Hands-on: Solving my home network problem

Hands-on: Solving my home network problem

Summary: Mix wired and wireless networking in a four-floor home, add a lot of inertia to be overcome, and you get a rather interesting case study.

TOPICS: Networking, SMBs

Sometimes I deviate from my usual hands-on Linux blogposts for a new kit write-up, or some first-hand problem solving experience. This post is one from that last category — nothing at all to do specifically with Linux, just a description of a long-standing problem in my own home, and how I finally solved it. And as is all too often the case, the most difficult step in solving the problem was not a technical issue, it was overcoming a lot of inertia and prejudice.

First some history. My house is now about 15 years old. That means when it was built, wireless networking was very new and very limited. The house is four floors, from the entry/basement to the loft where my office was originally located. It is specifically wired so that the phone lines, where the internet router needs to be located, are in the loft. That gave me convenient access to the equipment, and I had empty pipes in the walls running from my office to each of the other rooms in the house.

I suppose that all sounds very quaint in this age of wireless networking, but at the time the house was built it was the best and most practical solution. Over the years, as I needed to add more network connectivity to various parts of the house, I initially tried using some of the earliest power line networking adapters, and found them to be difficult and unreliable in terms of setup, reliability and speed.

Once I started using wireless networking, I tried quite a few different wireless routers, concentrating specifically on units that were supposed to have very good range, and at the same time trying various wireless network adapters which were also supposed to have good range, in both desktop and laptop systems. I recall one in particular which had an antenna array which looked like a helmet from The Lord of the Rings.

I also tried one or two early "wireless repeaters", and I was never satisfied with them either. Again, I found them to be difficult or tedious to set up, nowhere near as reliable as I thought they should be, and generally disappointing.

Over the years, wireless networking technology improved to the point that it was just about good enough for my needs. The signal was strong enough on the ground floor that it was usually not a problem to get connected, but speed was not great, and there were still occasionally problems with losing the connection.

Add to all of this the fact that my WPA2 key is obscenely long, because when I originally set it up Windows insisted on setting the password itself, and once that was defined and copied to a file on a USB stick then inertia took over. It was never worth the trouble for me to change it on all of my equipment, I could copy/paste it from the stick for new equipment, and when various teenagers were visiting and wanted to connect their mobile devices, I was able to ignore their protests as they typed in the very long hex string to get connected. (Hmmm: maybe that explains why a lot of the kids think that I am an eccentric, cranky old man...)

Of course I have heard from friends that powerline networking equipment has got a lot better, a lot simpler and a lot more reliable. So last week I finally decided to try to solve these problems again. I was not terribly optimistic at the outset, but it turned out to be a lot easier than I had thought, or at least feared.

Zyxel 1232
Zyxel Powerline-WLAN Kit

After looking around on the web for a while, and then going to a local electronic shop, I settled on a Zyxel Powerline-WLAN Adapter Kit. This actually includes two devices. One is a simple wired-network-to-powerline adapter (PLA4201), which I connected to the internet router in the loft and then plugged into the wall socket. The other is a powerline-to-wired-and-wireless adapter (PLA4231), which I plugged into a wall socket in the living room.

The PLA4231 has two 10/100 wired network connections, and it has a wireless extender which can either be configured as a repeater for an existing wireless setup, or can be manually configured with its own unique SSID.

Installation was dead easy. For the wired network I did nothing at all, just plugged the two adapters into the wall sockets and gave them a minute or so to recognise each other and configure themselves. I had a very simple test — the adapter in the loft had a wired connection to the internet router, and the adapter in the living room had a wired connection to a Logitech Squeeze Box. The stereo set was on and ready to play, and about a minute after I plugged them in, I got music! Hooray!

Wireless configuration took slightly more effort, but that was only because I wanted to solve the second problem (WPA2 key) at the same time. If you have a WPS-compatible wireless router, and you are happy to set up the Zyxel as a simple wireless repeater, the wireless setup will be just about as easy as wired was. Because I wanted to create a new wireless network, I had to connect a laptop directly to the PLA4231, and then go through a couple of steps to define the SSID and WPA2 Key. That took less than five minutes, though, and it was really very easy.

So, for an investment of about CHF 100, and less than an hour of work including unpacking, reading what little documentation was included, and actually plugging in, connecting and configuring everything, I have now solved a couple of long-standing problems. 

As I said in the beginning, inertia is a very strong force. I should have done this a long time ago, but "good enough" won out over the effort and uncertainty of trying to make it better for too long. If you have any kind of similar situation, and you have been putting off doing something about it, I would strongly encourage you to stop procrastinating, stop hiding behind things that didn't work or weren't reliable the last time you tried them (probably a long time ago), and give it a shot.

Not only has technology improved a lot, but prices have come down substantially at the same time, so the cost of trying this is not large. My partner and lots of our friends and house guests are going to be really pleased that I did this. My only regret is that I didn't try it sooner.

