By Steve Crabb, User Experience Manager
There are myriad guides and courses about network design, but most are written for IT professionals and require countless hours of study and practice. In this article we’re taking a less scary approach, introducing some basic networking concepts while providing some tips on how to evaluate your customers’ needs and choose components that will help you build a great network that delivers the optimal user experience.
As with any integration project, a new network design should start with talking to your customer to really understand his/her needs. What kinds of applications do they intend to use? How many users will be on the network simultaneously? Will remote access be required? Are there any physical site conditions that may present challenges? Finally, is there a target budget, and do those budget expectations fit the intended applications? With answers to these types of questions, you can design a network that best meets your customer’s needs and expectations.
Basic Network Components
Every network needs a few basic components including a router, switch, wireless access points and cabling. Often some of these devices are combined for simplicity or to save cost, but it’s important to understand that combo devices can also compromise performance or flexibility, so be selective. Let’s take a look at each component separately and which questions to ask so you can choose the right one for a customer’s needs.
The network router is the traffic cop that controls all the traffic into and out of a local network. Because the router is literally the gateway to the internet, it can make or break internet performance. Routers are often provided by ISPs as part of the modem used to connect to the internet service, but in most cases those routers significantly compromise network performance. Fortunately, these router/modem combos can be configured to work along with a high-quality network router to simultaneously eliminate the bottleneck and add advanced networking capabilities.
Network Router Considerations
Will your customer require remote access to a file server or other network devices when they’re off-site? A router with VPN capabilities will offer secure remote access, while also giving you the ability to offer remote support or diagnostic services.
Does your customer have a mission-critical business or application that can’t afford outages? Integrate a router with multi-WAN capability to load-balance and share network traffic between two ISPs, or set it up in a “failover” configuration where one ISP acts as a primary and the other as a secondary ISP in the event the first one goes down.
Adding a high-quality router enhances network performance, improves security and adds advanced networking capabilities.
The Wired Network
The Ethernet switch is the backbone that connects network devices together to make the physical network. Whereas a router can determine internet performance, a switch is crucial to local network performance. Ethernet switches come in a variety of form factors in a range of different speeds and capabilities, including Gigabit, managed and unmanaged varieties, models with and without PoE (Power over Ethernet), models which are stackable (expandable), and more.
Gigabit Ethernet is the standard for moving large amounts of data across a network. To support Gigabit speeds, you’ll need Cat 5e or Cat 6 cabling for best performance. Don’t skimp on cabling and be sure to buy Ethernet cable from a reputable manufacturer.
Not every part of a network needs to be Gigabit. You can substitute smaller low-cost switches in some non-bandwidth intensive “edge of network” applications like point-of-sale or display signage. This can often be useful to preserve budget for more resource-intensive parts of the network.
PoE combines power and data on the same cable to eliminate the “wall wart,” which can be extremely helpful when devices like Wi-Fi access points or security cameras need to be installed in ceilings where it is often difficult to locate and/or run direct power. There are numerous problem-solving PoE devices, from remote network switches and wireless access points to security cameras, speakers, and more.
Ethernet switches can also be unmanaged or managed. A managed switch adds advanced capabilities to a local network, like VLANs (Virtual Local Area Networks) to isolate devices or create private guest networks. It sounds complicated, but a managed switch is like powerful router for the local network.
Wired Network Considerations
Will the customer network need to support PoE devices like IP cameras? Will the network need advanced capabilities like multiple VLANs or private guest networks? Are there areas of the network where lower-bandwidth infrastructure will save budget resources and still adequately support the customer’s application? Asking these questions and selecting the right Ethernet switch(es) and cabling is crucial to creating a high-quality wired network.
The Wireless Network
With the proliferation of phones, tablets, notebook computers and other mobile devices, no modern network is complete without wireless capabilities. Designing a wireless network is a subject deserving of its own article, and in fact the August 2015 IPIQ titled “Understanding Wireless AP Placement” covers physical wireless network design in more depth. For the purposes of this article we will just cover some of the basics.
When you’re designing a Wi-Fi physical network, consider how devices roam and ensure your access points won’t be too far apart or too close together. Wireless access point placement is both art and science. Because construction style, materials, and site conditions vary from one project to the next, you can’t simply call your network equipment vendor and ask how many APs you’ll need for an install. However, you can provide good information about size, layout, and construction, and your vendor should be able to help you make better decisions about placement. As you’re installing a customer’s system, or even before you begin design or installation, there are several third-party software tools you can use to help evaluate site conditions, map and analyze Wi-Fi coverage and bandwidth network performance.
Wireless access points are available with a wide range of features and capabilities. The most advanced access points offer high power and the latest technologies like dual-band 802.11ac with Beamforming for maximum coverage. More powerful access points will serve a lobby full of media-hungry customers waiting for tables, while a value-oriented access point will be adequate for a seldom-used conference room.
Access points are also available in weather-proof enclosures with directional antenna coverage patterns, purpose-designed for adding network coverage to outdoor spaces. Bridging outdoor access points can be used in pairs to extend a wired network over a distance—commonly used to connect an outbuilding to a main facility.
In installations with multiple access points, be sure to use a wireless controller. Wireless clients are designed to “stick” to an access point, which isn’t usually ideal in today’s larger wireless network installations. The right wireless controller can help nudge client devices along to a better wireless access point and ensure your customers have the best possible mobile wireless network experience. A wireless controller also makes wireless network deployment and maintenance faster and simpler.
Wireless Network Considerations
Have you surveyed the customer site and do you understand how the construction will affect wireless coverage? How many clients will the wireless network need to serve? What kinds of applications will be used; is the network general-use, or will high-bandwidth applications such as streaming-media frequently be necessary? Will the customer need outdoor coverage for a patio or other outdoor space? Will the customer’s network require multiple access points to provide adequate coverage and network capacity?
To deploy a wireless network that meets your customer’s needs, understand how the wireless network will be used. Select the access points which are best-suited for the customer’s requirements and budget.
Building an IP network can be a challenge, so partner with a vendor that can give you personal attention and support, and one that offers regular training covering everything from the basics to more advanced subjects like secure remote access and guest networking. Asking the right questions and selecting the right components will go a long way toward creating a solid network. Working with a vendor that understands your needs and goes the extra mile will help you to design and install the network your customers need and deserve.