Ted on Tech: Bridging the Gap
IMGCAP(1)]It’s unfortunate, but probably true, that many of us--me included--haven’t sat down and actually planned out our networks. Rather, the parts and pieces of the networks in many smaller to mid-sized practices have evolved as we extended network capability to new areas.
For best network performance when you have multiple users, the answer at the moment is Gigabit Ethernet, or 1000BaseT, running over Cat6 cable. The ISO (International Standards Organization) standard for Cat6 cable runs is 100 meters. That 100 meters includes a 90 meter cable run and five meters of patch cables on either side of the run. If there needs to be a run between switches or devices longer than that, you need a device called an Ethernet repeater, which boosts the signal in both directions.
These days, Wi-Fi provides many of the connections to a network. It’s slower for the most part than wired Ethernet, but it’s also very much easier to set up and configure. A downside is that even with the various encryption and authentication schemes available for Wi-Fi, it’s a lot more vulnerable to being hacked. Still, if you want to connect a smartphone or tablet to your network, you pretty much have to have a Wi-Fi router or access point. Which device you use depends on where the IP addresses used on your network originate. In many networks, these addresses are handled by a service called DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol), which assigns every device on the network a unique IP (Internet Protocol) address. An Access Point is just a Wi-Fi connection device; it does not actually assign an IP address to a device.
On my network, the DHCP service is running on a network server, which acts as a router. Two of the three wireless devices on my network are configured as Access Points, even though one of them, a Netgear Nighthawk X6, is actually a router. Many wireless routers let you turn off the routing function if you have another device assigning IP addresses on the network. This lets the router serve as an Access Point. The way that the network is configured between servers, routers (usually just one unless you are using a more complicated network configuration), and Access Points comprise the network’s infrastructure.
One problem that arises frequently is that there are gaps in the network where you can’t run cable, and Wi-Fi signals are weak or completely absent. Or, even if the Wi-Fi signal is present, you need to be able to connect wired Ethernet devices to the network at the remote area.
There are a couple of ways around this. Powerline network adapters are one easy-to-implement method. These consist of at least two adapters (though some systems support more), both of which are plugged into AC outlets. One is plugged in near a network switch or access point and attached to it with an Ethernet patch able. The second adapter is plugged into an outlet where you need network access. This adapter may have ports for wired Ethernet, or a single Ethernet port that you can patch, via an RJ-45 cable, to a switch containing four or more wired ports. The Linksys PLSK400 Powerline AV network kit I use occasionally has a single port adapter for the switch where the network ends and a four-port adapter for the area to which you need you to run the network. The kit is inexpensive, about $60, but it doesn’t always work if you have complex AC wiring or multiple breaker boxes in your home or business.
A more reliable method, especially if the distance that you have to bridge is only a few hundred feet, is a Range Extender. This is a repeater similar to the Ethernet repeaters used on long cable runs. Placed between the Wi-Fi Access point and the area where you need a clear Wi-Fi signal, the repeater captures the radio signal from the Access Point, amplifies it, and rebroadcasts it. It works in both directions—from the Access Point to the Wi-Fi device and also from the Wi-Fi device back to the Access Point. A Range Extender can give your Wi-Fi network component a reach of several hundred feet further out. But that really doesn’t help you if you need wired Ethernet capability at the remote location. A nice feature of most repeaters is that they also serve as network bridges, connecting to an access point and offering a number of RJ-45 jacks into which you can plug wired Ethernet devices. And, if you need more Ethernet ports than the bridge/range extender provides, it’s easy to plug an Ethernet switch into the bridge and get as many as 24 ports for wired devices.
At the moment, I’m using a Netgear EX7000 Nighthawk Range Extender as a bridge. It has a high output, matches the Nighthawk X6 router that I use as an access point, and was ridiculously easy to set up using WPS. Setup does require a PC, since settings are made through the Range Extender’s built-in web server, but the entire setup process took only a few minutes, and now I have both a strong Wi-Fi signal in my upstairs bedroom as well as four Ethernet ports for the few wired devices I’ve wanted to use. Netgear isn’t the only vendor to offer this type of product. D-Link, Linksys, Trend and others have them as well.
And it sure beats running a long Ethernet cable to a switch plugged into the wall jack in another room!