I was recently asked to comment on designing and building a home network. Most of the articles you will find on the internet originate from America and tend to favor either multi-million rand properties, or wooden cabins, neither which is applicable for the typical gamer in South Africa. This article refers to a typical home that is still in development / planning phase. However, with some little ingenuity one could modify the various pointers to fit an existing building as well.
The article assumes little experience from the user but should also hold something in for the advance user. Also note that with a little bit of patience, some basic handyman skill, some hardware tools, most of this could be performed by oneself.
Eight-oh-what? Fear not, the 802.11 is the standard for wireless connections. Typically, the number 802.11 is followed by a letter, “a”, “b”, “g”, “n”. These all depict different protocols relating different speed and different security measures. The “n” standard is the latest uber standard, the bandwidth for 802.11n is effectively able to transmit full HD.
Now, let us get one thing clear, why you need wires running throughout the house if you could do it wirelessly? Let us ignore the security, range issues, and sometimes difficulty to setup, and focus on the more important issue at hand, and that is latency and packet loss. Latency refers in simplistic terms the time it will take a packet to go from one device to another. This is typically measured in milliseconds, when receiving emails having to wait 50ms longer will not end the world, however, having a latency of 50ms (on top of your internet service providers’ connection’s latency) while playing a first person shooter is just morally unacceptable and will definitely lead to your ultimate demise. Latency is the key reason why competitive gaming over wireless is never recommended. Even the best wireless devices today still introduce considerably more latency than wired connections. The other problem refers to packet loss, somebody switch on a microwave in the kitchen, and suddenly the micro-waves interference with the wireless connection caused several packets to be lost, for online gaming, that could mean the deciding factor between killing or dying.
However, saying the above, there are no doubt about the elegance and beauty of having the ability to sit on a couch, pick up one’s I-Pad, and browse the internet without having to connect via 3G or via wires. The nice thing about having a wired network at home, one could easily plug in a wireless access point in any of the rooms and then all wireless devices becomes part of the wired network and visa-versa.
Bits and bytes
A brief technical explanation of bits and bytes, there are 8 bits in a byte. The writing of bits and bytes confused even very technical people. The following table should clarify the differences:
Letter Technical Meaning Description
K Kilo 1,000 units, thousand
M Mega 1,000,000 units, million
G Giga 1,000,000,000 units, billion
T Tera 1,000,000,000,000 units
P Peta 1,000,000,000,000,000 units
b bit 1/8th of a byte, 0 or 1
B Byte 8 bits
Effectively a bit is depicted via a small letter “b” while a byte is a capital “B”. In other words Mb and MB is not the same thing. I get extremely frustrated when people say they have a 4MB (Megabyte) ADSL line, because that is just not available in South Africa. The fastest line available is a 4Mb (Megabit) line, which equate to merely half a mega byte. On a side note, a small letter “m” refers to milli, capital M refers to Mega.
You wanna do WHAT with my cat? CAT merely refers to a type of cable typically used for networking. The 5e refers to the different protocols applicable. The latest CAT cables are CAT-7 classified, but they are ridiculously expensive thus immediately out of our project. CAT-6 is the next best, and allows for higher theoretical throughput than CAT5. CAT5 however is relatively cheap and more than sufficient for our needs. The network cable running between your PC and your ADSL is most likely a CAT-5 cable.
Since we are in the planning phases of a home network, we need to ask what will this network be used for and while I am busy, should I not perhaps lay down this or that wire as well. It is an important question, since the kind of additional wires that you could potentially require will depend a lot on what else the network will be used for. Will you use the same network for an alarm system, CCTV, control the light settings, control the garage door or just control the curtains? These are all vital questions that need to be answered. Most of these could run via a normal LAN, but you may want a dedicated network for your audio, a dedicated network for HDMI, and a dedicated network for your computers, and in that case, you may consider buying a single cable that incorporates all these different kinds of cables, at a hefty premium of course.
Most digital device manufacturers use an 8P8C (often incorrectly referred as an RJ45 connection) and this signal could be carried from CAT5, CAT6, or CAT7 cables. The size of your wallet will determine the kind of cable to use however, CAT5 and CAT5e is by far the cheaper option and is well suited for Gigabit speed transfers.
The switch is really the backbone of the network where all the connections eventually terminate. Switches predominately come in two different flavors, managed switches and unmanaged switches. With an hybrid called a smart switch sitting between the two. Unless you really going into some hectic network designs and routing tables, an unmanaged switch will suffice. As one person once said, “it just works”, so let’s stick with that. The next decision to make is whether you want to get 100Mb or a 1Gb switch. With a 100Mb switch, you will achieve around 12MB per second, whereas on a 1Gb switch, you could be looking at around 120MB. In most cases, a 100Mb connection will suffice which is the reason why most corporate companies still only have a 100Mb LAN, however, given the small price difference between a 100Mb switch and that of a 1Gb switch, the 1Gb switch will ensure better future proofing especially when HD content gets streamed from a file server. The other benefit of having a 1Gb switch, you could brag with your boss that you have a faster network at home…
The idea is that all the wires from all the different rooms come together at a single point. Preferable this point is centrally located thereby reducing the total length of cables required. The perfect location for a distribution box is one that is out of sight and preferably in a place that is rarely accessed. Think the room underneath the stairs, or the top shelf of your closet, some people even installed their distribution boxes inside their roofs. If you do it correctly, you will not need to access the distribution box for a long time.
