What is a Mesh Network? What are the Pros and Cons?

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What system do you use for your home networking? While routers are the most common option, they’re not the only way to connect your at-home devices to the internet. Mesh networks are quickly becoming a popular alternative.

Not quite sure what a mesh network is or whether it’s a good fit for your needs? Our complete guide has everything you need to know, plus we also cover the pros and cons.

Mesh Networks Defined

In a traditional wi-fi network, your router calls the shots. Nodes are connected in a linear pattern. If you have a router with wi-fi extenders, each extender can only communicate to the router, and not to other nodes on the network.

Mesh networks work in a different way. There’s no central hub, switch or computer which handles all computer traffic. Instead, each device on the mesh network can talk to every other device. These multiple relays can quickly direct traffic across devices. This creates a, you guessed it, mesh-like pattern of connectivity.

Cooperation is key with a mesh topology. All nodes cooperatively distribute data. As we’ll discuss in detail further down, mesh networks will have an influence on cost per node, system installation cost, hardware costs and software implementation costs.

There are two types of mesh network topologies:

  • Fully-connected mesh network
  • Partially-connected mesh network

The full mesh network is described above. Every node is connected to every other node. A partial network is more limited. Sections of nodes will be entirely inter-connected, but those sections will communicate through switches or central hubs.

Mesh Network Pros

For the right system, mesh networks are the best option. They have three major advantages over other networks:

Easy Scalability

Mesh networks don’t require additional routers. Instead, each node acts as router instead. This means you can quickly and easily change the size of the network.

For example, you can easily add a bunch of technology to a conference room for a short period of time. Laptops, printers and more can be moved into the room and will automatically connect to the network.

Even non-technical applications can benefit from this type of network. For example, a mesh network for lighting can be added to just about any office. This allows you to simply add light sources as you like, with the ability to control the entire network from anywhere.

Resistant to Problems

Each node in a mesh network both receives and translates information. This provides a lot of redundancy, which helps keep the network running even if a problem occurs. If one node goes down, the network can use other nodes to complete the mesh.

Easy to Add Range

Adding range to a mesh network is usually not a problem. You simply connect nodes to gateways, which allow messages to pass through to the rest of the network. Plus, mesh networks can self-optimize and find the fastest route to deliver a message.

Mesh Network Cons

Mesh networks aren’t always the right choice. There are three disadvantages you’ll want to be aware of before committing to this type of network:

Increased Workload for Each Node

Each node in a mesh network has a lot of responsibility. Aside from sending messages, the node also must act like a router. Every node added to the mesh network also makes the system more complex.

Nodes will need to track messages from five or 10 neighbor nodes. Every message a node has to pass along contains an exponential increase in the amount of data it also has to handle. Increasing the range of the system can add a variety of unwanted complications due to the related increased in the data load.

Initial Network Setup can be Complicated

Once a mesh network is up and running, adding nodes is pretty simple. But implementing a mesh network from the ground up is usually much more complicated and time-consuming than setting up something more traditional.

Latency issues will dictate where you need to place nodes. You might need to add dedicated nodes solely for the purposes for forwarding messages. But this can be a logistical issue. You might have to add equipment throughout your location just so messages can be routed properly and quickly.

Low-Power Networks Can Have Latency Issues

Are you using a low power, wide-area network (LPWAN)? If so, you might run into latency issues. Latency is the time a message takes to travel from a node to a gateway. Most LPWANs don’t have the processing capability to handle all the data transfers required in a timely way.

If latency is an issue, you might have to upgrade the entire mesh network. More bandwidth, memory and power for each node will often increase message transfer speed. Of course, these upgrades also cost more money.

Mesh networks are great if you (or your organization) have a lot of money to spend and plenty of time to devote to setup. But if each node is a strike against your bottom line, this type of network might be a bit slower and more limited than you’d like.

Increased Power Consumption for Each Node

When each node is given the responsibility of acting like both an endpoint and a route, that increased workload does cause a strain. Every node will need to draw more power than normal in order to operate correctly.

This likely isn’t a huge issue if the node is large and directly wired into the electrical system. But it can become a problem for small, battery-powered nodes.

Typically, security systems and lights can cause issues if not properly configured. Sensors for a security system need enough power to send data from room to room and even between floors. This is a significantly bigger task than with a traditional system, where the sensor only needs enough strength to reach a control panel.

Should I Use a Mesh Network?

There’s not always a clear answer. A mesh network typically provides superior coverage. If your current route doesn’t provide coverage throughout your entire location, a mesh network can increase internet access. This is especially useful for large, multi-story locations such as offices buildings or large homes.

Plus, mesh networks are more resistant against failure. There’s no single router to fail and then knock out the whole network. Instead, the nodes will reroute and replace when a problem occurs.

However, you probably don’t want to set up a mesh network yourself unless you reasonably understand what you’re doing. Mesh networks can be complicated to set up. Plus, incorrect setup could leave security and other important systems vulnerable to problems.

Additionally, mesh networks are expensive to build. You’ll need to buy nodes to cover your entire location. Plus, if you’re unfamiliar with setup, accidentally buying equipment you don’t need is all-too-easy.

Final Thoughts

Mesh networks have a lot of benefits, and it’s easy to find praise for their speed and reliability. But don’t forget to consider the cons, too. Mesh networks certainly aren’t bad by any means, but for certain situations they add needless complications and expense.

If you do decide on a mesh network, don’t be intimidated. With proper planning, you can set up a secure mesh system in your home or office.

Blair Campbell

Founder of GetInternet. Blair studied computer science at the California Institute of Technology Computing and Mathematical Sciences program, but he enjoys writing on the side. He grew up in southern California and now lives in Denver, Colorado.