Part 1 of 4 part series.
With AV, security, and home automation systems all running over IP networks, professional installers have a tremendous opportunity to grow their businesses by offering networking solutions. While installing an IP network can be a daunting task for the uninitiated, by understanding the purpose and function of a few key components—as well as what to look for when selecting those components—a professional installer can easily learn to deliver reliable and powerful IP networking solutions. With this in mind, as a professional installer, the primary components with which you should become familiar are as follows:
Modem: Converts the incoming signal from an internet service provider (ISP) to IP traffic. Depending on the type of connection, the modem may be for cable, DSL, fiber, or even satellite.
Router (or Gateway): The primary interface between the Internet (via the Modem) and the local area network (LAN), providing IP services such as assigning IP addresses to client devices, network security and controlling access to the network.
Ethernet Switch: Connects devices on the local network and is typically attached directly to the Router.
Wireless Access Point (AP): Provides wireless network access to devices on the local network and can be connected as a device on a Switch or directly to the Router.
Client Devices: Any device that connects to the network either via Ethernet cable or wirelessly. Client devices include Tablets, Smart Phones, Laptops, VoIP Phones, Security Systems, Streaming Media and Gaming Solutions, etc.
Typical IP Networking Components and Topology
Once you understand the primary components that go into an IP network, how do you determine which components to choose? As an installer, the first thing to understand is that all networking gear is not made equal and equipment choice will impact installation complexity, network performance, and the overall customer experience. Let’s further explore each of these components and discuss the various options and things to look for in selecting the right products for your installation.
Most internet service providers (ISPs) have limited Modem options available and it is important to research those options in order to best meet the customer’s needs. Many ISPs also offer an “all-in-one” option that includes a Modem, Router, and Wireless Access Point in a single device. These devices are good for small networks of perhaps 5 to 10 client devices, but as the number of devices in the network increase, these all-in-one devices are quickly overwhelmed and performance is compromised. Think about the number of IP devices (i.e. smart phones, tablets, computers, gaming systems, media servers, etc.) an average family of 4 might use on the network and that number gets above 10 very quickly. Because of this, we always recommend stepping up to a standalone Modem either from the ISP or from a 3rd party (check with the ISP to see what standalone Modems are supported). This option does require a separate Router to perform the Local Area Network (LAN) functions, but results in a network that can handle a significantly higher load. The next step up from the standalone Modem is a multi-connection gateway. However, this is something most custom installers would not need to be familiar with as such systems are typically only viable in large business environments.
When a Modem connects to the Internet it is issued a single publicly routable IP Address. A Router is then used to allow multiple devices to share that one publicly routable address through a process called Network Address Translation (NAT). In addition Routers typically provide a number of other network services, including:
Domain Name Service (DNS), which allows a website name (rather than the public IP address) to be typed into the Web Browsers address bar.
Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), which issues an automated IP Address to client devices that connect to the private network.
Firewall services to protect the private network from attacks targeting your public IP Address.
VPN for secure remote access into the local network
Because the Router is such a critical component of the network, Router choice can make or break the network. A device that combines multiple functions (i.e. the 3-in-1 device mentioned above or a wireless Router) can make for a less than stellar user experience due to insufficient memory and/or processing capability. Using separate dedicated devices that handle the processing and memory load for each specific function can significantly increase the number of devices a network can accommodate and improve the user experience. Additionally, the ideal placement of the Wireless AP may not be the best location for the Modem and/or Router. Separating these functions allows you to optimize the performance of your AP. As a general rule:
Multi-function devices are good for small networks with 5-10 devices
Consumer class standalone Routers typically handle 10-50 devices
Business class Routers are more robust, often supporting 250 or more devices
Having a solid understanding of various Router options and capabilities, while being able to select the right Router for your customer’s requirements is essential to the overall network performance and user experience.
An Ethernet Switch is required when the number of Router ports is not sufficient to provide connections to all the devices on a network. Switches are the backbone of the private network, allowing locally connected devices to talk to each other as well as access Router services. There are two primary types of Switches:
Unmanaged (sometimes referred to as dumb) Switches provide simple plug and play connectivity between devices on the network.
Managed (smart) Switches allow you to enhance the user experience by optimizing the network for certain applications. Common Managed Switch features include:
- Quality of Services (QoS) Settings: Useful for prioritizing certain types of network traffic, such as VoIP phone services, to ensure such traffic gets through first.
- Virtual Local Area Network (VLAN) Support: Allows partitioning of ports in a large Switch into multiple logical smaller Switches that cannot speak with each other, but still share a single connection to the internet. This is useful for setting up dedicated networks with different functions (i.e. guest network).
- Security Features such as Media Access Control Binding (MAC Binding) and Radius Server authentication.
Another thing to consider is the Switch speed. Fast Ethernet (10/100 Mbps) Switches are a cost-effective common standard. However, for high data usage (i.e. streaming media servers) Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 Mbps) is typically the best option. Also, be sure the Switch supports full upstream and downstream bandwidth (sometimes referred to as non-blocking architecture).
Wireless Access Points (AP)
Think of a Wireless AP as a switch that does not require network devices to have a physical connection. As there are a number of wireless networking methods and technologies—each with its own advantages and disadvantages—we will cover this topic in greater detail in a future article. For now, we will simply discuss the basic issues to be considered.
With Wireless Networking there is no “one size fits all” solution. APs come in a wide variety of flavors, form factors, and performance options. Consider the following when selecting an AP:
Coverage Area: Output power, type of antennas used and the technology standards implemented all play a role in how much coverage you can expect with a given AP. For example, a standard consumer-grade AP typically has 100mW of output power and will reasonably cover 2000+ square feet. A high powered AP, such as the Luxul Xen™ XAP series provides 1000mW of output power and will typically cover 10,000 square feet or more.
AP Placement: Depending on where the AP will be placed can determine the type of AP to use. For example, if placed in the center of the desired coverage area, an AP with omnidirectional antennas is optimal; while placement at the edge of desired coverage is better served with the use of a directional antenna. AP aesthetics may also play a role in the selection process if placement must be on a wall, ceiling or other high traffic area.
Environmental Issues: The environment can play a role in determining which AP to use. Outdoor implementations will certainly require an outdoor rated AP. For indoor applications, the type of construction can impact the effectiveness of wireless signals and determine the choice of AP. There are a number of wireless survey tools that can help identify environmental issues as well as be used to demonstrate network reach and effectiveness to the customer. These tools include Kperf/Iperf, InSSIDer, and Ekahau Heatmapper.
At the end of the day, the only real reason to setup an IP Network is to enable the efficient use of Client Devices. Whether the application is security, entertainment, VoIP, home control, or just plain internet access, a successful installation is dependent not only on the quality of the network itself, but also on the devices used on the network. Regardless of how well the network performs, devices selected for use on the network can make or break the customer experience.
While installers don’t always have control over the Client Devices being used on a network, in cases where devices are provided (i.e. security cameras, control panels, AV equipment, etc.), be sure to use products that are proven to function well in IP networking environments. With wireless devices—especially those that are mobile—this becomes even more important. As with all networking equipment, networking devices are not all created equal and some perform much better than others.
Common Client Devices that Run on an IP Network
For professional installers, IP networking is as complex or as simple as you make it. While it takes time and effort to become proficient at network implementation, focusing on and learning the basics goes a long way towards delivering a solution that satisfies the needs of the majority of your customers.