Introducing the Smarthome – Contest Winner

Reproduced from Cisco’s web site: An Interview with the Overall Winner from Cisco’s employee contest for the Best Home Network among all 57,000 employees worldwide.

Grand Prize Winner: Andrew Ward, San Leandro, California, USA

Andrew Ward’s prize-winning home network diagram PDF (PDF – 357 K) looks rather complicated. It is, in fact, easy to be intimidated by its complexity. But, according to Ward, “It only looks complicated because I’ve built it up, piece by piece over several years. It started out pretty simply when we moved to our house nine years ago. I wanted to build a home automation system, and after I installed that the rest of the network grew from there.”

Smart Home: HAL Talks Back

Ward’s early home network began with the Home Automation Incorporated’s Aegis system, now called “Omni Pro.” This setup allowed him to control his heating and air conditioning and lighting and security systems through a dedicated controller, connected to his home LAN via a PC and out to the Internet via a secure VPN router. He installed X10 server-controlled lighting fixtures and controls throughout the house. Later he added a server with HAL-2000 voice recognition software, along with five sets of speakers, omnidirectional PZM microphones, and LED status lights in five separate rooms in his house, connected through a Shure automatic mic mixer that allowed people to speak to the server. The mic mixer had special sound gain and settable thresholds, to make sure that only one microphone was operating at a time and to eliminate feedback from the speakers.

Ward programmed the server (called ” Butler”) to respond to a series of voice commands. So, people in the Ward house can say “Open the blinds” or “Turn off the lights” in a particular room, and the server responds to the command. Ask “Where is the lowest gas price in San Leandro?” or “What is the Cisco stock price?” and the system will tell you. The command “Goodnight house” will turn off the lights, lock the two doors with electric deadbolts, and reset the thermostat. “Living room theater mode” will dim the lights in the living room, close the blinds, and set up the video system. Ward later connected the home phone system to the server so he could interact with the voice recognition home automation system over the phone—from anywhere in the house or anywhere in the world.

“People who come over to our house remember ‘Butler’ more than anything else,” says Ward. “When they see me, they often ask “How’s your ‘butler’ doing?”

Network Core: a Cisco Catalyst 2924 XL

Nearly all of the network components in Ward’s house are connected via a Cisco Catalyst 2924XL Switch. “This switch is the best part of my network. I can use features that no other switch in this price range can deliver,” says Ward. Throughput is excellent, and he can label the ports electronically, turn them on and off remotely, and view status and conduct traffic analysis on a per-port basis, which helps in troubleshooting performance issues and other network problems.

Ward also provides Internet access for a friend several miles away. How? He installed two high-gain directional antennae in weatherproof external housings, one at his house and one at his friend’s house, set up a wireless router at his friend’s house with custom SveaSoft software to boost the radio power output, and shares his Internet access. He also uses the rate-limiting feature IOS Software in the Cisco Catalyst 2924 Switch (set to 2 Mbps) to ensure that his friend doesn’t inadvertently use up the entire Internet bandwidth.

Protecting His Children on the Internet

“I’ve been playing with the VLAN [virtual LAN] features of the Cisco 2924 Switch, but haven’t got it configured yet,” Ward says. “Protecting my three children is important to me, and VLANs can help.” He uses a Zyxell X550 because it offers customizable filters and some time of day and other parental control features, and packet-inspection features that make it easier to monitor his children’s use of the internet. Currently his children’s PCs connect to a separate 10/100 switch and then to the Zyxell. Ward would like to simplify the architecture (and remove a redundant piece of equipment) by connecting both the Zyxell and the children’s PCs directly into the Catalyst 2924 Switch, and put both into a single VLAN.

“I also run ‘Sentry at Home’ software to monitor my children’s traffic and to do some website content filtering,” says Ward. “However, tools like this are only useful after you teach your children self control and the wisdom to use the Internet without falling prey to its dangers.” Before he was running Sentry at Home, Ward made sure that his children used PCs only in a public area of the house rather than in their bedrooms.

Home Entertainment: Changing the Way We Play

“What would I take with me if I were stranded on a desert island? Well, Internet access would be first. And my TiVo would be second,” says Ward. “It allows us to take control of TV viewing. We don’t have to watch TV at one time or sit through the ads we don’t like.”

