As mentioned in the original post about my work’s IT Lab (here), one of the planned upgrades was to bring the older machines on the network up to speed with Gigabit Ethernet. After rebuilding the school file-server with a new motherboard (incorporating Gigabit onboard LAN) and building a Hardware Firewall using the excellent Smoothwall Express (my guide on this available here), I was set to get the original ‘Fast-Ethernet’ or ’10/100′ machines upgraded.

Some things you just can’t upgrade…

Things like older networked printers (we have one such device) and any pre-GbE Wi-Fi APs (all of ours) will only benefit from the use of a faster ‘backbone’ (a great guide on preparation for upgrade to Gigabit Ethernet is available in PDF here from the Asante support website of all places!) so won’t directly be connecting any faster than 100Mbps. This is because the connection to that device is bottlenecked by it’s own LAN connection speed. So any traffic between it and it’s source/destination is going to be restricted to a maximum of 100Mbps. However, you can have more streams of those 10/100Mbps elsewhere on the network between two 1000Mbps devices (GbE), meaning less slow down in traffic generally.

Another one of those things which are uneconomically viable for upgrade are laptop LAN connectors, pretty much what it comes out of the factory with is all that’s practically or economically viable for the lifetime of that machine. Sadly, this includes my own laptop, so a lot of testing was done on a colleagues fancier laptop with GbE built in. Fortunately, desktop PCs are a lot simpler to upgrade and can be done cheaply enough.

Shopping List

So we have 11 machines needing an upgrade and a need to replace 2 8-port 10/100 switches to increase the capacity for the whole school network. With the budget set for this project, going for managed network switches or large scale 16/24 port office GbE switches are off the table at the moment, but definitely something for the future! So this meant going for consumer grade GbE network switches. Unfortunately, with Koh Samui you take what you can get, so the shopping list is different from what we finally received!

  • 2 x 8-port GbE network switches (TP-Link preferrable over D-Link out of our options here in Koh Samui, but I’d take either)
  • 11 x GbE PCI Network cards
  • Approx. 20M of Cat5e network cable to upgrade any old Cat5 cables to machines

What we actually got:

  • 3 x 5-port GbE network switches (TP-Link TL-SG1005D)
  • 11 x SMC GbE PCI LAN cards
  • 100M Cat5e LAN cable (explained in the next section)

Now, those of you with a mathematical mind may notice the problem, patching between two 5 port switches will make the equivalent of one 8 port switch, leaving me with one 5 port switch, 3 ports short! Well, technically I was only 2 ports short as I would have had one port spare, but I saw a novel solution to the problem. Now we had a hardware firewall/router installed, the ‘old’ Cisco WAG320N modem/router was being used as a (GbE equipped) Wi-Fi Access Point, but did have a 4 port switch on the back, which would leave us with 3 ports spare for use on other devices. Amazingly, this works perfectly and is still being used at this time, with no reported problems for machines connecting through this AP. The only maintenance I have to provide on this unit is to manually power off and on every morning when I arrive at work (more for my OCD than anything else – daily resets of the Wi-Fi APs we have has eliminated a great deal of problems encountered with our Wi-Fi connections before). So there you go, sometimes when running on a fixed budget and a lack of resources, you have to innovate!

Upgrading the link to the IT Lab.

I mentioned ‘bottlenecks’ earlier when talking about the maximum speed of data between devices. There are several sources for bottlenecks, problems at a network switch or router, connection speed to the internet itself (the biggest of bottlenecks at times!), maximum speed of a device’s network connection or just the cable itself. Well, I had already planned out what could be upgraded and what actually will, but when first testing out the new GbE switches I noticed the connection to the IT lab was not negotiating at GbE. A bit of head scratching as I knew that the cabling I was using was all to Cat5e standard, and then I noticed the link from the ‘server room’ was using an old Cat5 cable. This is fine for 10/100, but in my experience will never negotiate at GbE speed (1000Mbps). This was a big problem as the main benefactor of the speed increase was to be the IT lab!

