Networking Equipment

Laying the foundation.

To best facilitate our core network upon which we shall build upon the rest of our communications infrastructure, we should discuss hardware options and devices many typically do not usually consider using within their network proper.

Now, in this day and age, people are fond of device convergence. One word of advice? Don’t. There’s always a price premium for integrating functions together, and electronics will eventually fail. Example: which of the following device configurations will cost less over the next ten years?

A) A $200 cable modem with ATA phone bridge, router, WiFi adapter, and 120 minute battery backup integrated that needs replacing every three years (worst case) because one of the myriad of devices stopped working or went obsolete, or…

B) A $50 cable modem that needs replacing every three years (worst case), a $50 WiFi router that will need replacing every five years, a $50 ATA bridge that will need replacing every four, and a $100 UPS that will only need another $50 lead acid battery every five to seven years under ideal conditions, with enough battery life to power that whole mess for days.

If you guessed Option B, you’re obviously in the right place. B also gives us the added benefit of less overall downtime for every hardware configuration scenario except modem failure if repair or replacement is needed. The other thing to consider is repair if you’re handy with a soldering iron as most of these electronics frequently only need replacing due to one or two swollen capacitors that cost a couple bucks at most off DigiKey or Mouser to replace, or due to a dead DC power adapter. Going with separate devices using repair reduces complexity and the chance of killing it trying to repair the device to begin with. The cabling may get messy, but it’s worth keeping your network and communications devices separate. A little extra up front could save a lot long term.

Planned Obsolescence

Before diving into these various networking devices, I should first share a few words on the topic of planned obsolescence. There really isn’t anything available on the market these days that would pass as professional grade, rugged electronics anymore. All these manufacturers use varying degrees of cheap electrolyte capacitors and MOSFETs that are designed to fail after a while, either in the circuit board itself or the power supply. When you saturate the market, the only way you can keep people buying more crap is to make sure they have to buy more crap after the crap they bought breaks if they keep wanting to use the crap they’re paying a monthly service fee to access. Outside of physical equipment failure, the other remaining method of planned obsolescence in technology is through software bloat and standards changes, which is why you’ll notice I lean towards more open standards and piecemeal hardware approaches.

One way to combat this is to try and buy from manufacturers that are known for still producing quality equipment (so long as they haven’t turned evil and are cashing out their name – think 1980’s RCA). Another way is to keep the electrical current as steady and non-taxing as possible through the use of a UPS (more on this shortly). This approach likely won’t add a significant amount of life onto the end of a part before eventual failure, but it certainly can’t hurt the situation. The final means to combat this issue is to learn how to repair electronics yourself as mentioned near the end of the previous section. Knowing how to operate a soldering iron and spec out replacement parts through DigiKey or Mouser can save a lot of money when your electronics start to fail. If you’re looking to have to replace it anyway, what have you got to lose to try and fix it first other than a bit of pocket change and some time? Crack that box open and see if you can find the problem first before pitching the device back into the recycling chain. A great place to start down this particular adventure is with the classic book Getting Started in Electronics by Forrest Mims.

Now that we’ve touched briefly on the subject, let’s get into specific equipment.

Modems (Cable & DSL)

For cable users, Motorola Arris typically makes a decent modem with the SB5101U immediately coming to mind. Also keep in mind that unless your cable ISP demands you use a DOCSIS 3.0 compatible device, you don’t actually need one for the speeds you’ll be using. It should be pointed out though that some cable ISPs might require DOCSIS 3.0 in the near to near-distant future as the IPv6 network addressing transition comes along. Although IPv6 support has been added onto the DOCSIS 2.0 spec, some of the modems around may not have been updated with firmware supporting it or implementation might not be as robust, and some providers may just mandate a switch to DOCSIS 3.0 to ease their support issues. If this possibility does concern you, spend a little extra on a DOCSIS 3.0 modem like the Arris SB6121.

For DSL users, ADSL2+ compatible Westell modems have been the most robust from my experiences over the years, but it’s hard to find many DSL modems for sale direct to the end user anymore as most DSL providers hand them out for free when you start your service. Sometimes you get lucky and find the things down at your local Goodwill for $3, though, and you can frequently find them for under $10 on Ebay. Given most DSL providers provide your modem for you, don’t concern yourself much with the whole IPv6 support transition as they’ll take care of it. If you’re using and configuring your own hardware, I doubt this will be an issue for you either. If you’re still interested in purchasing a new DSL modem, consider either the Actiontec GT701D or the TP-LINK TD-8816.

