Tag Archives: ethernet

Welcome Eero and Google to the world of Mesh

eerogoogle_wifiSince we started marketing the AyrMesh system five years ago, we have gotten inquiries from folks who have large houses, offices, and small hotels/motels – can AyrMesh work indoors? The answer, of course, is that it can work, but it’s not optimal for a number of reasons, and we do not recommend it. AyrMesh is designed for outdoor use, mainly in rural areas.

We have been able to recommend the fine Open-Mesh products for indoor and urban outdoor use, but some new products have recently entered the market.

Eero was the first in this space, with a very nice-looking product and very good technical specifications. Unlike Open-Mesh, they do not have any way to mount their units outdoors, and they only offer one model (available in a 1-, 2-, or 3-pack).

Then, this week, Google announced the new Google WiFi product, utilizing a very similar approach of very nice-looking indoor meshing access points for larger houses. The Google WiFi products will be available in November, but they can be pre-ordered.

open-meshOpen-Mesh uses their Cloudtrax website and apps to control their access points; we have used Open-Mesh here in the Ayrstone lab for years and found it to be excellent. It’s a fair bit more complicated than AyrMesh, but it has the more “commercial” features you might want for a business or a motel, and the more complex features are easily ignored for a home setup.

It’s worth mentioning that there have long been WiFi Repeaters (also known as “boosters” and “extenders”) that connect to your WiFi router and create a new WiFi signal, and devices like the Apple Airport routers that use “Wireless Distribution System” (WDS). Although a single repeater can work well, and three Apple Airport routers using WDS (one connected to the Internet and two “extenders”) can work, they don’t have the routing “smarts” of a real mesh network, and they can cause more problems than they solve. For a large house, a real WiFi meshing product like these will provide much better results without running Ethernet cables… of course, for the absolute best WiFi, there is no substitute for just running Ethernet and putting separate Access Points in each location you need WiFi. If you were clever enough to run Ethernet to the far reaches of your house before the drywall, all you have to do is plug in some dumb access points in the Ethernet – no need to mess with the indoor mesh.

The new Eero and Google WiFi products use apps to configure and control the network – I don’t know if there is a website option available, but I get the impression that the apps are the only way to control them. I don’t know about you, but my poor phone is “full” of apps, and I really don’t want another one.

So my own view is that these new players are not quite as good as what already exists in Open-Mesh, but, of course, your mileage may vary, Of course, they are being marketed like crazy, so you’re going to see them in the press all over the place.

What I think is important is that meshing WiFi is becoming mainstream, and, if you live in a large house, you don’t necessarily have to run Ethernet to get WiFi throughout the house.

Sensor networks

davis_soil_station

Courtesy of Davis Instruments

Much has been written about the use of remote sensors in farming, with soil sensors leading the way. I think it’s worthwhile to understand how these sensors work and what options are available

We have highlighted some of these products (gThrive, Farmx, Edyn), and there are others coming up including Cropx and AgSmarts that we have not been able to evaluate in depth yet, although they are very promising and appear to be more focused on “mainstream” agriculture rather than specialty crops.

The soil sensor people understand that, to have soil sensors near the plants, you have to have sensors that are battery-powered (because you don’t get enough sun under the canopy to use solar). Because of that, most soil sensors use a low-power radio system; many use a “Personal-Area Network,” usually based on the 802.15.4 low-power, low-bandwidth meshing standard. These networks allow the sensors to use very little power so the batteries can last for months or even years. Additionally, the bandwidth (the amount of radio spectrum they use) is so low that they can transmit a very long distance with minimal power – frequently hundreds of yards – and the meshing capability means they can cover a very large area in a couple of hops. So these sensor networks actually ARE practical for gathering data from sensors, even in a very large field.

gThriveKit_ACPowered-001

gThrive sensors and gLink gateway – Courtesy of gThrive

However, these systems, just like your home WiFi network, require a “gateway” device out in the field to connect them to the larger network (your AyrMesh network or the Internet). The Edyn sensor is an exception, because it connects directly to your WiFi network, but it is primarily aimed at gardeners, not commercial agriculture. Davis Instruments uses the weather station as the Gateway device, which makes it simple, but it does not use a meshing system, which limits how many sensors you can deploy. For almost all systems, sensors are not directly on your network or the Internet – the field network is a special network that only “talks” to the gateway device, and the gateway device “talks” to a normal Internet Protocol network – and that is usually a cellular modem connected to the Internet.

I generally discount analyst firms, but I have to reluctantly give kudos to Lux Research for hitting the nail right on the head: sensors are too expensive. With the exception of the Edyn, which you can buy at Home Depot (and connect to your AyrMesh network or other WiFi source), you have to buy:

  1. However many individual sensors you want,
  2. A Gateway device for your sensor network (possibly multiple gateway devices if you want sensors in multiple fields), and
  3. Cellular subscriptions for each gateway device.

This is a lot of “commitment” before you even figure out how to effectively use the sensors and the data that comes from them – thousands of dollars just to get started plus a monthly or annual commitment to get the data. These systems are being marketed primarily to folks growing wine grapes in California or vegetables in Arizona – high-value crops with severe water costs and restrictions.

There are changes coming, of course, but there are also ways to get started now with less commitment.

in_garden_2_smallFirst, if you’re growing a few acres of cut flowers, organic vegetables, or other high-value, high-intensity crops, the Edyn system may be very useful. Put an AyrMesh Hub near your field and deploy the Edyn sensors and valves controllers. You don’t have to save a lot of time and water to justify the expense.