The Ward family has a TiVo with a dual tuner, to allow recording of two different channels simultaneously. The TiVo also has an Ethernet port to allow it to connect to the home network and the Internet. This connection allows the family to download videos for playing directly from video servers such as Amazon Unbox and to connect the TiVo to the home network. Favorite TV shows and family photos are stored in a PC dedicated to video storage and video editing, and not much else. Reducing the number of programs on the server keeps it stable and fast. All the shows that Andrew and his family want to keep are uploaded from the TiVo to the video PC and then watched on TV or downloaded to other systems. They can view their photos on the TiVo-connected TV or download stored TV shows for viewing now or later. “I routinely download ‘Mythbusters’ episodes from the video PC to my video iPod and watch them whenever I’m waiting in line in a store or at the bank,” Ward says.

Ward also has a Sony Location-Free TV, a portable LCD TV with a wireless connection to a small base station on the network. It supports a touch-sensitive screen with a built-in menu, allowing Ward to select video streams from different inputs such as the cable TV signal, the TiVo box, or the video server. It can access the web with a built-in web browser and e-mail client, although Ward uses its web access mostly to stream video signals from any one of his video-serving systems across the Internet and to his PC wherever he is in the world, similar to the capabilities of Slingbox.

Home Office: Changing the Way We Work

“I not only work from home, I also connect to my home network from work. In fact, I connect to my work network and my home network from anywhere in the world,” according to Ward.

Ward connects to the Internet cable provider with an small VPN router, which provides the first level of firewall defense and also supports a secure VPN tunnel that he can connect to from work. The Ovislink router supports fast port forwarding to allow access to virtual servers on the home network and Dynamic DNS with auto update (which allows Andrew to access any device from outside his home, despite his ISP changing the IP address of his VPN router). He can turn on his office PC (which is usually left turned off) with its “wake on LAN” feature whenever he needs to access a file or to pay bills from the office PC.

Ward also uses Microsoft Windows Remote Desktop and freely-available VNC to control his home office PC from other locations. This remote control is useful for troubleshooting issues for his family when he is not at home (Ward is the technical support and service for his wife and children). He also uses the Internetwork Packet Exchange (IPX) protocol in the network for printing within the home, which prevents local network printers from being unavailable while a VPN session is running. When connected to the work VPN IP tunnel, Ward couldn’t print to his home network printers over IP; but with IPX configured he sends print jobs to his print server outside the VPN tunnel to his home network printers.

Andrew and his family support two network-attached storage (NAS) servers to keep backup copies of their home office materials and digital photos (everything but the video storage, which is kept on the video server).

Home Schooling: Changing the Way We Learn

All three of Ward’s children have been home-schooled, which requires them to do a lot of homework research over the Internet. Each of them has a PC, with an extra PC in the “schoolroom” of the house for online study. They also have a Mac Mini, now mostly used to support MIDI software for music recording and editing from a MIDI keyboard.

“I like to have a Mac in the house to let them experience both Mac and PC environments,” says Ward. Still, it’s easy to share resources across OS boundaries. While the children use the Mac, they can still print using the printer connected to the schoolroom PC and do file sharing with everyone else in the family. File sharing is important because the children’s school work is transferred to either mom or dad’s PC for review later in the day. And, of course, the Ward children use their personal PCs to use the web to chat with friends, play games, and more.

The schoolroom PC has access to the two shared house printers. The schoolroom also has an Internet video camera, which allows Ward to check in on the students’ activity. “The camera allows us to keep an eye on the kids when they are alone in the schoolroom from anywhere inside or outside the house,” he says, “and I think they work a little harder knowing that dad could be watching.”

Family Living: Changing the Way We Live

“This home network has improved many aspects of our family life,” says Ward. “It allows us the freedom to work or study anywhere in the home, and to access most of our work and entertainment resources from anywhere in the world.” This functionality is complemented by a phone system connected to Skype, which allows them to stay in touch with friends on the other side of the globe with minimal expense. The network offers connectivity to more than just immediate family: friends and visitors who bring their laptops find an open guest hotspot with free Internet access. Ward also uses a Samsung Wi-Fi cell phone at home, which connects via IP wireless to his home network and out to the Internet for inexpensive phone calls.

The whole family has recently started using Google-based collaboration applications such as family calendaring, scheduling, and even using shared documents to share financial information (each child has a shared Google spreadsheet of their income and expenses kept like a checkbook) among family members. A new rule for Ward’s son entering his senior year of high school: He needs to keep his mom and dad up to date with his plans via the Google calendar.

