A network is not a one-size-fits-all upgrade. Here’s an introduction to finding the best network to suit your needs.
The backbone to any business is the network. At its simplest level, a network’s core responsibility is to whip data packets to and fro, over wires or radio waves. However, for a business to give as much consideration to their network as that definition implies would be disastrous. Too often new businesses fail to understand their own business needs before implementing the network, and consequently end up with poor functionality, increased downtime, and eventually paying more to fix the problem.
Part of the problem with networking is the sheer variety in possible configurations and technologies. Due to the flexible, customised approach to networking, the best approach is to look beyond the technology and conduct some preliminary soul-searching on your business. Only after understanding which services you need, what upgrade paths you’ll want to explore, and how you plan to grow, will you get the network you need.
To get you started, consider the following four questions. The first should be ‘what will my business need to do?’. This is a big question, but if you’ve read through the four topics prior to this one, you should have some idea as to what kinds of services your network needs to support. Will you take the plunge with VOIP? How about a print server? Do you want to allow remote access? The answers will determine the kind of services your network will eventually support.
Next, consider the ‘drain’ on the network. Knowing what services the network should support is an important consideration, but you also need to understand how much it will be in use. For example, attaching a printer to the network is great, but if 20 employees are accessing it at the same time, you’ll need to look at a print server, more printers, or even a change in policy. Likewise, if your business involves working with large files, you may find that a single person accessing them on a 100Mb/s Fast Ethernet connection is fine, but when you increase the number of users, the network grinds to a halt.
Once you know what kind of services you need and how much they’ll be used, you’ll need to consider one of the most overlooked elements in networking: ‘What kind of space am I working with?’. You may think going wireless instead of wired will save you time and money, but if the signal quality between each office is poor, you’ll experience dropouts and slow data throughput that may dramatically reduce productivity. Also, be sure to survey any existing infrastructure – why install wireless access points when every desk has an Ethernet port?
The final consideration is also one of the most difficult to answer: ‘Where is my business going?’. Hopefully you should have some foresight into how your business will change in the next 12 months, however any additional planning you can do before you deploy the network will help. It could be something relatively minor, like knowing you’ll have employees wanting remote access from home in the future; or it could be a much more significant detail, like a dramatic expansion (or reduction) in the number of staff. Just remember that you want to be as realistically predictive as possible, without restricting yourself to a certain path – which is just good business sense.Two and a half technologies
After that brief introspection, you’ll have some idea about what you want from the network, the physical landscape you’re working in, and how the network will accommodate your business in the short to medium term. There are numerous ways to dive into networking, but one of the most appropriate entry points is looking at the major types of technologies: wireless and wired.
Starting with wired networks, there’s one obvious advantage over wireless: security. By using closed cabling as the transfer medium, the network is restricted only to those ‘plugged in’ – the only other entry point is the Internet, which is typically blocked from accessing the internal network. The next advantage over wireless networks is speed, though unlike its inherent security features, wired networks are in constant competition to wireless.
Most small to medium businesses will encounter 100Mb/s Fast Ethernet, 1000Mb/s Gigabit Ethernet, or for older networks, 10Mb/s Ethernet. Ethernet technology has been in use for decades, and despite the growth in wireless use, Ethernet will be around for a while yet. Most wired networks would be running Fast Ethernet, however, with the ever increasing size of most file types, 100Mb/s is starting to get restrictive, making the higher throughput of Gigabit Ethernet much more viable.
Ethernet is such a flexible, ubiquitous technology that you’ll find it in most office environments. It could be connecting two PCs in a simple peer-to-peer arrangement, or it could be connecting large 1000 seat organisations running 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE). Most importantly, however, is that regardless of the speed, Ethernet can take advantage of the existing twisted pair infrastructure of most offices, making it useful if you intend to upgrade in the future.
Now that we have the Ethernet juggernaut out of the way, we can turn our attention to the rock and roll side of networking: wireless. If you were to read a business technology primer five years ago, or even two years ago, you’d be pressed to find a strong recommendation to deploy a wireless network. The reason behind the cautious stance was simple: poor security, instability and flaky transfer rates made it inappropriate for businesses. These days, however, such wariness is no longer justified, thanks to new business-friendly security and the imminent ratification of a brand new standard.
The prime security concern with wireless is due to its transmission medium -- sending packets through the air makes them available to anyone in range. In order secure the network, or ‘lock it down’, there are numerous methods of controlling access, but not all are considered equal. The simplest security method involves only granting access to devices with an accepted MAC address. As every networking device has a unique MAC address, wireless networks can ‘filter’ out the notebooks and PCs that don’t have an authorised address.
