Choosing a Power-Over-Ethernet Approach

By Jim Geier

June 05, 2003

Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) can save you time and money when deploying access points. Learn which approach to use when using PoE within your wireless LAN.

When planning the layout of a wireless LAN, you must take into consideration power sources for access points. Some companies limit installation locations to areas where a six foot cord can reach an electrical outlet. Other companies opt to install new outlets, which require extra electrical wiring. Power-over-Ethernet (PoE), however, can significantly decrease costs associated with supplying power to access points.

PoE technology enables an access point to receive electrical power and data over the same cable. A power-sourcing device, which connects directly to the power source and is situated between the switch and access point, will detect the access point and inject the right amount of electrical current over unused pairs in the Cat5 Ethernet cable.

The access point can then operate without having a direct connection to an electrical outlet. In addition to cost savings, this offers a variety of benefits, such as flexible access point mounting locations, better reliability because of less cables, and easier international deployment because the use of a common power connection (i.e., no need for different power plugs).

Inline PoE

Many vendors incorporate inline PoE into their enterprise-class access point solutions (you seldom find PoE in inexpensive home networking products). This is the most basic type of PoE system, connecting only one access point at a time to a power source. This is done through a PoE injector, which fits between the source signal (modem, switch, etc.) and the access point via Cat5 cable. The injector connects to a power outlet through a regular electrical cord. For optimum benefits, you can plan the placement of the injector near a power outlet, such as within the communications room near the switch.

The injector receives current from the power outlet and sends it through the Cat5 cable to the access point. Think of this configuration as a "T," with the injector at the intersection, the source signal and access point at either side of the top line, and the power outlet at the bottom point.

Inline PoE devices are best for small office applications. Because there are very few access points in these applications (typically one), the costs for the injectors are less than purchasing a more elaborate PoE hub. In some cases, smaller installations won't even benefit from PoE because you can generally locate the access point close enough to an electrical outlet to use a traditional (old fashioned) power cord.

Hub-based PoE

Another way to implement PoE is to install a "power hub" between the source signal and the access points. This implementation follows the same concept as the inline PoE system, except that the hub feasibly supports multiple access points rather than just one. Multiple Ethernet cables run from the switch into the power hub, which connects directly to a power outlet. Multiple power-infused Ethernet cables run from the other side of the hub to various access points.

PoE hubs are a good approach to utilize when dealing with a large scale installation that has existing switches, such as adding a wireless LAN to an existing wired Ethernet network. PoE hubs give an installer the ability to run power to multiple access points while using only one power outlet, saving time and preventing the huge headache caused by dealing with too many wires (and electricians). PoE hubs can each usually support up to twelve access points.

Integrated PoE

The most convenient way to implement PoE is to integrate it into the switch itself. This eliminates the need to buy extra equipment, making it most cost effective to deploy a wireless LAN. The switch itself connects to a power outlet, and each port includes PoE capability integrated within the switch. The access points connect directly to the PoE-based switch ports to receive both electrical power and data over the Cat5 cable.

Integrated PoE is the optimum solution for providing electrical power to access points. It is definitely the approach to use when installing a new, large-scale network. Unfortunately most large companies already have an existing wired Ethernet network, and replacing the existing switches is impractical and expensive. If a company is just starting up or replacing their existing wired backbone, however, go with integrated PoE.

Jim Geier provides independent consulting services to companies developing and deploying wireless network solutions. He is the author of the book, Wireless LANs and offers computer-based training focusing on wireless LANs.

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