Office Networks Best Practices

How to get the most network value on your SMB network: Tips and advice.

Only the smallest companies today use stand alone computers, printers, and Internet access. Even the majority of home offices network one or more computers to their broadband access point.

What constitutes an office network for our discussion? Two or more devices and some type of connecting technology. Some networks use wires to connect everything, other networks use only wireless networking, but most networks are a combination of both.

Wired Networks

Since wired networks came long before wireless, more companies have wired network nodes than they have wireless nodes. For all modern networks, that means Ethernet running on twisted pair wires at 10 megabits or 100 megabits per second. This technology goes by the name of 10Base-T or 100Base-T, denoting the speed in megabits per second and Base-T for twisted pair wiring. Often you'll see this listed as 10/100Base-T.

History fans can read about how Token Ring Flopped in competition with Ethernet. At least Token Ring gets a mention, whereas ARCnet doesn't rate any ink at all. Just appreciate the ease of Ethernet for quick installation and the robustness as it carries your data in 1500 byte packets all over your office.

I recommend companies use wired network connections as their default option for three reasons:

         Cheaper

         Faster

         More secure

Why are wired networks cheaper? Because every desktop and laptop computer for the past decade includes a 10/100Base-T plug as part of the basic computer. Why faster? Because signals travel down the wires rather than radiating out through radio waves. Why more secure? Because eavesdroppers must get access to your physical network to begin to intercept your data traffic, while wireless networks spew your data out like, well, radio waves.

Enjoy your wired network where you can. But if you have to start running cables around places, consider your options with a wireless network.

Wireless Networks

People hate leashes, meaning they prefer to avoid any type of wire on a telephone or TV remote control or computer. Hence the popularity of wireless networks.

True, wireless networks are more expensive, unless you include the cost of hiring contractors to run new wiring through your walls. Wireless networks are slower, unless you count the time waiting for a contractor to add a 10/100Base-T network wiring drop in your office as opposed to working immediately with a wireless connection. True, wireless networks are less secure unless you jump through some security hoops, but that situation gets easier by the day and will be nearly automatic within a couple of years.

Many companies make wireless routers and client wireless adapters, either PC Cards for laptops or USB adapters for desktops and laptops. Seeing a router with a USB client adapter in a plastic package hanging on the wall like a typical consumer item caught my attention in New Wireless Kit and More USB Backup Chatter .

Wireless networks have become the default network connection type for many small companies because of their convenience. If you've held back because of security concerns, start a pilot project. You'll be amazed how quickly you can secure a wireless network with just a little effort.

You should enjoy some articles on O'Reilly's site, including Top Ten 802.11 Myths of 2005 and Protect Yourself From WiFi Snoops . Feel free to buy the books, or maybe check out the Knowledge Center at the WiFi Alliance.

Network Servers

For many users, especially as they're just growing their networks, a NAS (Network Attached Storage) box will be their first network server. But a "real" network server includes a more complete network operating system. Microsoft has the market cornered here, too, especially since Novell dropped the ball and dropped NetWare for Linux (too bad Novell doesn't have a decent Linux server option for small businesses like they did for NetWare and like Microsoft does with their SMB Server 2003 for Small Businesses).

High quality servers with multiple power supplies and other previously high-end features now price themselves affordably for even the smallest businesses and networks. I reviewed Gateway's E-9220T Server and their attention to detail and feature list impressed me.

Managing servers, once you get more than three, can take far too much time and attention. Automated server management software or services from third parties makes sense, as discussed in a New Server Management Service . If you prefer software to help manage servers and workstations, WhatsUp Gold Sings .

You don't have to have a server to have a network, but you do need a network operating system. A new company introduced one late in 2005 that provides interesting ways to share and backup files from one personal computer to another. Unlike Microsoft's mediocre workgroup networking included in the Windows operating system, MioNet offers A New Peer-to-Peer Network Option to consider.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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