Further reading

Topics: Networking, SMBs

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

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  • Wired network

    You mention you do have pipes for cabling. Since you work in tech and the house is from 2000, I kind of assume that means you had Ethernet all wired up. I can definitely see the need for PowerLine in a house without proper pipes. Why didn't you just use a gigabit switch (or a modem/router with multiple Ethernet ports) and get cables to 2-3 Access points in the house, sharing the same SSID? The resulting network speed would be considerably faster.
    Another thing to do is, you can use any old wireless access point/router as a repeater. If the factory firmware doesn't properly support that and you have no other use for the access point anymore, you can install a more powerful 3rd party firmware, such as DD-WRT (carries a small risk of bricking the device).
    • Empty Pipes

      The pipes are there, but most of the cables had not been pulled through yet. Getting an electrician to pull the necessary cables would be quite expensive at Swiss rates, and pulling them myself was less appealing than just plugging in the powerline adapters.

      Taking advantage of an opportunity to set up an alternate wireless network with a much simpler key, rather than changing the existing key and then having to go through and find all of the devices in my house and my neighbor's house seemed like a good lazy solution to a second problem at the same time.

      However, in principle I completely agree with your suggestions, the resulting solution would be better, faster, and possibly less expensive than what I did. The other factor that I considered was that I was curious about the current state and ease of use of powerline network adapters.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • pipes

        Makes sense. I agree that without cabling and with Swiss walls (less WiFi friendly than some US walls) Powerline is the best remaining option.
      • Electrician?

        You just need a trained hamster. ;-)

        I use a mixture of power line adapters and wifi. The problem is that over wi-fi copying to/from the NAS goes at around 90kbps! Over the cabled network it goes at around 30MBps. It is quicker and easier to unplug the iMac upstairs and drag it to the basement to sync it with the NAS (about 10 minutes) than it is to sync over wifi (several days)... Still, it is down to under a week with the new wifi router, the old one only managed around 12kbps (both 802.11n).

        This seems to be a problem with the powerline to wifi connection. The Wifi reports 38mbps to speedtest.net, as does the notebook in the basement with the powerline adapter...
        • 90kbps?

          A WiFi with 90 kbps seems very weird. I very rarely see anything below 4 MBs (Byte, not bit) on 2.4 GHz 802.11N. I suggest to diagnose if it is caused by distance, client (compare with 2 different clients, e.g. your laptop and your phone), or maybe the network cable of your access point.
          • It is caused

            by the wireless to wired to powerline conversion.
  • Question

    With multiple wireless units sharing a common SSID, (and also using 2.4 & 5 Ghz), how do the units handle areas where the signals inevitably overlap? I've been looking to do this sort of setup in my house, but would like to understand this issue before I commence.
    • SSID

      As long as they are home devices, and share SSID and password, its up to the connected devices to switch. I use different SSIDs for the 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands - this helped me resolve issues with buggy client devices in the past.
      See this question for full info: http://superuser.com/questions/122441/how-can-i-get-the-same-ssid-for-multiple-access-points
    • SSID

      As long as they are home devices, and share SSID and password, its up to the connected devices to switch. I use different SSIDs for the 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands - this helped me resolve issues with buggy client devices in the past.
      See this question for full info: http://superuser.com/questions/122441/how-can-i-get-the-same-ssid-for-multiple-access-points
      • Great link

    • Good question

      This issue was part of the reason I was reluctant to set up the Zyxel wireless as a simple repeater. I mentioned in the post that I have previously tried a few different things over the years, and this was one of them. At that time I found that I had some serious problems with laptops repeatedly switching between the two wireless base stations, and causing a large delay each time they switched. I suspect that this problem has been solved since the last time I tried it, but rather than risk finding out the hard way that it has not, I decided it was easier to just set up a separate network, and then tell the devices which one I wanted them to connect to.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Same SSD?

      Simple - specify non-overlapping channels in each access point. Ideally you'd do a site survey to check what wifi channels were in use by your neighbours before you started so you could ensure you selected clear channels with minimum interference - you can get such tools for free on your smartphone. So for example if you are far enough from your neighbours that there are no signals in range and you have three access points for full coverage, you could use channels 1, 6 and 12 and have zero signal overlap. Your devices should happily switch to the strongest signal as you move throughout your house, although using a mix of devices can definitely cause issues with how seamless that is.

      In my experience though, consumer devices are universally pretty much junk - the vast majority lose signal and need to be power cycled every few months, there is not a single vendor producing consumer grade gear that I would install in even a small business environment. They're also not designed to handle more than two or three users actively pushing data through them at once - their processors can't handle the load. Their sales documentation won't tell you this, of course - most people think they can have as many users as IP addresses, but wifi is a shared medium so more users means less bandwidth available for each, but importantly consumer devices will simply collapse under the strain of five or six users simultaneously hammering the access point, and that goes for $400 devices as much as $60 ones.

      There is a new(ish) player in the market though who is providing rock stable (commonly referred to as 'enterprise grade') devices at consumer prices. We use their products exclusively for clients now, not because of any commercial relationship but because they are so bulletproof and very competitively priced. Look up Ubiquiti Unifi. Multiple access points are also intelligently handled so you get seamless handover - it's far more reliable than I've seen from anything else, too (but be aware their 'AC devices don't support this yet).

      I am not associated with Ubiquiti nor will I benefit from this in any way - they are simply great products.

      If you want to read excellent in-depth reviews of various networking products and learn about networking generally, try smallnetbuilder.com
      • Stupid autocorrect + no edit function

        That should have been 'Same SSID' but autocorrect borked it for me :-/