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Overcoming the challenges of wiring farm networks

The sound of mooing and the smell of diesel fuel are just part of what makes wiring a farm for networking a special experience.

This will come as little surprise, but when it comes to data networking, significant operational differences exist between office environments and those that occur outside four walls and a roof. Case in point: wiring the modern American farm network.

In carpeted spaces, it's a lot easier to play by the rules of good network design, where every switch port connects to a standards-compliant UTP run and robust Internet service provider (ISP) connections are there for the taking if you can afford them. I've designed and installed many "normal" networks in my career, but recently, I have had the opportunity to get into the fascinating realm of networking on farms.

The challenges are varied and fascinating, but not insurmountable. In this piece, I'll share the challenges I've encountered on different farms and discuss some of the different strategies employed to overcome them.

Internet connectivity options can be limited

You'll find IP cameras monitoring fuel pumps and calving stalls, Wi-Fi tags inside of horses that tell the farmer when horses are going into labor ... animal feeders and more depending on the farm's operational parameters.

It probably sounds obvious, but farms don't tend to be located where urban or suburban Internet providers run their networks. It's not economical for ISPs to take their offerings out to rural communities, so farms end up faced with few choices for connecting to the Internet. If lucky, a wireless ISP or DSL provider can provide something usable to one or more buildings on a farm at an affordable price. Another option may be 4G, but costs can get unwieldy, especially when farm networks use online backup services. Then there's satellite service, which sometimes is the only real option. But for the most part, they provide meager speeds and variable latency. Farms are businesses, and like any other business, they have many requirements for reliable Internet service. So, what can be done to make the most of limited options?

In one case, I helped the farmers re-engage the local cable company. TV service was within a mile, and it had been years since the farm looked into getting modern ISP connectivity. The initial response was "no can do," but after persisting and explaining the business need, we were able to get this farm a business-class, fiber-fed ISP link. Where no such luck is likely, even a pokey satellite connection will be well-served by investing in a network device like Meraki's MX 64 series that can provide per-device (or application) rate limiting to make sure no one device swamps the small pipe to the outside.

Geographic size of farm creates other challenges

Farms can be big in a number of ways. Individual buildings can be large, and many buildings can be distributed over dozens, hundreds or thousands of acres. The terrains involved, along with potential costs, can make enterprise-style outside fiber plants impossible. Even inter-building wiring can be fraught with challenges, ranging from excessive distances to harsh conditions. This is one area where creativity is paramount.

Between farm buildings, wireless bridge links are a natural option. But the same bridges that are used in the corporate world where urban lines of sight are easy to achieve can fall down when lots of trees, the occasional silo, or fixtures like windmills obstruct the radio path. Many farms have turned to the 900 MHz spectrum for point-to-point salvation, and Ubiquiti Networks' M-series gear is an incredible value in this space. The vendor's 900 MHz links are found all over the farming realm, due in part to the firm's multiple-input multiple-output offerings, their ability to overcome non-line of sight challenges, and a price tag of under $500 per link.

Once you're inside farm structures, you'll find opportunities to use normal CAT6 wiring for connecting PCs, cameras and utility devices like feeding robots. And you'll also find problem areas where cable simply can't be run, but connectivity is needed. Wireless may be an option, and this can be the easy way out. At the same time, some devices have no Wi-Fi capabilities and absolutely need that RJ-45 jack for network access. This is where Ethernet over power adapters can be your ace in the hole. These little gems have come a long way, and they can provide decent long-haul throughput when there simply are no other options.

Lots of oddball devices in lots of odd places

There is a lot of technology in use on the modern farm network. Smart field machinery is its own article, but you'll find IP cameras monitoring fuel pumps and calving stalls, Wi-Fi tags inside of stalls that tell the farmer when horses are going into labor, environmental monitors, employee time clocks, point-of-sale terminals, workstations, animal feeders and more, depending on the farm's operational parameters. Many of these network devices are as critical to the farm's profitability as the assembly line is to the auto industry, and therefore must be highly reliable. Wired and wireless networking are both apt to play a role for the motley mix of devices, and it all needs best-practice touches like UPS backup, redundancy where possible, and strong documentation on what's where (and why). The farmers themselves don't have to be network engineers, but they do need to understand simple block diagrams that show what's in play in their connected environments.

Cloud management is a money-saving force multiplier

Because IT needs have sort of snuck up on many farmers, it's not uncommon to find a hodgepodge of little piecemeal networks and very little documentation when you take on supporting a farm. This works well for the small "IT guy" who has to come on site for every little problem, but it can be draining for the farmer's wallet and maddening to those of us doing networking for real. If you can get the network migrated to an acceptable level of quality, it's absolutely transformative to put a cloud-based front end (minimally) on the environment.

(Back to the Meraki MX series as an example of what can be done here. By using this as "the router" for the farm network, you gain visibility and control into a wide swath of the network. Every device can be named and monitored, with alerting when any go down. You can also see what apps or devices are used the heaviest, and see when employees are spending more time on YouTube than with the cows. Best of all, remote deep visibility can put an end to most service calls.)

I'm finding that supporting farms is an absolute blast, and a nice diversion from my networking day job. My successes depend heavily on the farmers themselves and our working relationships. I have to understand the needs and constraints, and be able to articulate my solutions and justify spending their money on farm network changes. Once the trust and understanding is achieved, I have to work within the allotted budget or make a strong case on why more money should be spent.

It's still networking after all, just with lots of mooing and the smell of diesel fuel in the background.

Next Steps

Building an outdoor WLAN

Using indoor mesh to handle connectivity

Improving outdoor video performance

This was last published in July 2015

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