Routers

I normally recommend Asus routers due to their build quality and excellent support of third party firmware alternatives, but Asus recently refreshed their hardware line and third party firmware support is dodgy as of this writing (December 2013). For routers (if you don’t already have one), currently the best bang for the buck router is the Asus RT-N12/D1 which goes for around $40 these days via Newegg.com and Amazon. It does wireless B/G/N and should eventually properly support DD-WRT. If you need something that supports the 5GHz 802.11a bands, spend the extra $15 on the Asus RT-N53. It too should support DD-WRT soon enough. If you look around hard enough, you should still be able to find better supported white chassis Asus RT-N12/C and earlier refurbished models available as well as the RT-N13U/B with USB port refurbs for use with network attached storage, network printing or with USB wireless broadband modems. If you really want a feature-packed model, the Asus RT-N16 (still in production and still well supported) is still one of the most hardware feature rich models available for the money (around $85).

Now, what’s so important about being able to install DD-WRT firmware on your router? Well, long story short, the features supplied with this custom third party firmware greatly exceed functionality provided by the stock firmware provided by the manufacturer. So great are these features, that they’re capable of converting a $50 router into a feature comparable $500 Cisco business router. DD-WRT supports data throttling, bandwidth metering, quality of service settings, advanced security settings, DNS-O-Matic support for linking a customized OpenDNS account and/or DynDNS name hosting to your dynamic IP address generating ISP to simplify remote system access if you so need, for-pay hotspot access (if you choose to open yourself up to that liability), and SIP and data servers, just to start. There’s also OpenWRT and Tomato firmware which some view as superior options to DD-WRT. (I’m slowly being won over to the OpenWRT camp, myself.)

If you’d rather have hardware that supports DD-WRT out of the box, your router manufacturer of choice should be Buffalo. Their equipment is decent enough, but I don’t find their hardware build quality to be quite as good as Asus for the money… but we are still talking consumer grade equipment, so it’s still all shades of planned obsolescence unless you roll your sleeves up and bust out the soldering iron. The WZR-300HP goes for a little less than $50, and gives you wireless B/G/N support and a USB port. The WZR-600DHP is more of the same as the previous model, but with 5GHz¬†802.11a band support at a $70 price point.

Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS)

We should also touch on a small chunk of technology called the Uninterruptable Power Supply, or UPS for short. For those of you in the know, you likely don’t need to be evangelized about this miracle money-saving device. For the rest of you, let me explain what it does. The UPS is like a top to bottom electrical power conditioner. It’s like a surge strip on so many anabolic steroids that it eats other surge strips for breakfast. What it does is not only protect against power surges from lightning strikes and their ilk, it also protects against brownouts or undervoltage situations as well which can damage electronics, and it provides electricity during blackouts that allows for computer users to save work and shut down cleanly and can run low draw power devices for a long time during extended blackouts.

Additionally, the good manufacturers will insure any electrical device plugged into it against electrical damage and replace it free if the device is found to have failed. The best UPSes on the market will have something called Auto Voltage Regulation or AVR, which is a fancy term meaning that it will spit out a clean and constant 110V AC 24/7/365 no matter what’s being pumped from the outlet. Cheaper models tend to use the clamping method of voltage regulation like surge strips, which can frequently allow power spikes as high as ten times rated voltage (1200V) or higher before clamping down and suppressing the spike, which can still do damage to electronics. The absolute best for the money meeting these requirements are from APC, and CyberPower is the next best maker for those who are a bit more budget conscious.

Now, it may seem odd to bring up such a seemingly unrelated device while talking about modems and routers, but there’s a good reason for it. You see, if you’re relying on your internet to provide your core communications, it’s best to set your hardware up to mitigate downtime, and electrical damage and blackouts cause downtime. By connecting your broadband modem, your router, and your ATA device (which will be your bridge between your VoIP provider and your traditional POTS telephones – more on this later) to a beefy UPS like the CyberPower CP1000AVRLCD (<$110), you could lose power for days and still keep your telephone service active so long as your ISP hasn’t tanked as well. All it takes is a heart attack on day three of a five day snow-storm based blackout in a home with no generator, VoIP service and a dead cell phone battery to make the investment worth its weight in gold (given the ISP is still operational, but similar could be said about traditional POTS lines under these extended circumstances). It’s a small investment for peace of mind, and provides additional protection above and beyond to help your electronics last longer (including longer life out of those cheap Chinese capacitors and MOSFETs before they fail).

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