The Weak Link in the Chain

Technology IoT & Networking


The Weak Link in the Chain


connected devices can't function properly without a robust network


By Steve Crabb


Networking Basics
 

In my last installment, we waded into the shallow end of the pool, exploring how so many devices in the modern home touch the network and why a robust, secure and monitored network is important in today’s connected luxury residence. Let’s dive into the deeper end of the pool now and explore the subject in a little more detail.

According to the research company Gartner, the number of IoT (Internet of Things) devices has grown from eight billion to more than double that in just the last couple of years. With 5G on the horizon, that number is expected to keep growing exponentially. Today, almost every room in the house (and even some that aren’t inside!) have a couple of networked devices in them. In a 5G world, just imagine for example that every lighting fixture will itself be connected directly to the network via wireless communication. But it isn’t just about the number of devices. It is also the types of devices that require a good network, for many different reasons.

smart homes and smart devices

There is now an incredible array of smart home devices which rely on the internet for connectivity and “smart” functionality. From smart door locks, sprinkler controllers and garage door openers to lighting, thermostats and security. Most of these devices don’t just employ network connectivity to “work”, but also leverage online “cloud” services to work in a more intelligent manner; hence the “smart” moniker.

Smart thermostats use online weather data combined with consumption tracking to “learn” a home’s efficiency and make predictions about how to adjust HVAC systems to enhance both comfort and efficiency. Likewise, smart sprinkler controllers also use weather data to adjust irrigation schedules. When the weather is cool and overcast, scheduled watering can be skipped, saving money and reducing water consumption. These devices aren’t so smart if they can’t connect to the internet. Not only are some of the “smart” functions disabled, but remote control won’t work either; you won’t be setting the thermostat or opening the garage door for anybody on the way home from grandma’s house. From the remotely-accessible front gate to the automated, remotely-monitored wine cellar, it all needs a great internet connection—or it won’t be so smart.

the “plumbing”

So, what makes for a reliable, robust network so all these devices stay connected? To continue our metaphor, if the network is the “plumbing”, then you need quality “pipes” all over the house and they need to be adequately-sized. Network design is way beyond the scope of this article and frankly way too geeky, but it is good to understand a few basics.

An internet-connected local area network (LAN) requires a couple of primary components: usually a router (which connects to the internet via a modem), a switch (a box that connects multiple IoT devices and connects to the router), and a wireless access point (to extend the range of the wireless signal for larger homes or multi-story residences). In many homes, these separate functions are all combined in a single device you’ve probably heard of—the ubiquitous “wireless router”.

These combo devices are inexpensive and convenient, but they have a few limitations. One major limitation is that the ideal location for wireless clients to connect to the router and where the internet connection is located are rarely the same place. Another major limitation is that all-in-one devices are almost always compromises. In a modular network design, devices are purpose-designed, separated by function and located where they perform best.

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 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Comcast or Verizon as part of the modem used to connect to the internet service. In most cases, those routers significantly compromise network performance. The network switch is the backbone that connects all of the network devices scattered around the home and outdoor entertainment areas together to make up the physical network. Whereas a router can determine internet performance, a switch is crucial to local network performance. Wireless access points allow wireless devices like phones, tablets, laptops, cameras or even TVs, to connect to the network. Many newer “mesh” systems combine multiple access points to cover large homes without running network cabling connecting to each one. The most advanced access points offer high power and the latest technologies to cover a wide area and handle multiple wireless devices without slowing down.

The local area network (LAN) then connects to an internet service provider (usually a phone or cable company), via a modem or adapter. Bandwidth is a deep subject, but it hasn’t been so many years since 20-50 megabits per second (Mbps) was a fast internet connection. These days, 100 Mbps is a good place to start, with one gigabit per second (ten times 100 Mbps!) high-tech fiber-based services rolling out in many cities. In a high-quality network, high-bandwidth internet service combines with purpose-designed network infrastructure to offer a reliable and superior experience to any device, anywhere in the house.

Enough of the geeky stuff. Why is all this so important? Because all these devices are utilizing networks more heavily than ever before.

security

We’ve all heard the stories about somebody clicking a link in an email and having their computer compromised and held for ransom. Network security is about much more than just malware, though.

With dozens of computers, tablets, phones, and IoT devices like cameras connected to a network, security is an important consideration. To guard against breaches and intrusions and keep systems online and reliable, security best practices should be followed. Change default usernames and passwords to make them unique and keep device software and firmware updated. Use a remote monitoring service to keep tabs on the network and consider hiring a professional to manage and even audit network security periodically. With more critical building systems connected to networks, network security is as important as ever.

the future

A well-designed, modular network infrastructure will grow with the customer’s needs - and as technologies evolve. Imagine watching first-run movies with the same quality you experience in the movie theater. Imagine driving up to your house to have the garage door automatically open for you, the kitchen lights turn on, and the thermostat switch to “home”. What if you could say, “Alexa, ask my car what my battery level is?”

Some of this is already possible, but it will all become commonplace sooner than you think. You’ll want a high-quality, expandable network infrastructure to support current and future technologies like 4K and 8K video, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, connected cars and more.

summary

As connected building systems have grown in popularity, the network has become a critical building system, right up there with water and power. The network truly is the “weakest link” in a sustainable building’s connected systems. To ensure all your critical and non-critical building systems work right – and continue working into the future – hire an experienced technology designer to specify the best network and install the best equipment.