Heat, all electronic components generate heat. A switch and router generally tend to generate very little heat and most switches do come standard with a build in fan so you do not need to install dedicated fans for it. DLink have introduced a “green” series of switches which reduces the power in standby mode on the switch thereby keeping the switch cooler in the process as well. Irrespective, I would still just check initially to ensure the switch doesn’t overheat thus burning your house down.
One doesn’t need to have the ADSL router in or close to the distribution box, but I found that this reduces the clutter in and around the house especially if one doesn’t use the telephone. Should the telephone be used on a different place, then why not use the network we building now for exactly that purpose and still have the ADSL router sitting wherever you want it to sit?
Cable management is the art of trying to keep a messy bunch of cables neat. To that end, we really need to separate it out into 3 different areas. The first area for us to consider is the distribution box. If in future anything goes wrong with the network, then you would need to isolate the problematic cable with the minimum amount of fuss as possible.
Cable Management: Distribution Box:
Ideally, depending on the size of the network, one should consider getting a patch panel since that will just do wonders for cable management at the distribution box. (Example of some panels here) Effectively all the cables then terminate at the back of the patch panel. From the patch panel you just need a short network cable (also Cat5e) from the patch panel to the switch. A 24 port patch panel will set you back around R500 which in the greater scheme of things is not that bad.
Cable Management: In the room:
The next point is where the other end of the cable terminates, preferable there where the computer or other electronic device will be used. Now, since we are trying to do this professionally, you do not want to have a cable dangling from the roof, instead, you would want to have a nice wall socket, that if you would want to use the computer in that room, you plug in a short patch cable (a patch cable is just a meter or two normal CAT5 cable) from the wall into your computer. A suggestion, placing this jack close to the power outlet tends to assist with cable management of the computer since you will in any event need to run a power cable to the back of your computer. CBI-Electric, the makers of light switches, electronic sockets etc, have a range of RJ45 connections that fit in with their standard face plates, thereby making the network fit in seamlessly with the rest of the house’ electrical outlets.
Cable Management: Cables
The final point in the cable management section is how to actually run the cables. You are really restricted to two points, either you could run it through the roof, or alternatively, you could run it underneath your floors. The kind of property you build will really determine the best solution here. Should you run it underneath the floor, then you definitely need to think carefully what happens if for some reason you need to replace that cable. Ideally, if you need to run it underneath the floor, ensure that you have dedicated ducts for them, similar to that used for electricity, so that replacing the cable could be done with minimum issues. I would not suggest running the CAT5 cables in the same duct as that of your electricity, since the electrical interference could interfere with the quality of the signal, and in some countries it may actually be against the law to run both cables in the same duct.
The other option, which is probably the easiest, is to run the network cables through the roof. If you opted to use the top of your closet for the distribution box, then all that you need to do is drill a hole through the ceiling, and start feeding the cables through. The easiest way to get the cable from the top of the roof, to a nice “wall-socket” height, will be via a duct. This duct is normally cut into the brick work, just before plastering commence. I would suggest something like 20mm diameter PVC pipes will suffice.
If you do decide to install a network, then try and future proof it the first time round as much as possible. Just because you think you will never in your life need a network point in that room, doesn’t mean you should not install a network point there. It is a lot easier to install it now while the builders are busy building than what it will be in future. Some countries already have fridges, alarms, tv’s and I am sure somewhere a toaster, connected to the internet.
Since you will be going through the trouble in any event, I would also suggest that instead of just a single 1Gb connection in each room, to actually run two cables. This will allow you in future to use 1 connection for say a TV and the other one for a computer, or should one of the cables die for whatever reason in the middle of a game, you could quickly switch over to the backup connection and continue.
Assuming the installation of the ducts is part of the building quotation, which should happen preferably the same time as the electrician installs his ducts in the wall, then the only other costs involved is the hardware required (switch, patch panel, network sockets, face plates, cables) and the labour to get everything connected.
The labour involved is really dependant on whether or not one connects the wires oneself or if you get a professional involved. Professional installers will charge a premium but the benefit of this is that the workmanship is guaranteed (or at least it should be) and that the cable management portion is sorted out and neat, but more importantly it will be quicker.
However, saying that, it is really not that difficult to make the connections oneself. All you need to do this successfully is a couple of tools, (explained below) and a lot of spare time. The tools you require for doing networking are a crimping tool (~R250), a network testing kit (~R150), and a small screwdriver (~R35). Wikipedia have a great article on exactly how to wire up a network cable which is really the most difficult part of the whole process. The rest is really just a matter of patience.
The other costs that you will need to take into consideration is the cost of wall sockets (~R75 / point), the cost of CAT-5 network cable, ~R3.50 per meter, a switch (~R500 for an 8 port switch, ~R2000 for a 24 port switch), patch panel (~R500 for a 24 port), and that is really all there is to it.
If you have any questions or queries on this article, please feel free to drop a note below.