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Homeplug logoWhen it comes to networking the small office or home office, the choices can be very limited. The ideal network would be Ethernet or another wired technology, but it is not always possible to run cable through the walls of rental offices, older office or home offices.
Many accounting firms have solved the problem by using Wi-Fi, but that solution brings its own set of problems. Security is an issue: first, because it is complicated enough that many users simply give up and turn it off; second, because it degrades the range and performance of Wi-Fi devices. Even without security issues, Wi-Fi signals are generally not capable of bridging brick walls and other obstacles with any degree of reliability.

So the choice has been an expensive wired retrofit of the building, or the use of an insecure wireless network. For  firms handling sensitive client data, that's a situation that calls for a better solution. That better solution may be powerline networking using Homeplug technology.

Powerline Networking
Powerline networking uses wiring intended to carry electrical power to also carry a digital communications signal. On a larger scale, an effort was made to use powerline networking as an alternative to cable or DSL. This effort proved largely unsuccessful due to the requirements for signal repeaters over long distances and some problems with radio signal interference on adjacent frequencies.

More recently, powerline networking has seen a rebirth of sorts in two smaller-scale applications - internal networking in automobiles, using the DC current system; and Small Office/Home Office networking via Homeplug technology. Homeplug is the specification created by the Homeplug Powerline Alliance, and was adopted in 2010. The more than 60 members of the alliance include such familiar names in networking equipment as Cisco Systems, D-Link, Sony and Belkin International.

A homeplug system plugs into any common electrical outlet near the router or modem. An Ethernet cable runs from the modem/router to the homplug device. Anywhere else on that electrical circuit, you can plug in another device and run Ethernet to the computer. The two homeplug devices are synchronized at the touch of a button for fast, reliable networking. "The real benefit of using Homeplug in the accounting sector is that this is a secure, plug-and-play technology," says Rob Ranck, president of the Homeplug Powerline Alliance. "It uses 128-bit AES security that is there right out of the box, and most users can install it simply by plugging the units in."

The practical limits of the system are a running distance of about 300 feet and a practical limitation to 16 connections on the network. This latter limit is due to the fact that all of the devices on the network would share the available bandwidth. "Homeplug offers three major advantages," says Ranck. "It is plug-and-play. The connections are reliable. And the network offers strong performance in terms of throughput."

Testing The Homeplug System
For testing purposes, we purchased four homplug units - three Cisco Linksys PLEK400 units and one PLWK400 wireless unit, each with an average retail cost of $45. The test building was a two-story brick unit with both stone and drywall walls between offices. The building was 26 years old, with no wiring for Ethernet.

Installation was as advertised. We plugged one of the PLEK400 units into the wall, ran a short Ethernet cable to the DSL modem/router, and then installed another PLEK400 at the other end of the building, some 150 feet away, connected to a PC. A third unit was installed on the second floor, also at the end of the building opposite the router. The computers recognized the units and the network was up and running. The advertised network sped of 500 Mbits was substantially above our 3MB connection, so speed was not an issue. We saw no signs of signal degradation or lost packets due to network performance during the three-week trial period.

Sometimes, there is a valid requirement for Wi-Fi, and for that we used the PLWK400 unit. This acts in the same manner as a wireless extender, except that we were able to place it on the other side of several brick walls. This meant a stronger Wi-Fi signal at the other end of the run, and better throughput speeds.

Other users reported that they have had problems when the homeplug units were on different circuits within the same circuit breaker panel (as when the two stories of a building have separate circuits). Our multiple tests of this scenario did not cause any problems with the network. That may be because the technology itself is still evolving rapidly. Issues that occurred with equipment in 2010 may have been resolved by now, and this cross-panel issue may be a case in point. Similarly, there should be no reason why crossing between two circuit breaker panels should remain an obstacle, so long as there is a clear pathway between the two.

This continuous improvement cycle may make it more difficult to evaluate Homeplug Powerline products based on user reviews. Reviews posted in the past may indicate problems that no longer exist. It is possible that the only way to evaluate the products in their current state is to purchase two units and test them in all of the locations at which the need for connectivity is anticipated.

With these relatively minor limitations, Homeplug Powerline products present a viable and more reliable alternative to Wi-Fi for home office and small office network for accountants. At a price point that is favorable, these units should be considered either as an alternative for new offices or retrofit for existing Wi-Fi applications.


The Single Negativ
e
The homeplug system provided an effective network with a minimum of installation or operational problems in all but one area - bridging multiple circuit breaker boxes. This is an identified but intermittent problem in that it doesn't occur in every circuit breaker box, or every network connection. For a test bed we ran the network to a second building that was on the same power line but had its own circuit breaker panel. Sometimes the connection would work; other times it would not.

 

Dave McClure

David P. McClure is a technologist and business consultant whose career has included eight years with the NASA Space Shuttle Program and assignments in marketing, environmental services, software publishing and broadband.  He founded the US Internet Industry Association, the nation's primary trade association for Internet and broadband companies.  In 2004 he was awarded a Cornerstone Award for leadership in the broadband industry.  In the same year, he was named to the Board of Directors of the Universal Service Administrative Corporation, the non-profit corporation that oversees the nation's $8 billion universal service telecommunications fund.  His areas of expertise include software management, strategic and market planning, global technology policy and technology audits.  He is the author of more than 100 white papers on business management, technology, customer service and strategic planning.

Last modified on Sunday, 02 June 2013
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