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Feature Article – Understanding and Managing your HomePlug network

If you want to have your HomePlug network segment working properly for you and your needs, you will need to be able to manage it properly. This article talks about how to connect the HomePlug devices for best results and how to organise the devices in your HomePlug segment for privacy or improved network performance.

Understanding the typical AC supply

A mains “phase” typically describes a single standard-voltage AC circuit from the street transformer through to your premises. In a typical residential power service, where the general-tariff power passes through one electricity meter, all the power outlets are on the one phase. Most US residential installations have two phases due to the low standard voltage but HomePlug has been designed to work around these installations.

The electricity meter for a typical household AC supply is considered a “firewall” for the HomePlug network segment that operates on that supply because of the way it works. This may be a problem for a multi-building home network where there is another building like a bungalow that is metered separately.

Electrical accessories and the HomePlug network

For best performance, you should have the HomePlug devices plugged directly in to the power outlets. But this is not always feasible due to distance from the outlets or the number of outlets available near the device.

An extension cord can be used for a HomePlug setup as long as it is of the right type. For short runs up to 10 metres, you can use the regular domestic extension cord that is typically used for the vacuum cleaner or portable radio. You will need to use “tradesmen-grade” or “caravan” extension cords for longer runs. As well, daisy-chained extension cords may not be beneficial to the HomePlug signal.

As far as powerboards / power strips and “double adaptors” are concerned, make sure that the HomePlug device is connected to one without surge-suppression or line-conditioning technology. On the other hand, you could use one equipped with surge-suppression or line-conditioning technology if it has an outlet that is marked “HomePlug” and you plug the HomePlug device in to that outlet. You can also get around this problem by plugging your HomePlug device in to one of the outlets on a regular powerboard and plug a surge-suppressor powerboard which has your computer equipment in to another of the outlets of the regular powerboard. A recent-issue HomePlug-Ethernet bridge that has a built-in power outlet or one of the surge-suppressor powerboards which have integrated HomePlug-Ethernet bridge functionality can solve the problem very easily.

Managing your HomePlug network

The network is typically managed with software that is supplied with your HomePlug hardware. This is usually in the form of a configuration tool, typically a version of “PowerPacket” for most operating systems. In some cases, you may have to download the software from the device manufacturer’s Website. Infact, the Solwise website has most of the software available for nearly all of the operating systems.

On the other hand, some devices, typically HomePlug wireless access points and routers can be managed by logging in to a particular Internet address, similar to managing an Internet router.

A recent trend that has emerged is for HomePlug AV devices to implement “SimpleConnect” which uses push-button control to enrol devices to a HomePlug network segment.

HomePlug Device Identifier

This value is unique to each device and is known as a Device Password in a HomePlug 1.0 network. This information is typically printed on a label that is attached to the HomePlug device itself, alongside the MAC address for that device. It may also be attached to the device’s packaging.

HomePlug Network Segment Identifier

This identifier, usually set to “HomePlug” but can be set by the user to a different value, is known to the devices that are part of a HomePlug network segment. It is typically known as a “Network Password” for both the HomePlug 1.0 or “Private Network Name” for some HomePlug AV networks and can allow multiple HomePlug network segments to exist on the one mains phase.

Configuring a Network Segment To A Particular Identifier

You will have to obtain the Device Identifiers from each of the HomePlug devices that are to be part of the Network Segment that is having that identifier. Then, make sure that they are plugged in to the AC supply and can be seen by the HomePlug device you are doing the configuring from. This can be checked using your configuration software that has come with that HomePlug device.

Add all the devices to your network by entering their Device Passwords in to the configuration software. Then go to the “Privacy” or similar option and set the Network Password for all devices that are on your network to make the segment

If the devices use HomePlug AV SimpleConnect, you just need to press the button on the device which is a member of the segment you want to enrol your other device in, then press the button on the device that is to be enrolled.

What you can do

“Pushing out” a HomePlug installation

As I have mentioned before in my feature article on multi-building home networks, you may have to “extend” your HomePlug network if you can’t get proper network operation on some of the mains circuits such as in remote buildings.

