Networks, bandwidth, broadband, and cables!

My internet was recently not-working, so I had a technician out the other day fixing it. I also asked him to look into this other problem: I kept getting e-mails that said I was “automatically” upgrade to 150mbps for my broadband. Yet, I wasn’t seeing that. Using my broadband providers speed test – I regularly get something like this (over a wired connection):

image

Somewhere between 60-85 megabit – but no where near 150! The technician said everything was fine – it must be a billing problem. I called the cable company back and after a bunch of investigating – they kept saying that it was my equipment.

But I had a modern computer, so it couldn’t be my equipment right?

What IS bandwidth?
Bandwidth, or the notation of something like “10mbps” describes how much data can be processed at any one time by the device/equipment/cable. For example:

Bits per Second Megabits per Second Megabytes per Second

10,000,000

10

1.3

100,000,000

100

12.5

1,000,000,000

1,000

125.0

 
As you probably know, there are 8-bits to a byte, which is where those numbers come from. For comparison, here are some common bandwidths:
 
Bandwidth Typical use
200 kbps 3G (cell data standard)
11 mbps 802.11b WiFi
24 mbps Bluetooth v4.0
54 mbps 802.11g WiFi
100 mbps Typical Ethernet/cabled network connection at home or work
300 mbps 4G LTE (cell data standard)
600 mbps 802.11n WiFi
1 gbps Gigabit Ethernet
6 gbps SATA III (connector for disk drives)

So,  10mbps network card is theoretically capable of transferring 1.3 megabytes of data every second. The tricky part is that every other part of that connection ALSO needs to support that. That means:

  • Your network card
  • The cable that connects it
  • The hub/switch you are using
  • The cable that connects that hub to the destination
  • The other network card

In my case, knew that I had a gigabit network card – that is, a network card that is capable of 1,000mbps, yet I wasn’t connecting at those speeds. In Windows, I was seeing this:

image

despite specifically telling it to connect at 1gbps:

image

In my case, I have a hub/switch in my office into which most things plug in, and then that is plugged into my router. So, I look under my desk at that hub and I see:

WP_20150124_10_18_13_Pro

Ah-HA! I’m trying to get 1,000mbps connectivity with a device that only supports 10, and 100mbps. But it doesn’t stop there! I immediately think: “I’ll just plug directly into the router”

Then I find, I only have “Cat5” cables in my house!

What are the standards for cables?
You might think a network cable is a network cable! And rightfully so because “category 5” cables have been a standard for a looooooong time. However,have been newer standards since.

All cables should have something printed on them – which gives some details about it, because the differences aren’t otherwise obvious:

WP_20150124_10_19_43_Pro

This picture above is a category 5, unshielded twisted pair cable. What does that mean? Well, there are some standards for for Unshielded Twisted Pair – here are the relevant facts (you use “Ethernet” at home at at work):

Category Max Bandwidth Use/Description
Cat 1 1mbps Telephone, ISDN (no data transmission) – 1980’s
Cat 2 4mbps 10-Base-2, ARCnet, and Token Ring
Cat 3 10mbps 10-Base-T, Ethernet – 1990’s
Cat 4 16mbps 16mbps Token Ring
Cat 5 100mbps 10/100 for Ethernet, 16 for token ring – 2000’s
Cat 5e 1gbps Gigabit Ethernet – Cat5 with tighter specifications
Cat 6 10gbps Gigabit Ethernet – 10GBASE-T

Why cables are important:
If you are like me, and you need a network cable, you just grab one out of an old storage box. In my case though, all I have is Cat5 cables – because that’s been the standard for the past ~15 years or so. But cables are MUCH more important than that. Cables are the things that are actually doing the communicating.

More specifically, think about the scale of how perfect a cable needs to be.

If you are communicating over 100mbps, that means you are communicating over 1.3 MILLION bytes of data, every second.

Also consider that these are NOT incremental leaps. We don’t see 10mb, then 15 megabit. Every standard has been an order of magnitude! We saw 10mb, then 100mb, then 1gb. That is hard to put your brain around, so think of it like this:

This is like someone traveling 1mph, then going 10mph, and then going 100mph.

So when new hardware and cables came out for each new level of of Ethernet – these represented big changes. Each represented an order of magnitude in performance. So, when you think of your lowly network cable, imagine now how perfect it needs to be to consistently support such a thing.

On a 1gbps network, that cable is transmitting over 131 MILLION bytes per second, or 7.8 BILLION bytes per minute!

This is why, if you want to take advantage of the newer standards, you need equipment and cables that are built to a higher standard. You could almost refer to a network cable as a precision piece of equipment: because it needs to function flawlessly in order to maintain bandwidth like this.

So – what to do?
I didn’t need to, but I decided to upgrade my home networking. I have almost all 802.11n wireless interfaces (which supports ~600 mbps), and network cards that are all gigabit (1,000 mbps) – yet, I was using Cat5 cables and a 10/100 hub which was the bottleneck in my home network!

The great news is, gigabit is really the standard now, so it’s not terribly expensive to upgrade your equipment.

So, you can get Cat6 cables for pretty cheap (a few dollars a piece), and the more expensive piece I needed was a new hub. I’ve had good look with TP-Link, so I got a TL-SG1024D:

TL-SG1024D(UN)3.0-01

As I was researching, I found there were a few important metrics. One is the speed that it supports, but also how much the backbone supports. If every port has 1gbps of data coming through it, and there are 24 ports – that’s 24gbps of data passing through. However, if the backbone only supports processing 12gbps – then all of your devices will suffer in network performance. So, the backbone needs to at LEAST support the cumulative bandwidth used by ALL of the ports. This particular unit has a “switching capacity” of 48gbps – which is plenty. This would fully support all 24 ports with full-duplex gigabit connections.

After the new equipment arrived…
OK, so we’ve described the “problem” (#FirstWorldProblems) – and why it’s a problem, so then we got all new Cat6 cables and a new hub to fix the problem. What is the result?

BEFORE:

image

AFTER:

image

So, by switching out the cables primarily – and because I use a hub, switching out the hub – that MORE than doubled my internet speed! On all my cabled devices I am now connected at 1gbps too:

image

This is what the new cables look like, for comparison:

WP_20150125_14_05_43_Pro

Aside from what is printed on the cable, they look identical to a CAT5 or CAT5e – but as you can see, they definitely perform better. This picture is somewhat crude, but if it helps:

image

Before, the devices on the left (computers, etc) – and the broadband equipment on the right were completely capable of much higher speeds. However, since I had an old hub and the old cables, the central part of my home network was the slowest part. So, I replaced the hub and got new CAT6 cables for everything – and I saw a dramatic improvement in network performance.

Also, when I would do large file copies to my NAS, I would consistently see 11MB per second. Now, I consistently see about 40MB per second.

Posted in Computers and Internet, General, Infrastructure, New Technology, Organization will set you free, Professional Development, Uncategorized

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