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One of the most critical components to operating a successful wireless network is having the right antennas. Antennas come in many different shapes and sizes, each designed for a specific function. Selecting the right antennas for your network is crucial to achieving optimum network performance. In addition, using the right antennas can decrease your networking costs since you’ll need fewer antennas and access points.
Basically, a wireless network consists of data, voice, and video information packets being transmitted over low-frequency radio waves instead of electrically over copper cable or via light over fiber lines. The antenna acts as a radiator and transmits waves through the air, just like radio and TV stations. Antennas also receive the waves from the air and transport them to the receiver, which is a radio, TV, or in the case of wireless networking, a router or an access point.
The type of antennas you use depends on what type of network you’re setting up and the coverage you need. How large is your network? Is it for a home, single office, campus, or larger? Is it point-to-point or multipoint?
The physical design-walls, floors, etc.- of the building(s) you’re working in also affects the type and number of antennas you need. In addition, physical terrain affects your antenna choices. Obviously, a clear line of sight works best, but you need to consider obstructions such as trees, buildings, hills, and water. (Radio waves travel faster over land than water.) You even need to consider traffic noise in urban settings.
Let’s take a look at the different types of antennas.
Isotropic Antenna. First, think of the introduction to the old RKO movies. A huge tower sits on top of the world and emanates circular waves in all directions. If you could actually see the waves, they would form a perfect sphere around the tower. This type of antenna is called an isotropic antenna, and does not exist in the real world. It is theoretical and is used as a base point for measuring actual antennas.
Now let’s turn to real-world antennas. There are many types of antennas that emit radio waves in different directions, shapes, and on different planes. Think of the spherical isotropic antenna. If squeezed from the sides, it will become shaped like a wheel and will concentrate waves on a vertical plane. If squeezed from the top, it will flatten out like a pancake and radiate waves on a horizontal plane. Thus, there are two basic types of antennas: directional and omnidirectional.
Directional antennas, primarily used in point-to-point networks, concentrate the waves in one direction much like a flashlight concentrates light in a narrow beam. Directional antennas include backfire, Yagi, dish, panel, and sector.
Backfire. This small directional antenna looks like a cake pan with a tin can in the middle. It’s designed to be compact, often under 11" in diameter, making it unobtrusive and practical for outdoor use. These antennas also offer excellent gain, and can be used in both point-to-point or point-to-multipoint systems.
Yagi. The Yagi-Uda (or Yagi) antenna is named for its Japanese inventors. The antenna was originally intended for radio use and is now frequently used in 802.11 wireless systems.
A Yagi antenna is highly directional. It looks like a long fishbone with a central spine and perpendicular rods or discs at specified intervals. Yagi antennas offer superior gain and highly vertical directionality. The longer the Yagi, the more focused its radiation is. Many outdoor Yagi antennas are covered in PVC so you can’t see the inner structure.
Yagi antennas are good for making point-to-point links in long narrow areas (for instance, connecting to a distant point in a valley) or for point-to-point links between buildings. They can also be used to extend the range of a point-to-multipoint network.
Parabolic or Dish. These antennas look like a circular or rectangular concave bowl or "dish". The backboard can be solid or a grid design. Parabolic grid designs are excellent for outdoor use since the wind blows right through them. The concave nature of this dish design focuses energy into a narrow beam that can travel long distances, even up to several miles. This makes parabolic antennas ideal for point-to-point network connections. Since they generate a narrow beam in both the horizontal and vertical planes, offer excellent gain, and minimize interference, they’re ideal for long-distance point-to-point networks.
Panel or Patch. These antennas are often square or rectangular, and they’re frequently hung on walls. They’re designed to radiate horizontally forward and to the side, but not behind them. Sometimes they’re called "picture-frame" antennas.
Panel antennas are ideal in applications where the access point is at one end of a building. They’re good for penetrating a single floor of a building, and for small and medium-size homes and offices. Since they might not have much vertical radiation, they might not be a good choice for multifloor applications.
Because panel antennas can be easily concealed, they’re a good choice when aesthetics are important.
Sector. A sector antenna can be any type of antenna that directs the radio waves in a specific area. They are often large, outdoor flat-panel or dish-type antennas mounted up high and tilted downward toward the ground. These antennas are often used in sprawling campus settings to cover large areas.
Omnidirectional antennas provide the widest coverage possible and are generally used in point-to-multipoint networks. Their range can be extended by overlapping circles of coverage from multiple access points. Most omnidirectional antennas emanate waves in a fan-shaped pattern on a horizontal plane. Overall, omnidirectional antennas have lower gain than directional antennas. Examples of omnidirectional antennas include: integrated, blade, and ceiling.
