Luxul manufactures Wi-Fi and wired networking solutions that include products aimed at the custom residential integration market. A robust IT infrastructure, once the domain of computer networking specialists and custom integration professionals working in the commercial sector, is rapidly becoming the standard backbone for a range of custom residential projects, including whole-house automation, security systems, and even the control of elaborate entertainment systems.
Just a few short years ago, integrators could get away with setting up a simple home network featuring an over-the-counter router and modem, but with the proliferation of mobile devices, network-enabled consumer products such as televisions and gaming consoles, and a host of CI grade network-ready components, this setup is no match for the amount of bandwidth now required to have all of these products smoothly operate, cleanly deliver content, and interact with other devices on the network.
“Custom integrators are typically more familiar with installing security, home automation and AV systems than they are with IP networking,” noted Stu Tisdale, senior product manager, intrusion and networking for ADI. “Many integrators are not aware of all the connectivity solutions that are available, so they often tend to rely on internet provider router/Wi-Fi devices that may not provide the optimum range and bandwidth needed for today’s content-rich communications. They need to really understand that if they offer solutions to improve bandwidth and range, they can “own the network” in the home and provide better network connectivity for their customers which will open up new opportunities.”
Network Planning & Design
Aaron Gutin, vice president of sales for Access Networks, a California-based company that offers pre-programmed networking solutions for the custom electronics industry, is aware of the challenge facing custom integrators tasked with creating a viable IT infrastructure, noting that “integrators everywhere have had to cram a lot of learning into a 10-year timespan.”
With networking and IT services now a vital part of whole-home automation, Gutin emphasized the need for integrators to intricately plan and design their networks before delving into a project. “Proper planning and design are essential to creating an IT infrastructure that will support the needs of each individual project,” he said. “The number of connected devices and the unique needs of the homeowner, as well as building materials and square footage must all be taken into consideration in order to ensure that the network can meet the requirements of the home it is deployed in.”
Part of that planning is being full acquainted with your connectivity options, including cables, and networking components and products, as highlighted by ADI’s Tisdale, who noted that “integrators need to understand the enormous value of using Wi-Fi and/or AC powerline Ethernet communications for AV, HD entertainment video, security, door locks, and other IP signals. Either of these technologies greatly reduces the need to pull additional cables in existing or new homes, which will dramatically lower the installation time and associated costs, making new systems more attractive to end-users.”
Pakedge, a manufacturer of networking products, encourages a hands-on experience once an integrator has come to grips with the products they are implementing. Martin Boulter, customer services manager for Luxul, a manufacturer of Wi-Fi and wired networking solutions that include products aimed at the custom residential integration market, believes that familiarity with the basic components that comprise a robust network is key.
“It’s important to understand that all networking gear is not made equal, and equipment choice will impact installation complexity, network performance, and the overall customer experience,” Boulter said before going on to explain the significance of the modem, router, switch, and wireless access point to a robust system, with Tisdale adding PoE and a practical programming knowledge of services such as DHCP, DNS, and NAT to that list.
Understanding Bandwidth and IP Addressing
Whether you are using a network built with over-the- counter components or one designed and constructed by a pro, the bandwidth capacity–the amount of data that can be transmitted in a fixed amount of time, usually measured in bits per second–will soon tell you if your IT infrastructure is up to the task. Just ask any consumer who has tried to stream a Netflix or Amazon Instant video on a network with low bandwidth; the consequences are dire and frustrating.
“CIs need to understand bandwidth, and how much load their system designs are putting on the infrastructure,” said Capitol's president and CFO, Curt Hayes. “Whether designing a wired or wireless system, if your required bandwidth is more than your network infrastructure can provide, you’re going to have major issues.”
Also of importance to custom integrators moving into network planning and design, is knowledge of IP networking, which Tisdale noted “can help efficiently deliver network solutions that will make a client’s AV, security and home automation applications sing.”
An IP address is given to every device that connects to the internet. For private networks (or local area networks), such as those used in whole home control systems, an IP address starts with 10.x.x.x, 172.16.x.x, 192.168.x.x, or 169.254.x.x, meaning it is not routable on the internet, as Luxul’s Boulter explained.
“All other IP address ranges are publicly routable and should not be used in internal networks,” Boulter continued. “Sub netting is used to break down an IP scheme to limit the amount of active addresses. This is mostly used to manage the number of devices allowed on the network. For instance, with an IP scheme of 192.168.0.0 and a subnet mask of 255.255.255.0 there are 254 usable addresses. However, if we change the subnet to 255.255.0.0, there are now 65,536 available addresses.”
