My New Home Network

I’ve been using the same network I put together from cast-offs over 10 years ago when we moved into the village and we figured it was about time to bring it into the 21st century.

Armed with a budget of £300 I went off onto the web in search of new kit – and I’m very pleased with the end product… The system includes Gigabit wired networking, 80211n multi-point wireless and load balancing/fall-over protection in case my primary service provision fails and to share out the load a little when the grandkids are over hogging bandwidth. I’ll explain this….

Vigor 2800vgBut first, the starting point… when we moved over here into the countryside 11 years ago I was on a budget, having spent a bomb kitting out my home office, I simply bought bulk networking cable, a bunch of connectors and I was very lucky to get some second hand ADSL router kit from friends. One of those routers is the Draytek Vigor 2800vg which of course is too old to handle modern high speed 802.11n wireless but which has MORE than done it’s tour of duty over the years and is still an excellent and supported router.

I’ve had access to all manner of ADSL modems and most of them by comparison to the Drayteks seem “amateur”.  I ended up with 3 of these and a Netgear unit giving 4 access points around the house – I also had Orange Wireless but that was so bad I turned it off. The Drayteks have all SORTS of useful tools that other kit simply doesn’t have – like decent bandwidth monitoring facilities, VPN, interchangeable aerials (I had WAY oversize aerials on my main unit to get more range).

Why so many routers/access points? Well, our house is a cottage and it’s built out of lots of VERY thick stone – WIFI just does not go through this stuff so you might have a great signal in the living room – walk around the corner to the kitchen and it’s gone. Also as we’re on one floor the distance from the kitchen to my office is quite large.  So one Draytek router acted as the ADSL router and access point (wired and wireless), the others as simply switches/WIFI access points. I also had a dedicated 16-port switch as I have lots of kit to plug into when I’m doing a bit of R&D. The two main machines and my NAS drive (network addressable storage – i.e. a black box with 2 disks in it) are all connected together by wire as WIFI is too slow for some operations – like moving massive files back and forth.

We have Internet access via the organisation I work with – and we also have Orange Broadband. Why the latter?

Orange rubbish access pointWell, I would not use Orange by choice but as we had a house phone line and Maureen has an Orange phone, they gave us broadband for a fiver a month – can’t really say no to that especially as it gives her free calls to Orange mobiles (the kids). Both broadband setups are limited by the BT cables here in the village and give around 6.5Mb/s download and around 500Kb/s upload. The Orange router is that big grey thing on the left and it’s useless, not reliable at all but I recently found that by sticking a timer on it so it resets overnight – it becomes reliable. Not much use however without some kind of automatic fall-over if it’s in use at the time (backups etc). We were going to upgrade this until I saw the reviews of it’s replacement on Amazon – voice after voice slagging off Orange for supplying the new unit – so – stick with the devil you know.

I’d been using a software switch on our computers to select between the two networks (main network and Orange backup) to try to do some kind of load balancing -  but of course that doesn’t work on mobiles which don’t support the software etc. and it’s manual and  “fiddly” so I included provider switching in my goals for the upgrade:

  • Faster wireless
  • Faster wired connection
  • Better coverage
  • Some kind of automatic switching/backup/fall-over

We have Apple TV and my videos and music etc. are stored on the NAS unit  so speed of connectivity is important – a request from the TV has to go off to Maureen’s computer – which gets the video from the NAS box and pipes it back to her computer and on to the Apple TV… it doesn’t take many bottlenecks to mess that up.

Well, I ordered the replacement gear and the first stuff that turned up was the cable (of interest I used CABLING4LESS – they seem pretty good and delivery was quick) – I chose ready-made lengths of CAT5-e (why not CAT6? From what I can read it’s for perfectionists and the price difference is high – I also had some decent cables which were gigabit-certified and wanted to use those).

Ok, back up a second – what’s the difference between the cables? If you look at your average network lead, there are 8 connections at each end. Cat-5 only uses 4 of them – whereas Gigabit networks need all 8.  So to have a Gigabit network your modem, switches and cabling all need to be updated to CAT5-e or better. But the cable is cheap -  I think I spent £30 in all.

I bought a range of colours of Cat5-e cable and started checking to see what needed replacing. The first shocker came when looking on the roof at some of the original cables put in place a decade ago – totally SHOT. I’ve never seen cable disintegrate so quickly on touch! Amazing what several years of even British sunlight can do.

So it quickly became a gutting operation – all but one grey lead (which miraculously is in perfect condition 11 years on AND is certified for Gigabit operation – as it spans the building I was quite relieved not to have to throw that one away).

Draytek Vigor 2830nNext stop the main ADSL router. I did my homework and I’m fairly confident I picked the best of the lot – the new Draytek 2830n. This really is a winner -  with dual inputs (3 if you include the ability to use a 3G dongle as a backup -  but we’ve no 3g in the village so that’s redundant), 4 Gigabit ports, multiple LANS, multiple VPNs… load balancing.. name it and it’s got it – well under £200 from Amazon. Took around half an hour to get that running with the existing kit – which includes a 16-output switch in my office for the various gadgets.

First things first – the 802.11n higher speed WIFI claims better speed and better range and I noticed a marginal improvement in range almost tmpEA80immediately. That’s at ONE end of the building. I then fitted a TP-LINK TL-SG1016D 16-port Gigabit switch to replace the old switch to give me some more connections – one of which attachés to the lead which goes right across the building to TP-Link 5 port unmanaged switchanother, smaller new unit, the TL-SG1005D 5-port Gigabit switch – which then feeds Maureen’s computer, the Apple TV and a new TP-Link 150Mbps Wireless N Access point at the far end.Tp-Link 802.11n WIFI access point The large switch indicates what speed the connection is running (10/100 or gigabit) with green indicators which is great.

Finally I had to wire the Orange ADSL unit all the way back to the Draytek second input and make sure the Draytek was aware of the incoming Orange network. Interestingly I had a problem in that I wanted to keep the same DNS (domain name lookup) – and the only one I could find at first was OPENDNS -  but they charge if you have more than one incoming IP address – I resolved the problem eventually by forcing the network to use GOOGLE’s DNS servers (8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4) and up to now they are working a treat.

For Wireless I gave both units the same name – ensuring they were using completely different wireless frequencies which are ALSO distanced from the frequencies used by neighbours.

The result  – even the iPad now works seamlessly anywhere in or around the building. The overall range is WAY better – but now needing only 2 wireless units and not 5.

Apple TV works smoothly – and having set up the Draytek to work from the main ADSL line, falling over to Orange (tested by simply pulling the broadband line out – operation continues more or less seamlessly, the only change being the external address changes of course) it’s all working a treat, no failures, drop-outs etc. – and all the kit is green – keeping power usage to optimum levels (this if often overlooked – the cost of running this stuff mounts up as it’s on 24-7).

I’m currently running scheduled backups to the NAS using GOODSYNC – and cloud backups using bandwidth-restricted LIVEDRIVE (that’s a long story) with unlimited backup, consuming around 100Kb/s of my 500Kb/s upload bandwidth to keep 2 computers constantly backed up in the cloud – but because of the dual-WAN setup I’m managing to split that – one machine backs up to my main ADSL, the other backs up to the Orange ADSL – all works a treat…  and hence leaving plenty of upload bandwidth for Skype on either (though one could always make use of more precious upload bandwidth). More detail as time permits – if you Google these products – all I can say is they work for me…. older kit will be on Ebay presently…

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