The Cheap Network & The 3 Laws of Infrastructure

This post is not about a group of cheapskates that exchange leads on how to save a buck 🙂

But close, it is about one cheapskate, me, and my quest to make an IMAX film in my basement spending as little money as possible – now that film is funded 100% by donations. First task, infrastructure.

In my past life in the 90’s, I spent 6 years as a computer consultant than 4 years a corporate IT manager (yes, I’m a life-long geek), so the one thing I do know is that a computer network is only as good as its infrastructure. Network infrastructure is just a fancy term for the network cables, switches, routers etc. that make up the hardware needed for various machines to talk to each other.

Of course, if you have lots of money, it’s pretty easy. Or if you just have a couple of machines and not much data, it’s also easy. But if you have very little money and terabytes of data, then you start to sweat.

At my corporate IT job, one of my big projects was replacing a 10 megabit shared network of 100+ machines and going to 100 megabit switch network. This was in 1997 – the 100 port Cisco Catalyst switch cost six figures, required a special electrical outlet, cooling and battery backup.

I do have a five figure budget this time – including the two decimal points AFTER – in other words, about $500. Worse yet, I need 1000 megabits of switched speed (called gigabit) and need to have at least 8 connections active. Which brings up to the first law of infrastructure:

1. WHATEVER CAPACITY YOU NEED FROM YOUR INFRASTRUCTURE TODAY, ALWAYS BUY AT LEAST DOUBLE

This is the standard rookie mistake. You need to hook 5 machines, so you get a 8 port switch so you have a couple of extra. You run out a couple of months later. So, I need 8 now, so 16 ports is the minimum. So a decent 16 port switch runs less than $200 – excellent. I really should get 24 but I came up with a creative solution for that which brings us to #2

2. YOUR INFRASTRUCTURE IS ONLY AS FAST AND RELIABLE AS YOUR WEAKEST LINK

This is the next thing that bites people. Every aspect of the network infrastructure must be good – just one bad or poor quality cable can bring slow things down. I had two main areas to improve. First, cables. I live in a 3-story townhouse, older unit. I have computers on all three floors. A couple of them are notebooks connected on a wireless network, the rest desktops, all on different floors.

Since we are doing things very cheap, hiring pros to run cables in the walls to pretty jacks is not an option (plus vetoed by our landlord). The laptops can run wireless as it’s easy to move them to a wired connection when you need more speed, but the desktops need gigabit which means cables.

How do you cheaply run network cable in your house? Make friends with you A/C returns (not the vents, the returns where the air is “returned” into the system) and if you have cable TV wiring, that helps as well. We have air return that run straight up through three stories. This is my main cable feed and I got a break as there was old intercom wiring from a long-gone 70’s intercom system hanging down. That became my “pull” wire.

To “pull cable”, you connect the new network cable at your destination to the already present wire or cable. Then go to your start point and pull the old cable out which pulls the new network cable in. Simple but can be tricky hard work with snags, corners, tight passes etc.

For the top floor, I pulled into the attic, then found the cable TV coax cable going down the walls into the room I need wired. Then I connected the network cable in the room and pulled it up from the attic, and then down the return (gravity and heavy, small object means you don’t even need pull cable). Lots of work, but works like a champ.

However, as you may have figured out, this means long cable. The longer a cable run, the more important cable quality is. To maintain gigabit quality, you need at least Cat 5e, but Cat 6 is better (Cat short for Category). Cat 3 is old style, Cat 5 used to be everywhere, Cat 6 is now the new standard.

My long runs I installed years back when I moved in were Cat 5 and would only support 100 megabit speeds on the 100 foot runs. So they are being replaced by Cat 6. Yes, you can make your own cable, but you can also buy 100 Ft Cat 6, good quality cables for $13.

So, now we have a gigabit switch, gigabit cables which leaves the router. In my case, a router does two things. It connects my internal network to the internet reasonably safely and it contains a wireless access point for wireless connections. The models typically sold for home use often contain a 4 port switch or hub (hubs share bandwidth, switches dedicate it. avoid a hub like the plague), print server etc. The catch is most of these are of the 100 megabit variety – not gigabit.

For most home users and wireless users, 100 megabits is just fine, more than enough speed. But for me, with high-speed wireless connections moving not just data off the internet, but between them, they can quickly saturate 100 megabit connections. So gigabit is a must.

And there’s a bonus. That gives me 4 more gigabit ports to add to my 16. With a little intelligent planning, I have 20 ports, giving me plenty of breathing room and only pay for 16.
FINAL TALLY:

(1) 16 Port switch $165

(2) 650 ft of cable $80

(3) Wireless Router/Gigabit switch $150 (with a good firewall etc.)

A little less than $400 since my many hours of labor for this is free 🙂 That’s $100 under budget. The only last question is when – which brings us to #3

3. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER DO EVERYTHING AT ONCE

The natural inclination when doing a large upgrade is to rip out the old and put in the new. However, with computer and network infrastructure, generally a bad idea. Stuff sometimes has problems – network cards, drivers, software etc. Trying to troubleshoot computer problems when you have many possible causes is a real nightmare.

The smart way is to change out your infrastructure is as many steps as practical. I started with the router, next are the cables, then the switch. THEN the new computers, storage, software etc. At each stage, you can verify that step is working well and dealing with problems is much, much easier. I have many times seen new install simply not work well and months spent chasing problems because you don’t know – is it the cable, the switch, the network card, the router, the operating system, the software etc.?

Just do it step by step. Takes more planning but well worth the payoff.

So there you have it – even if you don’t plan on putting a 20 port gigabit network in your house (I don’t recommend it), these basic laws of infrastructure will serve you well in any tech decisions you have to make.

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