Integrated. Integrated antennas are antennas that are built into wireless networking devices. They may be embedded in PC card client adapters or in the covers or body of laptops or other devices, such as access points. Integrated antennas often do not offer the same reception as external antennas and might not pick up weak signals. Access points with integral antennas must often be moved or tilted to get the best reception.
Blade. These small, omnidirectional antennas are often housed in long, thin envelopes of plastic. They are most often used to pick up a signal in a low-signal or no-signal spot. You usually will see them on the walls of cubicles, mounted on desktops, or even hung above cubicles to catch signals. They’re basically an inexpensive signal booster.
Ceiling Dome. These are sometimes also called ceiling blister antennas. They look somewhat like a smoke detector and are designed for unobtrusive use in ceilings, particularly drop ceilings. Ceiling dome antennas often have a pigtail for easy connection to access points. They’re excellent for use in corporate environments where wide coverage over a cube farm is needed.
To better understand wireless antennas and networking, there are some basic measurements and terms that need to be discussed.
Gain. One of the primary measurements of antennas is gain. Gain is measured as dBi, which is how much the antenna increases the transmitter’s power compared to the theoretical isotropic antenna, which has a gain of 0 dBi. dBi is the true gain the antenna provides to the transmitter’s output. Gain is also reciprocal-it’s the same transmitting and receiving. Higher gain means stronger sent and received signals. An easy way to remember gain basics is that every 3 dB of gain added doubles the effective power output of an antenna. The more an antenna concentrates a signal, the higher the gain it will have.
You can actually calculate the gains and losses of a system by adding up the gains and losses of its parts in decibels.
Frequency and Wavelength. Electromagnetic waves are comprised of two components: frequency and wavelength.
Frequency is how many waves occur each second. Wavelength is the distance between one peak of a wave and the next peak. Lower frequencies have longer wavelengths; higher frequencies have shorter wavelengths. For example, the frequency of AM radio is 1 MHz with a wavelength of about 1000 feet. FM radios operate at a much higher frequency of 100 MHz and have a wavelength of about 100 feet.
The two most common frequencies for wireless networking are 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz. Both are very high frequencies with very short wavelengths in the microwave band. The 2.4-GHz frequency has a wavelength of about 5 inches.
Beamwidth. Consider an antenna to be like a flashlight or spotlight. It reflects and directs the light (or radio waves) in a particular direction. Beamwidth actually measures how energy is focused or concentrated.
Polarization. This is the direction in which the antenna radiates wavelengths, either vertically, horizontally, or circularly. Vertical antennas have vertical polarization and are the most common. For optimum performance, it is important that the sending and receiving antennas have the same polarization.
VSWR and Return Loss. Voltage Standing Wave Ratio (VSWR) measures how well the antenna is matched to the network at the operating frequency being used. It indicates how much of the received signal won’t reach either the transceiver or receiver. Return loss measures how well matched an antenna is to the network. Typical VSWR numbers are 1:1.2 or 1:1.5. A typical return loss number is 20.
Applications such as document imaging, video/multimedia production, and intranetworking are very demanding. They generate huge data files that often must be transferred between stations based on strict timing requirements. If such traffic is not transmitted efficiently, you end up with jerky video, on-screen graphics that take forever to load, or other irritating, debilitating problems.
These problems arise because in traditional LANs, only one network node transmits data at a time while all other stations listen. This works in conventional, server-based LANs where multiple workstations share files or applications housed on a central server. But if a network has several servers, or if it supports high-bandwidth, peer-to-peer applications such as videoconferencing, the one-station-at-a-time model just doesn’t work.
Ideally, each LAN workstation should be configured with its own dedicated LAN cable segment. But that’s neither practical nor affordable. A far more reasonable solution is a network designed to provide clear paths from each workstation to its destination on demand, whether that destination is another workstation or server.
Unlike bridges and routers, which process data packets on an individual, first-come, first-served basis, switches maintain multiple, simultaneous data conversions among attached LAN segments.
From the perspective of an end-user workstation, a switched circuit appears to be a dedicated connection-a direct, full-speed LAN link to an attached server or other remote LAN node. Although this technique is somewhat different from what a LAN bridge or router does, switching hubs are based on similar technologies.
Switching hubs that use bridging technologies are called Layer 2 switches-a reference to Layer 2 or the Data-Link Layer of the OSI Model. These switches operate using the MAC addresses in Layer 2 and are transparent to network protocols. Switches that use routing technologies are known as Layer 3 switches, referring to Layer 3—the Network Layer—of the OSI Model. These switches, like routers, represent the next higher level of intelligence in the hardware hierarchy. Rather than passing packets based on MAC addresses, these switches look into the data structure and route it based on the network addresses found in Layer 3. They are also dependent on the network protocol.
Layer 2 switches connect different parts of the same network as determined by the network number contained with the data packet. Layer 3 switches connect LANs or LAN segments with different network numbers.
