Infrastructure and Connectivity and the I've been lazy issue

A “unique” set of challenges with no deadline and no actual direction.

This is a working document so it’s littered with errors, omissions and unknowns, sorry about that.

Table of Contents

Managing the in-house infrastructure has become more and more difficult over time, and because it "works" there's been a resistance to altering it.

1 Specific Challenges

1.1 Power

The electricity supply in South Africa is unstable, unpredictable and unavailable for hours at a time.

Protecting equipment from power surges during startup of the grid is of critical importance. Voltage levels can also fluctuate to a large degree during "normal" operation with LED lights in my house dimming for brief periods and UPS' beeping briefly while the power to devices that aren't on a battery backup continues to be on.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_African_energy_crisis

For higher "level" outages, the time that power is restored for before the next scheduled outage begins can be too short to recharge UPS' fully.

1.2 Internet Access

Though my fiber connection is stable during most two to three hour outages, it does eventually go down if the outage persists for more than five hours.

Additionally, cell coverage decreases over time, falling back to 3G within about an hour of the outage starting all the way to no network connectivity after two hours. Calls are sometimes still possible from outside my home, but signal penetration disappears with our brick walls.

I have a cell internet backup for when the fiber is down outside of power outages.

1.3 Working from home

To further add to the challanges, I have been working from a home office since 2012-odd, with power grid issues being an issue since 2007, gradually increasing in severity and duration.

My work primarily involves software development and support with computer access being an absolute must and internet access being neccesarry for a large chunk of what I do.

Excessive downtime causes knock-on effects in project delivery, time to resolve for issues and an interference with "normal" life as the downtime needs to be made up somewhere.

Much of the information I work with is confidential and protected by various laws across the world, leaking information isn't simply a breach of contract, it could be criminal is some instances.

Running a seperate VPN for work that is isolated from VPN's used for services in the home is neccessary.

2 State of Affairs

2.1 Current

The current state of affairs is a mixture of computer hardware, network devices and power backup devices.

This poses difficulty in ensuring essential devices remain up and running and non-essential items shutdown, preferrably safely.

2.1.1 Storage

Two seperate HPE Micro servers run Unraid to provide services to network.

One hosts important data on a redundent array (BtrFS at the moment) and the other hosts virtual applicances including Plex, a second Unifi controller and at one stage an IoT management service.

A BlackArmor NAS offers some overflow storage options, but is overdue for retirement.

Network storage share a UPS with the network devices. 3000VA, no current extended battery but the UPS does make provision for it.

2.1.2 Network Services

My current network is run on Ubiquiti Unifi hardware, a DreamMachine is used as the controller, router and primary DNS, this must remain up for the duration of an outage if I wish to maintain fiber connectivity.

The fiber connection is managed by a Calix ONT that is bridged to the DreamMachine's WAN port. The ONT is powered by a mini-ups that can run it for roughly 12-hours uninterrupted. Possibly more if the WIFI on the Calix is fully disable.

Additionally, an 8-port 150W POE switch provides power to a Flex and then two wireless APs. There will ideally remain on to ensure wireless access to the fiber connection.

Additional TP-Link switches are used, but can be disconnected from the network on powerloss, no essential devices connect to these.

All the network equipment requiring "mains" power (AC) input are connected to a 3000VA online UPS.

2.1.3 Workstations

My primary workstation is connected to a UPS that is dedicated to it. 3000VA online with an extended battery, typically delivering around two hours of work time.

This workstation does not need to remain online for work and is probably better off being shutdown as soon as possible.

Additionally I frequently work on a MacBook Pro 16" and a Dell XPS13. These become my primary systems during extended outages.

Several other computers are connected to the network at any one time, but none are critical and have their own 1000VA online UPS' to get them to safe shutdown.

2.1.4 Additional Hardware and IoT

The network also hosts two Apple TV's, an Nvidia Shield, three Alexa's (more on this later), some audio equipment, a Phillips Hue Hub, several phones, consoles and tablets at any one time.

One TV and Apple TV remains on for about an hour on it's current UPS to provide entertainment for outages outside of working hours.

The other devices can and do shutdown at failure.

2.1.5 Power Generation

We have provision for a generator with failover should the mains go down, unfortunately the only location for a generator is not safe (CO2 build-up) and is noisy beyond reason.

The cost of generators have gone up substantially since 2007 and "silent" generators are now prohibitively expensive for units with a rated capacity that doesn't require rewiring the house to seperate high current devices from the rest of the house while still having a single switching point. Additionally solar power is at an absolute high point in terms of cost at the moment. Having failover to battery backup or generation for the entire house would be nice, but isn't on the cards at the moment.

2.2 Issues

There are a number of things I'd like to improve on over the current setup.

  • IoT devices aren't seperated into their own vlan, confidential information is kept behind password protected shares but better segregation is prudent. I have booted devices that engage in network scanning off, but the wife would like some of it back.
  • Ineffecient use of backup power, several devices that are not critical remain powered on during outages. The largest capacity UPS is currently powering a workstation that should be shutdown immediately. Several devices share the networking UPS, limiting the time I have internet access throughout the house, I can still get wired connectivity in my office, but there are challenges with that connection being made directly to the Calix router and not from behind the DreamMachine.
  • Internet failover, cell based connectivity is massively expensive in South Africa, especially for data hungry services like game downloads, OS updates and Netflix. Having the backup cell service online permanently sharing the network load is not practical. Manually "failover" is currently required. I would like to automate the process and block non-essential services when fiber is not available. This may not be possible with the DreamMachine.
  • Nothing is ever charged. With announcements of power outages occationally made by turning the power off and others having mere hours of notice, there is a high probability that some devices won't be charged. This is less of an issue for tablets, is mitigated for phones with the availability of powerbanks (again, possibly not charged). It is a larger issue for my work laptops.
  • PLACEHOLDER add comments on IoT device - what I wanted them for and how they fail to deliver
  • PLACEHOLDER add comments on overcapatilization - Imigration, change of residence, change of job
  • PLACEHOLDER add comments on proposed legislation - Cloud/Powergen
  • PLACEHOLDER add comments on limited availability of hardware

2.3 Future

2.3.1 Scaling back on equipment and improved management

Ideally I will be able to consolidate some of the infrastructure into a single host, eliminating the need to run multiple systems with a larger cumulative power draw (at idle).

