Home Network Design

Setting up a home network is not exactly tricky, however there are a number of pitfalls that can get in the way.  This article covers some of the best practices and considerations when building a home network.

A simple example of a home network is a single computer plugged directly into a modem that supplies an internet connection.  Another simple example is an internet connection being shared by a commodity router which splits the internet service to a laptop being used wirelessly and a desktop which is wired. These simple home networks are very very common.

This article is about how to design a home network when it moves that one step beyond trivial and ascends upwards in complexity from there. More complex designs deal with questions such as the following:

If any of the above questions have come up, then this article should prove to be a useful resource.

A Trivial Home Network Topology

Before expanding on more complex home network topologies, it is worthwhile expanding on the basic scenario and what can be done to make it perform well.

Trivial examples of home networks include connecting one or more machines to the internet either directly to an ISPs modem or indirectly through a router, which in turn is connected to an ISPs modem.

Trivial Home Network

High performance home networks are typically deployed using gigabit network connections for local wired connections and 802.11n wireless network adapters running at 300 mbps to achieve the best results. The technology behind what makes up a high performance home network is constantly changing, however the above specification should perform well for several years. Residential internet connections should be rated at more than 5 mbps down for a comfortable internet experience.

In the circumstance where a machine is directly connected to a modem, it is important to ensure that there is a firewall running on the machine to prevent the majority of attacks which constantly flow across the internet. When setting up a commodity router as a gateway for the home, it is worthwhile choosing a device which will allow for the greatest level of configurability, especially in the future.  Some considerations are:

In many urban areas, high speed internet connections have become available which will easily outpace most low end routers ability to keep pace and they will cause a bottleneck.

Qualities of a Bad Home Network

What characteristics of a home network make it good? This is not a precise question and will change from year to year, however there are many characteristics which make up a bad home network, and they are worth spelling out before getting carried away with the aspects of a good network.

These are common complaints that people have about their networks, and there are probably others and what they have in common is that they are qualities of a bad network.

Dealing With Home Network Complaints

There is no perfect or ideal network, so we are left with dealing with common problems. The following sections of this article deal with strategies that are known to work.

Topology

The absolute best way to organize a home network is to route all cable drops to a single distribution point in the home. From a topological view this means that all the interesting bits of networking happen in the same location. The alternative to this is that the network distribution is spread out across the home with indidual switches providing additional connectivity as needed. The latter solution increases the complexity of the network and has a higher cost per connection since multiple switches are necessary.

One common inadvertant error in home networks being implemented by casual users is to configure more than one router on the network to add additional ethernet ports.  This will result in a functional internet connection, however there is an impact on the ability of devices to communicate with each other in the home. The correct way to add additional ports is to add a switch in a daisy-chain.

As mentioned earlier the simplest solution from a topological perspective is to route every network cable to a single switch with enough ports to handle the entire network.  The central switch connects to a router which in turn connects to the ISP modem.  Planning for this before the construction phase of a new home or renovation will make sure that this is simple to implement.

Well designed home networks will have no need for multiple routers or require daisy-chained ethernet switches, thus a star topology is the best choice for a home.  Also, using wired connections ensures a reliable high-speed connection in comparison to wireless devices.

Small and medium homes should install wireless access points towards the center of the home to ensure maximum mean reception in all areas of the dwelling.  For larger homes, owners should strongly consider using a mesh network.

Home Network designed with a logical star topology

Calculating the Number of Drops

When desigining a home network from scratch, the job of figuring out how many ethernet cables should be run to various locations can be challenging.  For instance, how many connections should be run to an entertainment center or a desk in a home office?

Figuring this out takes analysis of the device types which are going to be available at a given location. Take the entertainment center, devices which can benefit from a network connection may include:

The inclusion of televisions may not seem immediately relevant, however there are many existing TV sets which can use a network connection since they may include a web-browser, network stereo or other connected functionality. Consider running a cable drop for any potentially connected device.

Desks in home offices may require more than one connection as additional devices might be used:

This list is not comphensive, however the intention is to indicate the usefulness of assembling a thorough network design.

Home Network Hardware

Once the topology of the network has been decided, the next phase of the design is to determine which equipment and parts to use. The current level of technology at the time of writing for this article specifies that wired networks should operate at 1 gbps, or 1000 mbps.  This requirement mandates that certain hardware should be excluded from the design.

When selecting hardware, a crucial point to consider is that the network will perform as fast as least capable component will allow.

Installing gigabit switches and interface cards will only result in gigabit speeds if the entire balance of the network is up to the challenge (including the interface cards themselves).  Real world wired networks, and especially those using commodity network equipment such as the type found in most home networks rarely are capable of exceeding 200 mbps even with 1gbps rated devices. Tuning networks to reach true gigabit speeds is beyond the scope of this home network article, and will probably be the focus of a future article series.

The following equipment list will result in a moderately performant network which should scale fairly well over time:

For additional scalability for future 10 gbps networks, shielded cables and connecters can be used. However, shielded cables require that connectors be grounded.

Using wall-mounted computer racks with a capacity of 4u or 6u can make networks look very professional, and helps prevent a tangle of wires from taking over the room  used as a distribution point.

Network interface cards from different manufacturers have different performance properties, however as mentioned before, tuning these to maximize performance is beyond the scope of this article. 1000 mbps cards built into commodity hardware will provide an acceptable level of performance for almost all home networks.

Conclusion

There are a number of considerations to examine when designing a home network, especially one that scales well and blends nicely into the background of a home. The best time to implement a major network design is during new construction or during renovation. Determining the network requirements before construction begins can result in a home network that not only works very well, but actually improves the value of a home to anyone with a descerning eye.

Take the time to have your network designed properly, and give us a call if you have any questions or requests.

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