This involves creating two different HomePlug segments, with each segment having at least one HomePlug-Ethernet bridge on the same mains service. Then the Ethernet connection from a bridge associated with one HomePlug segment is connected to the Ethernet port on the bridge associated with the other HomePlug segment. These can be connected directly or via an Ethernet switch so one can run network devices from the Ethernet link.

The above setup would then have to be deployed halfway between the HomePlug devices that are trying to communicate such as in an outbuilding nearest the main house like a garage.

HomePlug AV and 1.0 in the same premises

HomePlug 1.0 and AV can exist on the same mains service but will work as separate network segments in a manner which doesn’t compromise their bandwidth. The separate network segment issue can be mitigated with a Ethernet bridge device from each technology connected to each other or to the LAN ports of a router or Ethernet switch.

Conclusion

Once you know how to understand and manage the HomePlug powerline network, you can gain a lot more out of this technology and make it work well in your building.

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17 February 2009 Posted by | Feature Article, HomePlug powerline networking, Network Management | | 1 Comment

HomePlug in the commercial or institutional environment

Often HomePlug powerline networks are, by the name of the technology, pitched at residential networks, typically single-dwelling homes. But can a HomePlug powerline network, whether a v1.0 Turbo or an AV network exist in a block of flats, a shop or a small office?

There are many applications for the use of a HomePlug in the commercial or institutional environment. One would be to set up a network printer or other network-enabled device in a manner that allows the location to be changed at a moment’s notice. This would be of importance for equipment likely to be on the shop floor for example.

Another application would be to set up a multiple-access-point wireless network to extend the coverage of the wireless hotspot in your café or bar. One of the HomePlug wireless access points can easily do this job especially on a temporary setup or setups where you need to remove the access point at night as a security measure.

You may also want to use HomePlug for establishing a temporary network as part of an event that you host at a town hall, school assembly hall or other community facility, thus avoiding extra cables or unreliable wireless networks. Then there is the ability to try out computer-equipment locations for a certain amount of time before you have the electricians pull the Ethernet cabling to the final location.

An example of this kind of setup

At the moment, Devolo, a German company who manufactures HomePlug network devices, have “taken the bull by the horns” in its home market. They have run a German-language Web portal, about using HomePlug as a solution for establishing computer networks in schools. On this page, there are examples of three schools who have established HomePlug network segments that are known to be in full service.

AC power issues

The main issue is that AC power supplies which supply most of these locations aren’t similar to the typical residential AC power supply. These supplies typically involve a “multi-phase” wiring plan that is typically set up for larger motors or other large loads. This shouldn’t be really of concern for setups covering a flat, small shop or office because most of the power wiring is similar to that of a regular house. In the case of shops and other premises that have special equipment like large commercial refrigeration setups, the special equipment is typically wired to its own group of phases while the ordinary power outlets are wired to a single phase, in a manner similar to a domestic setup.

Similarly the large motors like those that typically drive commercial refrigeration / air-conditioning or lifts and escalators can yield interference as they are used. Similarly, arc welding and similar work equipment can increase the amount of interference in the power line. Another issue to remember is that there is very little chance of a HomePlug segment working if you plug any of the HomePlug devices in to one of those three-phase – single-phase powerboards used primarily to run large clusters of standard lighting or cooking equipment from a three-phase outlet. This is usually due to the use of transformers and different phases in these installations.

Testing a HomePlug network segment

When you set up a HomePlug powerline network segment in any of these premises that you haven’t dealt with before or where significant work has been done, you may have to do a test run at the locations you intend to set up your installation at before you run the installation full-time.

You could run the “PowerPacket” utility that comes with most HomePlug-Ethernet bridges to observe the link quality of your HomePlug segment and the existence of the other HomePlug devices that you have plugged in at the locations you want to use. The latter observation can be useful if some of the ordinary power outlets in the premises are wired to different phases. You can also observe changes in link quality when any of the heavy motors are in operation such as whenever someone is using the lift or the refrigeration compressor that serves the commercial refrigeration installation comes on.