Proper IP addressing eliminates device communication conflicts on the network and facilitates seamless data transfer between components within the system. Understanding the schematic nature of IP addressing is critical to troubleshooting any problems that may arise on the network.
“Respect the network,” Tisdale said. “IP networking is integral to most clients’ lives, with the use of PCs, laptops, smartphones, and other Ethernet devices within their home. Integrators need to be knowledgeable about what they are doing so that the addition of the integrator’s devices and connectivity doesn’t have a negative impact on the other IP communications that the client relies on daily. Examples of some common errors include IP address duplication, changing of Wi-Fi security settings, and duplication of Wi-Fi RF channels.”
Network Tests and Maintenance
A significant differentiator between off-the-shelf network devices and a professional-designed and implemented one is, as Access Networks’ Gutin noted, a path for swift issue identification and resolution.
Access Networks, a California-based company that offers pre-programmed networking solutions for the custom electronics industry, is aware of the challenges facing custom integrators tasked with creating a viable IT infrastructure. “Without being able to review a detailed log of the events that have occurred on the network, the integrator is forced to guess at what might be causing the reported issue, rather than having the advantage of working with equipment that can actually tell them what is happening,” Gutin said. “This approach yields nothing but lost time and money for everyone involved–the end-user and the integrator.”
For Gutin, the implementation of enterprise grade network equipment coupled with IT experts on staff is the right combination for integrators to grow their knowledge base and deliver strong net profits on each project.
Trained integrators can also test their networks in a variety ways. As suggested by Tisdale, Wi- Fi coverage can be checked using a laptop and freeware software, while AC powerline devices often come equipped with a self-test method.
“In either case, technicians should test for the planned connectivity type at the spots were devices are to be located,” Tisdale said. “In the event of inferior Wi-Fi coverage, integrators should be prepared with a back-up plan which would involve the installation of one or more additional Wi-Fi access points to ‛spread’ the Wi-Fi coverage.”
An integrator’s ability to test the home network is seen as a good add-on service by Boulter, who said it is a way for the installer to “not only validate the installation for his own purposes, but also as a way to add value and credibility by demonstrating to the customer what can be expected from the network installation,” before noting several network testing tools, including KPerf/IPerf (for bandwidth testing), Ekahau Heatmapper (a wireless network survey tool), and Zenmap, which scans public or private IP Addresses to verify that a port is active and open.
Training and Experience
Creating a home network is one of those tasks that can seem simple at the outset, but can quickly grow entangling tentacles as a project widens in scope. As with all things worth knowing, training and practice make perfect.
To that end, CEDIA’s Residential Networking Specialist credential has been heralded by Luxul and Access Networks as a good starting point for integrators that already understand the fundamentals of networking. Curriculum based, the credential covers network infrastructure (testing and troubleshooting); network configuration, including VLANs, QoS, security, and remote access; wireless networking technologies, infrastructure and design; and network design practice.
“To provide clients with a truly robust and reliable enterprise-grade network, integrators have two choices,” Gutin said. “One choice is to educate themselves with CEDIA curriculum like the Residential Networking Specialist Credential and/ or to obtain the networking certifications (e.g., Cisco Systems CCNA, CCNP, etc.) offered by the manufacturer they choose to work with. The benefits of a high-level education in the methods, standards, and application of IT solutions are clear, but also requires real-world experience to be successful, which takes time. Depending on the size of the integration firm, the process of education and acquiring real-world experience can be taxing on the integrator’s available manpower and therefore, productivity, but it can also be highly valuable.”
Olivia Dumanovsky, marketing associate for Pakedge, a manufacturer of networking products, is all for the hands-on experience once an integrator has come to grips with the products they are implementing.
“[Integrators] need to explore the products they are using, understand them, learn about the device’s processor, it’s speed, limitations,” Dumanovsky said. “Install it in their house or showroom. There are no short cuts. It’s hard at first, but it becomes really easy very quickly. Choose a manufacturer that provides products with a very easy setup, so you have the opportunity to learn and grow and eventually master. It's easy to find a guy to do all the work for you, but if you choose a manufacturer that provides guidance, you will never want to hire someone else again!”
Llanor Alleyne is a contributing editor to Residential Systems, currently living in Barbados.