Power Is an Issue

With all his network equipment, power consumption could be an issue. At the Ward house, with two chameleons and various reptile heat lamps, power was even more of an issue. Ward installed 28 solar panels (generating a total of 5 KW of power) tied into the power system with a grid inverter. This setup has resulted in a much lower power bill, and regularly supplies more power to the grid than the family uses. (And, yes, the meter does indeed run backwards during the afternoons.)

Lessons Learned and Next Steps

What would Ward do differently if he had to build his home network over again? “Not much,” he says. “I really like it the way it is. Still, I suppose I would have wired the house all at one time, and put all the equipment neatly in racks in one place.”

Ward’s plans for the future include more self-education and some equipment upgrades, especially an Agami NAS server. He is still trying to work out the best way to take advantage of VLAN technology available on his Cisco IOS Router. It may allow him to simplify his home network architecture, making overall administration easier. Also, the home automation system he purchased nine years ago has some intriguing new upgrades available. Newer versions (such as the Omnipro 2) have both an Ethernet port and an integrated web server. This capability would give Ward web access to the home automation system whether the “Butler” PC hosting HAL-2000 was running or not. Ward likes to keep unused equipment de-powered to save energy costs.

How does it feel to be a grand prize winner of the Cisco Best Home Network Awards? “I am honored,” says Ward. “I have put a lot of time and energy into this network, and my wife has been very patient and pleased and most people who see it end up pretty impressed with one or more features, especially the voice recognition system we call ‘Butler.’ This prize is confirmation that this is a successful network, and I’m glad to be able to share my experiences with others and give them the assurance that anyone can do this. I hope it inspires more people to try out this kind of technology to bring more exciting capabilities into their lives.”

Technology (and Other) Tips

Andrew Ward, one of the grand prize winners in the Best Overall Home Network category, shares these tips and insights into building a home network.

  1. It is a lot easier to build a large and complex home network than it looks. I started out knowing little about home network technology. I learned about all these components on my own and built my home network up over a long time, piece by piece. It takes time, and some self-education. Most of the information you need is on the web. There are so many newsgroups and forums dedicated to various aspects of home networking where you can interact and learn from others (for example, usenet newsgroup comp.home.automation, See Google groups?) If I can do it, so can you.
  2. I decided to implement mostly a hard-wired network for reliability. Wireless adds an extra layer of complexity, and IEEE 802.11 b and g can sometimes get interference from other RF sources within the home, So if you can avoid relying on wireless networking by running cabling through the walls, it’s a good idea. It saves time in the long run with higher reliability and less troubleshooting.
  3. Supporting a wired network, however, with a large and growing number of endpoints requires learning a lot about running wire behind the walls. I had to master some interesting tools, such as long electrician’s drill bits and a 1-inch video camera to snake through walls to see where to best lay cable. I have more than 10,000 feet of cable in the walls, and my wife says that if the house was ever in an earthquake that all the wires would hold the house together. If I had to rebuild this network in a new house, I would probably install the wiring before the sheetrock was installed. [Editor’s note: This is why wireless is attractive to so many people.]
  4. Allowing your children to access the Internet brings dangers: the character damage of pornography, and the potential danger of chatting with strangers, among others. There should be four lines of defense, and technology only supports three: firewalls and virus/spyware protection, parental web filters, and parental traffic monitoring. But the most important one is teaching your children to respect the dangers that exist, and to teach them what to avoid and why, to give them the wisdom to make the right decisions on their own. Technology only helps support your teaching and should not be relied on by itself.
  5. There are a lot of good (and often free) troubleshooting and maintenance tools available on, tools such as speed checking tests or “wake on LAN” tools to allow your servers to hibernate (saving power) and still be on call to be turned on and used, even over the Internet, at any time.
  6. Recording video and storing video files on a server you can access over the Internet is a powerful tool. You can watch what you want whenever and wherever you are: at home, at work, in a hotel, even standing in line at the bank or store.
  7. The more software you put on a server, the more likely you will get interference among the different programs, which causes hard-to-troubleshoot problems and a lot of downtime. If you can afford it, dedicate a server to applications that are critical to you. We dedicate one PC to video editing and video file storage and nothing else, and it maintains very high availability.

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