by Joseph F. Kovar on November 6, 2015, 1:14 pm EST

You might not readily associate networking with energy sustainability, but last month in Southern California, a sophisticated Wi-Fi network – built and operated by a local solution provider – proved to play a critical role in The U.S. Department of Energy’s biannual Solar Decathlon.

The event, held in Irvine, Calif., brought together 14 teams from universities from around the country and the world to show off their designs for homes of the future.

The homes were designed and built with several goals, particularly energy efficiency, and had to meet such criteria as the ability to produce at least as much electricity as they consume and find new ways to recycle water. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), part of the energy department, managed the event.

The responsibility for building and running the Wi-Fi network – which also helped students and mentors stay online while they were away from home – was given to Consiliant Technologies, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider, which took CRN for a behind-the-scenes tour of the temporary project.

To look at what it takes to build a huge Wi-Fi project, and for a peek at what the home of the future might look like,

The 14 homes were, in the end, designed to be real homes with fully-working kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, bedrooms, and everything else a family would expect. Indeed, “Home Life” was one of the judging criteria.

While the homes were livable, the students were required to live in hotels, and were not allowed to stay on-site at night.

Because the homes were designed to be habitable, a reliable Wi-Fi solution was a must. And that’s where Consiliant Technologies came in.

Jon Garcia (pictured), senior account executive at Consiliant, told that his company has a long-term partnership with the City of Irvine, Calif. Consiliant had recently helped the city move its entire network from Cisco to Brocade gear, a connection that helped Consiliant land the networking contract for the Solar Decathlon, Garcia said.

Networking for the decathlon was a complex project, Garcia said. Requirements included providing isolated wireless technology for each team so that an array of sensors in each home could provide metrics to judge their sustainability. Each team also required wireless connectivity for its members. And Wi-Fi was also provided free to visitors.

Consiliant relied heavily on networking gear from its vendor partners, including switches and routers from Brocade, based in San Jose, Calif. and wireless equipment from Aerohive Networks, of Sunnyvale, Calif.

The Solar Decathlon opened to the public Oct. 8. That’s also when judging of the homes began. However, Garcia said, the timeline for installing the networking infrastructure began Sept. 21, which is when Schneider Electric, one of the sponsors of the event, started powering the site.

Consiliant engineers were allowed on-site starting Sept. 24, and the student teams began four days later. “We opted for a wired and wireless network,” he said. “We weren’t sure how many people would be there, but we needed to support them all.”

The organizers said that past events saw up to 10,000 visitors a day, Garcia said. “We were thinking (that) everybody has a smartphone or tablet,” he said “We had to be ready. So we ran fibre combined with dense wireless.”

Part of building a sustainable home requires constant monitoring of power and cooling. For that, some homes used equipment (pictured) from Nest Labs, which Google acquired in early 2014.

All these devices had to be connected to the Consiliant-built network before the judging began.

The City of Irvine provided the primary network feed via a microwave relay from a building across the road from this trailer. In keeping with the sustainability theme of the event, this trailer and a couple others like it took advantage of the Southern California sun to run on solar power, with propane tanks as backup.

The trailers were also handy for Consiliant, which mounted wireless antennas on the mast, such as the Aerohive antenna sitting between the panel and the microwave dish, as part of its networking project.

“The City of Irvine handled the microwave lines,” Garcia said. “From there, it was all us.”

Inside the Consiliant command center, located in a trailer parked at the back of the site, Consiliant ran its own management software along with the Brocade Network Advisor application on one of its own Cisco UCS servers, said Sean Balas, solutions architect for Consiliant.

The two servers on the left in this photo were provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with one serving as the primary server and the other as a backup using software from Veeam. “There was no budget for off-site replication,” Balas said.

Sitting on top of Consiliant’s UCS server is one of three Brocade ICX6610 switches that were used as core switches for the Solar Decathlon, Balas said.

The Brocade and Aerohive gear were provided free by the vendors as part of a 30-day evaluation program, and had to be returned after the event.

Consiliant ran fibre networking cables from the command center to Brocade 6450c12 switches, each in its own box. There were 11 such switches deployed for the event and were used to set up 16 different wireless networks separated by VLANs, including a separate network for each of the 14 home-building teams, Balas said.

Those 16 networks provided for the wireless needs of the entire Solar Decathlon. This included collecting data from sensors in the homes to be logged by the NREL. “Logging of data from the homes had top priority,” he said. “If more bandwidth was needed for logging, it happened automatically.”

The boxes were tight, Balas said. “It was a challenge to make everything fit,” he said.

Heat was an especially difficult problem at the Solar Decathlon, but Consiliant used a decidedly low-tech solution – cardboard – to beat the heat and help ensure smooth operations.

In addition to keeping the interior of the command center to a livable temperature, cardboard was also on hand for other potential issues, Balas said.

The outside temperature reached about 105 degrees Fahrenheit on one day, and 10 of the 11 Brocade 6450c12 approached critical heat. “We had no problems,” he said. “But we were ready to use cardboard to shade them.”

The switches sustained heat of up to 168.8 degrees for a few hours at one point, Garcia’s said. “It was a testimony to the quality of the Brocade switches,” he said.

Consiliant provided both wired and wireless network connectivity to the 14 home-building teams, and traffic was divided pretty evenly between the two technologies, Balas said.

While Consiliant provided the networking infrastructure, each team managed its own network, he said.

As part of its contract, Consiliant built a permanent wireless networking solution for the site, which is in the heart of the Orange County Great Park, a huge combination of public park and private development based on the grounds of what used to be the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Irvine.

This former hanger-turned-conference hall sports some powerful networking gear. On the left corner are a couple of microwave antennas, one of which points to the Irvine train station in the distance. The other points to the trailer from slide 6. These were deployed and are managed by the City of Irvine.

The hanger also sports a number of Aerohive antennas both inside and outside, including the one in the center of the photo, deployed by Consiliant.

The microwave network provides a total bandwidth of 1 Gbit per second, of which Consiliant was able to access 300 Mbps for use in the Solar Decathlon project, Balas said.

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