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  • Writer's pictureDonald MacLeay

When Engineering Needs a Faster Network

When Engineering Needs a Faster Network

Updated 6/29/2021

… or any time when larger files require a much faster network.

One of the main reasons NOT to keep your files in the cloud is to have better performance.

When your office is working in design or engineering, file sizes can be quite large and the interaction between the software on the local computer and the data on the network can require much better performance than for clerical work. For such users, the cloud alone will not run their business because acceptable performance of the graphic and design software will only work locally or on a local network.

And there is a need for multiple people to work on the same project, so just making a local copy does not let the team work well. This is especially true with some of the network software packages used in civil engineering and geology that often work in tandem on the same projects.

If you run an office that found that you need to keep your server, you know this.

Before deciding that network speed is what is really causing a performance problem, make sure that your workstations are up to par for the job required. Don’t just check them running the suspected software, check them running ALL the software the employee uses at the same time. You might find that with everything running, that local copy does not run so well after all.

I have written about high needs design and engineering level workstations: Engineers, Designers and Architects Need Customized Computers

So, how fast is your network and is it fast enough?

Practically speaking, the top standard today is a Category 6a network with routers, switches and computer network connections that are all up to the new speeds. For the most part, 6a has not become in the in-house standard yet, but expect it to become standard over the next 5 to 10 years.

The 6a rated speed is 10 gigabits. Probably fast enough to fix a speed issue if you do not have any of the issues described below. If you do have a 6a network, or decide to upgrade, the general physical network advice in this article still applies.

For 6a you need everything, router, wires, terminals, wireless, switches, servers and workstations to be up to the same speeds and standards that 10-gigabit networking requires.

Here is a link to some basic info on 6a and I promise a blog on this subject soon.

If you are not ready to make the expensive jump to a 6a network, the “quick fix” for local network performance is to upgrade the local area network to all gigabit speed. This is fairly easy since today all of the network cards in the workstations and servers have gigabit built in. Most wiring is now category 5e or 6, or should be. Switches that include gigabit as an option are the norm and are not expensive. In many cases, we are already there, but the performance is still lacking.

Many, maybe most, offices are running gigabit without knowing it. Of those, most are running gigabit in only part of the office without knowing it. An older and even not so much older office might have a mix of cat5, cat5e and cat6 cables, connecters and switches.

It is probably a good idea to have a professional cable company check your wires before taking any other actions when troubleshooting slow speeds. When inspecting an office with performance problems we come across some common problems, for example:

  • Any break in the chain can easily slow the gigabit network speed down by 90%. All it takes is one device, usually a switch under a desk, to be 10/100 speed only and that is as fast as things will go. Sometimes there is a switch in the server room that is high quality, but still only running the older speeds.

  • Wireless access points do not handle the faster speeds, nor does the connection to the workstation computer. Even when they do, it is nowhere need gigabit speeds because one or the other, or both ends are 802.11ac. (To use anything faster usually requires 802.11ax.)

  • Incorrectly terminated wall plugs or patch panel stops can wreak havoc on a gigabit network causing poorer performance than the old 100 speed. So can an older Cat 5 patch panel or connection cable. In a recent inspection, we found 10 of 40 drops to be below rated speed.

  • In some places we find that the wires are Cat6, but the patch panel itself is an older one. That was a mistake when it was put in and will continue to cause trouble.

  • Skimping on cables is a way to save very little money and cause a lot of poor performance and lost time. When in doubt, just replace any patch and desk cable with a high-quality Cat 6 wire with solid factory terminations. (You can tell those because the plug is molded into place and CAT6 will be printed on the side of the wire.)

  • If your cables in the walls are only Category 5, it is time for a change. (Even if all of your wires are Cat5e or Cat6, change is coming.)

  • Yanking on wires, wrapping them around electrical devices and furniture or walking on them can only cause grief. Any good office supply store will sell floor protectors.

Sometimes a gigabit connection is not enough no matter how well executed.

How would you know? Well, ask the staff about the performance. You might find your techs says all is well, but they have copied the file to the local machine to avoid performance problems and then are copying the file back to the network when done and they are not using the integration your software provides. At times copying a file to local is a decent way to solve the problem, and the procedure can be set up without confusing other users and the backup back to the servers can be automated.

In practice, keeping a local copy can also easily lead to a mess. We have found software linked to data on an employee’s personal laptop, so when that laptop is not on the network, other employees could not use the complete project file.

In most occasions thought, keeping a local file simply does not work. There are times when the needs to share and collaborate are key and there are times when the file or files need to be opened with auxiliary files and sometimes there are different parts of a project open with different pieces of software at the same time. Quality estimating software often integrates with design and engineering software, or at least the files. Sometimes all three of these things are true at once, as can be the case in geology and civil engineering.

One other setup change can improve performance: segmenting.

Often, large plotters, big color laser printers that handle larger paper sizes and things like larger scanners, not to mention specialized equipment, are all set to the old 100BaseT speed and would cost a lot to upgrade or replace. Normally quality printing devices outlast the other computers on a network.

It is not hard to have your network divided (segmented) into parts. Common is to have one network handle the communications between the workstations and the servers, another segment handles the communication between servers and yet another is set aside for the server to printer connection. In larger offices we sometimes find the need to divide the office workstations up to groups and have each group connect to the server on its own subnet.

There are two reasons that this solution is not very common. First is because it only helps when network traffic and speed are what is slowing things down, and two, even though this is part of any training course, many technicians have never had the opportunity to segment a network.

For the office manager, there are three take away messages:

  1. Speed issues might or might not be the problem.

  2. The wiring and switches might not be performing as rated.

  3. There are options and network traffic is something that needs some traffic engineering.


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