to be used. For example, in a large living space, areas such as seating and / or tables often need the best coverage while high traffic walkways are not so important.
Finally, consider the less obvious areas of use. These include beds (where clients check their phone first and last thing in the day) and, of course, toilets and bathrooms…
By taking a pro-active, user centric approach to design, we avoid missing those last-minute client needs and can also design for future expandability. The resulting installation will offer great network service from day one and into the future too.
With more of our time being spent at home, for both family time and working hours, a fast and reliable network remains the most important sub-system we can provide to our customers. These design considerations will really help you achieve superior network performance.