So, I would love to show you photos, but I don’t want to visit the inside of that roof again for a long long time if I can help it! Without any documentation or diagrams of where the cabling in the school physically goes, I had to use previous experience from rewiring the school Wi-Fi APs, and use a bit of guesswork, but we got it. With the assistance of the school’s brilliant Caretaker Som Neuk, I was able to pull the upgraded 100M reel of cable through¬† different roof cavities and over a distance of approximately 70M of treacherous roof space. This took approximately a whole day to get through, but by the end of the afternoon we had a connection running to my previously mentioned friends laptop and we were connecting with GbE in the IT Lab. After the amount of sweat, graised elbows, cut knees and heat exhaustion I put myself through (crawling in the rooftop during a 35 degree plus day is not fun I can tell you!) I was just relieved to see that the work we had put in was rewarded with a success.

With the upgrade proven – we now had to see to getting the school equipment upgraded to match (upgrading the LAN port bottlenecks on each machine!).

PCI card upgrade

I don’t have much experience with SMC network cards, but I am using one in the Hardware Firewall, which has been working very reliably, so I was pretty confident. I would have preferred to go with something from the likes of TP-Link or D-Link, but those options weren’t available in our budget and generally not available in Samui in the quantity I needed at the time.

So, if you’re faced with this job on a machine, do the following:

  • Power off the machine and unplug all of the cables
  • Unscrew and remove the side panel of your PC
  • Unpack your PCI card from it’s packaging and angle it to slot it into the available PCI slot (make sure to remove the metal blanking plate for the slot you’re going to use from the back of the PC case!)
  • Slot the PCI card into place and make sure it’s nice and level and fully pushed in, you will know it’s right by the backplate lining up with the PC case
  • Use a spare screw to secure the card to the PC case
  • Fire up the PC (Windows boxes in my case) and if it requests a driver for the new device, use the provided CD to install the drivers – in Windows 7 this wasn’t necessary in my case as it has the correct drivers – this will differ for different models of NIC.

Check by opening up your Networking area on your OS and see what speed the machine is negotiating with the network. If it doesn’t connect at GbE initially, try powering down the network switch the machine is connected to for a minute and then reconnect – I’m not sure if this is just a fluke but it works for me 90% of the time. Otherwise, check the cable between your machine and the switch is Cat5e – anything less and it should be replaced!

Well, sadly I don’t have many pictures for this guide except for the one funky one for this post’s featured image, but I will get some when school resumes in just under a week! (That’s right, it’s school holiday time – I know, I know, I’m a lucky git).

As you’ve probably guessed, comments and questions are welcome so please leave them below – you can now use your Facebook login to do this without having to register on my site thanks to Disqus and their brilliant Disqus plugin for WordPress!

What next?

I’ve got some stuff to finish writing up about upgrading RAM on an old machine (tied in with this post in a lot of ways) as well as setting up a dynamic DNS account (for free!) and the many uses of Serviio’s online sources.

If we’re looking further into the future, I’m thinking about writing about this stuff too:

  • How to make a free ‘Outlook Exchange’ server using Ubuntu and MailServer (OK, I’ve been putting this off hoping it would go away as it’s difficult and scary, just LDAP on it’s own is horrifying enough)
  • Some stuff about WordPress and websites, maybe some Photoshop – I’ve put this off as so many people out there are better than me, so maybe I’ll just put a post together linking the things I find useful up into one handy resource for people
  • How to make a VPN tunnel with free software like PuTTY and OpenSSH on a Smoothwall – I also explain how to VPN Samba through an SSH tunnel (dirty I know, but the end-user needed minimal change in the way they interfaced with their data)
  • Some reviews! I would love to start reviewing hardware again, but unfortunately the only stuff I can afford is old! With things changing, I am also not in a position to write anything, but if anyone would like to send me a free HTC One for review, I’d be happy to accept!

Have fun out there folks :)