Another test would be to do a simple network-based file-copy between computers connected to the HomePlug devices and time that copy process for actual throughput measurement.  At this time, it may be worth looking for changes in network behaviour when any of the heavy motors are in operation as in the situations described above.

But before you do these tests, make sure that the HomePlug equipment you intend to deploy in the commercial environment works properly at your home or at a location where you know from experience this kind of equipment has worked. Also, make sure that you can return the HomePlug equipment to whoever you bought it from if it doesn’t work or be able to buy the equipment “on approval”.

Other setup issues

Another good practice with deploying HomePlug in these locations is to set up an installation-unique Network Password for the installation. This can be easily done with HomePlug AV devices that have “Simple Connect” push-button setup because the HomePlug AV devices work out a unique code for that installation. On the other hand, you would have to use the setup software like PowerPacket to align all the devices (which have the Device Passwords physically on them) to the same Network Password. This allows your HomePlug network segment to work in a secure fashion.

Once you have used HomePlug in these kind of setups, you can be able to know what it can and cannot do in a particular location and defeat the common limitation of HomePlug being just for the home.

7 February 2009 Posted by | HomePlug powerline networking, Network Management, SOHO / Small business computer setups | | Leave a comment

HomePlug – the best way to connect the Tivo to your router

You have taken the plunge to buy the Tivo personal-TV service and have this unit add increased value to your free-to-air TV viewing. But this Tivo box needs to be connected to the Internet for online registration and to benefit from an updated electronic programme guide plus all the extras that are available for that platform. This is also of importance where there is the possibility of Tivo running video-based services like “catch-up TV” as part of the platform. It is similarly true of any set-top-box IPTV or video-on-demaind platform which relies on Internet connectivity.

The Tivo people mention in their advertising material and product document of only two ways to connect the Tivo unit to the home network and to the Internet. They are either an Ethernet cable or an optional USB-connected WiFi wireless network adaptor supplied by Tivo. The problem with these wireless network adaptors, and the WiFi wireless network in general is that they can be very “hit and miss” in their performance.

But there is another way to connect the Tivo to the home network without running extra wires around the house. This is in the form of HomePlug which uses the AC wiring as a data transport.

Typically you would connect a short wire from the Tivo’s Ethernet socket to the Ethernet socket on a HomePlug-Ethernet bridge and plug the HomePlug-Ethernet bridge in to the wall. Then you connect anther short wire from the router to another HomePlug-Ethernet bridge and plug this HomePlug-Ethernet bridge in to the wall. Out of the box, these units would simply just work.

If you had an existing HomePlug setup, you would simply just use another HomePlug-Ethernet bridge for connecting the Tivo unit to the existing HomePlug segment. You may have to use the PowerPacket utility supplied by the HomePlug equipment vendor to enrol the new HomePlug unit in to the existing segment.

Once this is going, the Tivo unit should just work as though it is using the Ethernet connection to the router. This would then lead to any download that is part of the platform taking a relatively short time, and would be important if there is the possibility of video-based services being part of that platform.

Disclaimer: This post has been written by myself based on an observation of a demonstration Tivo setup at the Digital Life exhibition that was held in November this year at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. It is not sponsored by HomePlug or any of its affiliated organizations.

5 December 2008 Posted by | Network Management | , | Leave a comment

Feature Article: Multi-Building Home Networks

What is a multi-building home network

A multi-building home network is a home or other small network where network devices are used in at least two buildings on the one property. The idea is for the whole logical network to be pervasive in all or some of the buildings that are on that same property.

The network will end up comprising of multiple segments (physical network connections) that cover each building where network presence is desired. Then there are segments that exist to create a bridge for data to move between buildings.

What properties and situations is this kind of network relevant to

The situation where this network comes in to its own is where it is desirable to have the home office in another building such as a detached garage or barn, but also the same Internet bandwidth needs to be available in the home and the detached building. This is more prevalent with farms where the “office” is the barn and none of the farm business is transacted in the homestead.