Unfortunately, MAC addresses can be easily detected by observing the data flowing over a network. A malicious user can then mimic the authorised MAC addresses and gain access to the network. To get around this, various types of encryption exist to complement or replace simple MAC filtering. The first is WEP, a relatively slow and easily-broken standard, which has now largely been superseded by WPA and WPA2. WPA is now considered the minimum in wireless security, and larger businesses may want to look at installing authentication servers alongside the encryption, which allows for additional functions like account profiles and usage logs.
With wireless security under control, the next consideration is speed. Early versions of Wi-Fi like 802.11a, b and g, were decidedly underwhelming in the amount of data they could pass through – 802.11g had a theoretical maximum of 54Mb/s, though its average speed could be less than half that. When you throw in other variables like obstacles and interference, you have a network connection that’s only appropriate for basic tasks like office work, Web browsing and email.
The upcoming 802.11n standard is the first real contender for high-speed wireless. Unfortunately, despite being in development for three years, the standard still hasn’t been certified. Any 802.11n products on the market are based on draft revisions of the standard, and consequently may not represent the final product. For this reason, businesses requiring a large wireless deployment should stick to 802.11g. Smaller businesses wanting to experiment with 802.11n should buy all equipment from the same vendor to ensure maximum interoperability.
As you make the decision to deploy a wired or wireless network, you might find yourself in a particular situation where neither option is suitable. For these situations, you could find powerline networking your best option. It’s not as fast as regular twisted pair Fast Ethernet, but using the existing power cabling in an office or apartment could save money on installation costs, or it could help extend your network to reach into places just outside your wireless range.
In the end, it’s somewhat naive to suggest that you need to choose one technology over the other. Instead, you’ll likely find that your business will require a combination of wired, wireless and powerline networks. Whatever you choose, understanding where each technology fits is the difference between a safe, efficient and reliable network, and one that’s flaky, insecure and costly to maintain.Hardware for every occasion
The customised approach to networking is undoubtedly a great strength for businesses, but it’s also responsible for creating a dizzying array of products. Fortunately, most network hardware vendors are an understanding lot and will helpfully break down their catalogues into the types of functions offered by the device, as well as the size of the business it’s targeted at.
To help decipher the matrix, here’s a rundown of the most common network devices. Be sure to check out the relevant sections for more specific information on other devices, like VoIP or security.
Routers are a key component of any network. Fundamentally, a router’s job is to direct traffic between networks via their IP addresses, however most modern routers bundle in an array of extra features (like a firewall or VoIP port), and can act as a LAN ‘switch’ for computers on a small local network.
Smaller offices can likely make do with a simple, domestic multi-port wireless router. A possible scenario could be connecting two desktop PCs and a fileserver via its Ethernet ports, and then allowing any extra PCs or desktops to wirelessly connect. A larger business, or one anticipating growth, will want a router that supports extra services like VPN access for mobile employees. Furthermore, the combined router/switch combination won’t suffice – you’ll want to look at a dedicated switch.
Switches join the PCs on an individual network together. When information needs to pass between points on the network, it’s the switch that takes that data and finds its destination.
There are two broad types of switches: managed and unmanaged. Managed switches will let you configure it to optimise traffic, create ‘virtual’ LANs, filter MAC addresses, or monitor the ‘health’ of the network. Unmanaged switches won’t allow these administration features, but its reduced cost and easy installation make it suitable for small to medium businesses.
Note that a ‘hub’ will also do a similar thing, but its management of network traffic isn’t as sophisticated as a switch. Due to the falling cost of switches, there’s little reason to install a hub in a modern business.
Storage, in a networking context, refers to custom devices that can be connected directly to a network via an Ethernet port or a wireless connection. The range of network-attached storage (NAS) is as broad as it is deep, offering various capacities, management options, integrated fileserver software, and even USB ports. All-in-one NAS devices are often suitable for smaller offices, but larger businesses will want a device that can be customised with extra storage, RAID options, and other advanced features.
To truly flesh out your network, you’ll also want to add some enhancements. It could be something simple like bridging networks with a wireless access point, or you could hang a network-enabled camera off it for some do-it-yourself security. Always remember, however, that poorly considered ‘enhancements’ may have unintended consequences, like impacting network performance, or opening a hole that undermines your existing bullet-proof security regime. For this reason, always evaluate each piece of the network as it relates to everything else – not the other way around.
Ultimately, whichever path you choose to take with your network, always keep your business in mind. It’s just as easy to overspend on features you’ll never use, than it is to restrict your growth by buying only what’s necessary right now.
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