If you’re subdividing an existing LAN, obviously you’re dealing with only one network and one network number, so you can install a Layer 2 switch wherever it will segment network traffic the best, and you don’t have to reconfigure the LAN. However, if you use a Layer 3 switch, you’ll have to reconfigure the segments to ensure that each has a different network number.
Similarly, if you’re connecting existing networks, you have to examine the currently configured network numbers before adding a switch. If the network numbers are the same, you need to use a Layer 2 switch. If they’re different, you must use a Layer 3 switch.
When dealing with multiple existing networks, you’ll find they usually use different network numbers. In this case, it’s preferable to use a Layer 3 switch (or possibly even a full-featured router) to avoid reconfiguring the network.
But what if you’re designing a network from scratch and can choose either type of switch? Your decision should be based on the expected complexity of your LAN. Layer 3 routing technology is well suited for complex networks. Layer 2 switches are recommended for smaller, less complex networks.
Setting up wireless devices that belong to the 802.11 family is relatively simple, but you do have to pay attention to a few simple factors.
The 802.11 wireless standards support two basic configurations: ad-hoc mode and infrastructure mode.
In ad-hoc mode, wireless user devices such as laptop computers and PDAs communicate directly with each other in a peer-to-peer manner without the benefit of access points.
Ad-hoc mode is generally used to form very small spontaneous networks. For instance, with ad-hoc mode, laptop users in a meeting can quickly establish a small network to share files.
Infrastructure mode uses wireless access points to enable wireless devices to communicate with each other and with your wired network. Most networks use infrastructure mode.
The basic components of infrastructure mode networks include:
Access points are standalone hardware devices that provide a central point of communication for your wireless users. How many you need in your application depends on the number of users and the amount of bandwidth required by each user. Bandwidth is shared, so if your network has many users who routinely send data-heavy multimedia files, additional access points may be required to accommodate the demand.
A small-office network with fewer than 15 users may need just 1 access point. Larger networks require multiple points. If the hardware supports it, you can overlap coverage areas to allow users to roam between cells without any break in network coverage. A user’s wireless device picks up a signal beacon from the strongest access point to maintain seamless coverage.
How many access points to use also depends on your operating environment and the required range. Radio propagation can be affected by walls and electrical interference that can cause signal reflection and fading. If you’re linking mobile users indoors-where walls and other obstructions impede the radiated signal-the typical maximum range is 150 feet. Outdoors, you can get greater WLAN range-up to 2000 feet (depending on your antenna type) where there’s a clear line of sight!
For optimal speed and range, install your wireless access point several feet above the floor or ground and away from metal equipment or large appliances that may emit interference.
In addition to sharing bandwidth, users also share a band. Most IEEE 802.11 or 802.11b devices function in the 2.4-2.4835-GHz band. But these frequencies are often congested, so you may want to use devices that take advantage of the IEEE 802.11a 5.725-5.825-GHz band.
No matter what frequency you use, you’ll want to isolate your users from outsiders using the same frequency. To do this, assign your users a network identifier, such as an Extended Service Set Identifier (ESSID), as well as distinct channels.
The access point links your wireless network to your wired network, enabling your wireless users to access shared data resources and devices across your LAN enterprise. Some access points even feature capabilities for routing traffic in one or both directions between a wired and wireless network.
For Internet access, connect a broadband router with an access point to an Internet connection over a broadband service such as DSL, cable modem, or satellite.
For connecting network printers, you can dedicate a computer to act as a print server or add a wireless print server device; this enables those on your wireless network to share printers.
If you plan to install access points, you can boost your signal considerably by adding external antennas. Various mounting configurations and high- and low-gain options are available.
You can also use add-on antennas to connect nodes where the topology doesn’t allow for a clear signal between access points. Or use them to link multiple LANs located far apart.
Additional external antennas are also useful to help overcome the effects of multipath propagation in which a signal takes different paths and confuses the receiver. It’s also helpful to deploy antennas that propagate the signal in a way that fits the environment. For instance, for a long, narrow corridor, use an antenna that focuses the RF pattern in one direction instead of one that radiates the signal in all directions.
A site survey done ahead of time to plot where the signal is the strongest can help you identify problem areas and avoid dead spots where coverage isn’t up to par or is unreliable. For this, building blueprints are helpful in revealing potential obstructions that you might not see in your physical site walkthrough.
To field test for a clear signal path, attach an antenna to an access point or laptop acting as the transmitter at one end. Attach another antenna to a wireless device acting as a receiver at the other end. Then check for interference using RF test equipment (such as a wireless spectrum analyzer) and determine whether vertical or horizontal polarization will work best.
Need help doing this? Call us. We even offer a Site Survey Kit that has a variety of antennas included. Great for installers, the kit enables you to test a variety of antennas in the field before placing a larger antenna order.
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