The same situation can exist with properties where there is at least one cabin, bungalow or static caravan that is used for extra guests or older children. Here, it may be desirable to provide the same Internet access as what exists in the main house to these locations. This is important with older children who use these buildings as their private space for activities including playing online games. In a similar vein, the same situation may extend to the use of a cabana that is located by the pool or in the garden as a place to benefit from Internet access through the use of a portable computer.

Now that various manufacturers are making network appliances like Internet CCTV cameras or Internet-enabled games consoles that benefit from being part of a network, this concept of multi-building home networks is becoming a lot more relevant. Imagine being able to keep an eye on the valuables in the garage or livestock in the barn from a PC in the house; or the older son playing an on-line game on the Xbox 360 using XboxLive in the bungalow.

How does this kind of network operate

This kind of network consists of many different segments that exist to cover the areas being served as well as segments that exist to transfer data out to the area-specific segments. All the segments are joined using media-specific bridge devices like wireless access points, Ethernet switches, HomePlug-Ethernet bridges or simply the local-network connections of the typical wireless router.

This means that all network devices that are part of this network setup are on the same logical network or subnet. This means that if they ask for IP addresses,  they will get their IP addresses from the same DHCP server that is in the network-Internet “edge” router. They will also benefit from that router’s Internet gateway functionality and from resources made available to them by other network devices.

Techniques And Methods

Dedicated wire run 

The buildings may be linked by a direct wire, usually Category 5 / 6 twisted-pair copper Ethernet cable or fibre-optic cable. The fibre-optic cable is more expensive than copper-wire cabling, especially for smaller runs, but would suit installations where the buildings are a very long distance (3 kilometres) apart or there could be excessive electrical noise. On the other hand, copper-cable twisted-pair Ethernet can suit inter-building runs of up to 100 metres.

Both cables will need a dedicated run, which will typically require a trench to be dug between the buildings and the cable to be run in a conduit for best results. This work can be affordably done if you are running low-voltage communications cable like a telephone line between the buildings.

Each end of the cable run would need to have an Ethernet switch in the case of a copper-cable run or media converters in the case of a fibre-optic run. The Ethernet switches are just about a “dime a dozen” for a five-port or eight-port unmanaged 10/100Mbps unit suitable for small networks and a bit extra for Gigabit units. An existing switch that is part of your home network, such as the one built in to your router or used as a “hub” in your Ethernet-based home network can do the job equally as well as a dedicated switch. 

Wireless

This method uses a radio link as the means for data-transfer between the buildings. It is based on the use of 802.11a/g/n equipment, commonly known as WiFi equipment, which works at a theoretical raw data speed of 54Mbps for 802.11a/g and 248Mbps for 802.11n. The range where the speed will be maintained will depend on the wireless equipment used and the antennas (aerials) used with the equipment. Typically the bandwidth will taper off as the distance between the equipment increases.

Inter-building applications have typically used equipment that is capable of working with higher-gain directional antennas than what is typically supplied with the equipment and such equipment is typically installed outdoors with an Ethernet cable used for bringing data in to the buildings.

It can involve the use of “shared WiFi” where remote buildings are equipped with wireless client bridges that are pointed towards the wireless access point installed in the main building. This same method permits WiFi use by portable devices used in or near the main access point, but requires different SSIDs for access points used in remote buildings.

Another method is to use a dedicated wireless link for building-building data flow. This can be achieved through the use of multi-function access points that are set up as “wireless bridges”. This wireless link wouldn’t be able to be used by portable devices for wireless network access.

Yet another method that works with some wireless access points and wireless routers is to use Wireless Distribution System. It allows the member devices to become wireless-segment repeaters, thus expanding wireless segment coverage and becoming an Ethernet bridge for the data. Portable devices can roam amongst the stations as if they are moving around an “extended service set” collection of access points with a wired backbone.  At the moment, the setup doesn’t permit true fault-tolerant signal meshing without bandwidth starvation, but can do a fair “hands-off” job of extending the “extended service set”.  