Removing old, unused or lesser user devices from the network and backup power system will pay dividends on "online" time in future.

Centralized management and monitoring would be a great addition, currently there are some hoop-jumping excercises required for management.

2.3.2 Space optimization

Our home is by no means small, it may even be large by most standards, but space is still limited and freeing up space and reducing clutter is appealing.

I find that I enjoy entropy and anything that was organized an hour ago will devolve to chaos if I get busy. Reducing the shit I can throw around will make for a happier wife lol.

PLACEHOLDER I'm not sure where this is actually going, so I'll leave a placeholder here for progress made (or lack thereof)

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O man, good luck with the power. I used to live in Malawi in the early 2000’s and we were lucky that our power only went out a few times a week. Back then I had to drive to the capital to get internet access because the northern part of the country had next to nothing.

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I’ve had to drive around looking for signal and/or open coffee shops in the past. Luckily they aren’t generally a long distance trek, but with local traffic during outages it can take a long time to leave the affected area.

Sadly things are devolving further. Registration for StarLink has opened, but the government has decided to throw legal reform requirements at a foreign company before they’ll be allowed to deliver service in this country. A technology that could genuinely benefit the state of things is effectively being killed off before it even landed.

There’s also proposed legislation to register self-generation of power with government, which will likely kill that too.

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woof :frowning:

I hope you can get Starlink and Solar+Battery, that kind of tech was practically science fiction 20 years ago.

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Here’s to hoping it does become available.

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I realize this would be a small bandage on a giant gushing wound, but if you use your vehicle regularly, could any or all of these devices be charged by car chargers? I use a single 145W solar panel to charge up my portable devices, mostly by plugging in a couple USB power banks and my laptop. Cars generally have at least 1x 10A (~120W max) cigarette light/power port which should be capable of charging a laptop or a few USB devices.

If you plan it out and regularly charge things when you drive then you will be less likely to be caught with your devices drained. In an emergency you could use the vehicle to charge things. If you are into DIY stuff you could make a Li-Ion bank to use the same chargers that a car can use and keep that as a backup to run most types of devices. For instance, I specifically bought a monitor with a power brick that puts out 19V, and I can use the same charger for my laptop to power the monitor.

There are also DC-DC power supplies for PC’s and many devices like routers use DC power bricks which is much more efficient than a typical UPS. Obviously figuring all of this stuff out isn’t for everybody and parts prices and availability may be a serious issue. That said, having a battery bank that can power your devices and capable of being charged from the grid, generator, car, solar, etc while being more efficient has flexibility not found in off the shelf UPS systems.

I don’t know if I ever posted my Dell charger hack here for easily circumventing the problem with their ‘genuine’ chargers. I’ve seen a lot of people trying to reverse engineer the whole thing which is completely unnecessary. I know I posted it elsewhere, I can find the link if you are interested.

There is a good video from Great Scott showing how he made a power bank for his laptop. Something like this would be ideal to charge up in advance to have extra power when you need it. I have a couple of electric bikes and plan on expanding on some of this stuff.

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Everything can be charged using a car charger with the only possible exception being the MBP. That might be chargable but I’d need to check.

I’m mostly at home, we’re still under some lockdown restrictions so the only time I’m out is twice a week for boxing/bjj, pretty short drive, and then possibly over weekends for other sports.

I have been able to charge devices in my car in a pinch and will continue to do that :slight_smile:

The main issues with laptops not being charged is using them as portable devices around the house. If I got into the habit of keeping them tethered this should happen less, with emergency charging only being required for extended outages or ones that occur in rapid succession.

I’ll look into a car charger that can charge both, it’s and excellent suggestion!

Luckily this one supports USB-C charging, so as long as a bank can output enough wattage that the laptop doesn’t complain, I shouldn’t see the genuine charger issue.

That’s awesome! Thank you.

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Apologies for reviving an old thread… But I feel like a lifepo4 battery backup would be perfect for your needs. It would definitely absorb a charge quicker than whatever lead acid backup batteries you’re using now, and they’re more stable (and last longer) than lithium ion batteries.

IMO: the best practice is to invest everything in to the main battery bank, so you don’t have to worry about battery backups for each individual device, instead being able to rely on one solid power source, minimizing clutter and reducing the complexity of your setup.

You could also throw this battery in your car and bridge it with the starter batteries using a smart battery isolator, that way you can just start up the car (basically using it as a generator) if you’re doing computer work that can’t be interrupted. Lifepo4 batteries compliment lead acid batteries, since they run at float charge voltage (13.4V) for the entire capacity until ~10% is left. This means you can use almost the entire battery without going below 13V, not use a single bit of your starter batteries and its easy on the alternator because the lifepo4 battery acts like its near a full charge (if you’re not below 10% capacity) the smart isolator will also cut out if there’s too much draw, preventing alternator damage when initially charging the lifepo4 battery

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