Davis Weather Envoy

Davis Weather Envoy, courtesy of Davis Instruments

Second, Davis Instruments has a nice system that they don’t advertise much. Their Wireless Weather Envoy datalogger can be connected to any Ethernet network (e.g. a Remote AyrMesh Hub, an AyrMesh Receiver, or an AyrMesh Bridge) using their Weatherlink IP module. It can then connect to their Soil Sensor Station, which has up to four soil moisture and soil temperature probes.  It will also connect to a Vantage Vue wireless weather station, which is a very high-quality, low-cost, integrated weather instrument cluster that you can put up in any field in a matter of minutes. There’s a small annual fee for their cloud-based Weatherlink service, but it makes the system VERY easy to use.

If you need more soil sensors, they also build an Envoy 8x, which has the ability to simultaneously “talk” to up to 8 stations – weather stations or soil stations – within about 1000 yards.

batteriesEither the Wireless Weather Envoy or the Envoy 8x can be tucked into the cabinet of the Tycon remote power system we recommend for field Hubs, Receivers, or Bridge radios, and powered from the auxiliary power output on that system.

Third, if you do want to deploy many soil sensors using a system like gThrive or Farmx, you can connect the gateways in each field to an AyrMesh devvice to avoid exorbitant cellular fees for each gateway device. Their gateway devices have Ethernet ports, so they can be connected directly to an AyrMesh Remote Hub, Receiver, or Bridge unit, and you can skip the cellular bills.

We’ll have more on weather and soil sensors – if you have questions or comments, please leave them here (for public response) or contact us.

 

The hard part of wireless networking: the wires.

iStock_000009813431XSmallIt’s actually an old joke in the wireless networking world: what’s the worst part of wireless networking? The wires!

(OK, it’s an old dumb joke…)

While having WiFi all over the farm is incredibly useful, the only way to make it happen is using Ethernet cables. While Ethernet cables are very simple devices, there are an amazing number of variations and types of Ethernet cables, an choosing the wrong ones (or using them poorly) can cost you time and money.

What is an Ethernet cable?

Cat_5

Courtesy of WikiMedia

Ethernet cables all have some common characteristics: they contain 4 pairs of wires, with each pair twisted around each other (so they are called “twisted-pair” cables). They have an outer sheath to protect the wires inside and they use RJ-45 connectors to connect to networking devices.

The 4 pairs of wires inside the sheath are usually colored green, brown, blue, and orange – one solid and one striped for each color. The wires are usually 100% copper, but some cheaper cables are made of alloys. Alloy cable works OK for short lengths, but should not be used for cables longer than 25 feet. There is sometimes an uninsulated wire running down the middle of the cable called a “drain wire” – this is meant to provide a common ground for the equipment the cable is connected to.

The wires are usually about 24 gauge (AWG), but some cheaper cables use 26 gauge wire, and some more expensive cables use 22 gauge wire. Obviously, the bigger the wire the better, as long as it’s pure copper, but bigger wire also makes heavier cables. It makes a difference if you’re hauling it up a ladder, believe me.

Kinds of Ethernet Cables

Under the sheath, some cables have a shield made of metallic braid or foil. This shield keeps outside noise from penetrating the cable and disrupting the signal on the wires. Unshielded cables are designated as “UTP” (Unshielded Twisted Pair), while shielded cables are designated “STP” (Shielded Twisted Pair). Our experience shows that any cable over 25 feet should be shielded to prevent corruption of the data on the wires and maintain the speed of the data.

You will see, shopping for Ethernet cables, that there are several “Categories” of cable – Cat 5, Cat 5e, and Cat 6 are the common ones available now. The differences are in the speed rating of the cables – Cat 5 can pass data at 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps, Cat 5e can pass data at 10, 100, or 1000 Mbps, and Cat 6 can go up to 10 Gbps. Any of these will work well with AyrMesh equipment – we usually buy Cat5e cables because they are less expensive and widely available. The main physical differences in the cables is how tightly the wire pairs are twisted together.

Finally, the sheath itself can differ quite widely. The normal sheath is usually a form of polyolefin, which does not burn easily. “Plenum-rated” and “Riser-rated” sheaths are coated with a low-smoke PVC, which makes them even more flameproof and reduces the toxicity of the smoke if they do catch on fire. “Direct burial” cables generally have a very thick and heavy sheath, and they may contain a gel that prevents a nick or cut in the cable from admitting water into the cable. Obviously, if water gets into the cable, the wires can corrode and the cable will go bad, but direct burial cables are usually very stiff and very heavy, making them extremely difficult to work with.

Whichever cable you choose, it is imperative that you handle it correctly. Because the cable consists of a bunch of small wires, it is really no stronger than any of those wires. It’s very easy to get a kink in a cable when you’re pulling it through a hole, for instance, and break one of the wires. When that happens, the cable is generally useless.

General Guidelines for Ethernet cables used with AyrMesh products

  • Make sure the cables are all-copper and shielded (STP) if they’re 25 feet or longer.
  • Try to get 24 or 22 AWG wires in the cable.
  • Get plenum-rated or riser-rated cables for use indoors, but don’t use direct burial cables unless you’re going to bury them – they’re too hard to manage.
  • ALWAYS leave a “drip loop” when you’re bringing a cable run from outside to inside a building so water doesn’t run down the cable and ruin equipment!
  • Be VERY careful pulling cables – they are more fragile than they seem!