Non-dedicated wire run 

This method uses wires that are used to provide an existing service to the building rather than a dedicated wire run. It avoids the need to spend money on costs associated with running that dedicated wire, such as trenching and conduit runs, while avoiding the need to dig up established landscape.

There used to be two methods based around this concept but the most common one would be the HomePlug system which uses the infrastructure that is used to provide AC power to appliances that are used on the property. It is often marketed as a “no-new-wires” backbone for establishing new networks but can be used as a supplementary segment for existing networks. This is typically promoted through the small “infill” access points like the Netcomm NP290W which plug in to the wall and provide extra coverage for an existing wireless network.

It can work effectively in most residential, small-office and rural properties because they are often wired to the one general-purpose electricity service from the head transformer. This is typically exemplified with the property having one “common-tariff” electricity meter accounting for all the “common-tariff” electricity used on the property. It may not work if any building, like a bungalow, has been metered separately because, in most situations, the different services may have been derived from different phases.

Some sites may, because of inter-building wiring distance, require the HomePlug segment to be pushed out further. This situation is typical of buildings that are used as a “go-between” wire point for other buildings or static caravabs. This involves the creation of extra HomePlug segments for the remote buildings.

This is achieved by the use of 2 HomePlug-Ethernet bridges connected to each other by an Ethernet patch cord or Ethernet switch and installed close to the building’s AC switch board or fuse box.

One of the bridges is configured to use the Network Password (segment identification name for a HomePlug network, equivalent to an SSID for a WiFi wireless network segment) of main segment, while the other uses a new Network Password representative of the new segment. Remote HomePlug devices use new Network Password.

The appropriate method

Working From Scratch

You may be building the outbuilding from scratch or doing extensive renovations to an existing building, which involves work with the electrical circuits in the building. This includes running AC wiring to and establishing AC circuits in an existing building that has no AC power. In this case, you may want to “cover all your bases”, especially if you are dealing with a garage, barn, bungalow or cabin where the building is going to be a point of activity. This means running a dedicated wire run between the main building and the outbuilding. The materials that you use may depend on your budget that you allocate for the project.

This option can work very well in making maximum value from your tradesmen who are doing any cabling work on the project. If cost is an issue, you may have to use HomePlug as your inter-building link.

Existing Buildings

For existing buildings, especially on properties where there is established landscape, you will need to use either a wireless or HomePlug link.

If you prefer to run a wireless link, it may be preferable to use wireless infrastructure hardware which works with third-party antennas and is capable of working outdoors.

HomePlug can also and has been known to do a more reliable job as a building-building link in this context than wireless. This is more true of buildings that are made out of metal such as the “quick-assemble” garages and sheds because the metal frame and / or walls do block or limit the transmission of radio waves.

Static Caravans

Typically these vehicles are capable of being moved around the property at a moment’s notice. Most of the time, these vehicles are hooked up to the nearest power outlet on the property using a long high-current low-resistance extension cord. This is often to enable use of interior lights and appliances that are plugged into power outlets that are installed in the vehicle. Also, this practice allows one to use the gas-electric fridge that is built in to the vehicle with it running off AC power rather than gas or the vehicle’s 12 volt battery.

A highly-reliable method of bringing the home network to these vehicles would be the HomePlug power-line link. This technology would be suited to the job because of the metal-based construction of the typical post-1950s caravan or campervan which can interfere with wireless inter-building links. The HomePlug access points like the Netcomm NP290W can work effectively in this situation by providing a strong wireless signal within the metal walls of these vans while using the power link as the data run.

Conclusion

As governments and Internet service providers make an effort to provide less-dense communities like the country and outer-urban areas with broadband Internet access, the idea of extending the home network beyond the main house on a large property will be very real. This article has explained how this idea can be achieved with the existing technology.

28 November 2008 Posted by | Feature Article, Network Management | , , , | Leave a comment