Small Business Computer Networks: What You Need to Know

As computer operating systems and networking technology become more accessible, setting up a small business computer network is easier than ever. No longer the explicit realm of IT professionals, most networking software and peripherals can be set up remotely, either by the ISP or through a company specialises in network deployment and configuration, such as EC-MSP, who offer IT support in London.

Why it’s important for your business to have a computer network

Establishing a computer network in your office helps you to get the most out of your office computer equipment and peripherals. It also allows all users to share the same broadband connection, no matter what computer or device they are working from. Networked equipment can include Wi-Fi routers, network drives, network printers, scanners and fax machines and audio/visual equipment such as speakers and media monitors. It also centralizes your company files and data so that it can be used to maximum efficiency, allowing your employees to share information and access the central file system as needed.

Wired or Wireless?

Once you have established the need for an inter-office computer network, the next question you should address is whether it should be a wired or wireless network. More and more small businesses are opting for a wireless network configuration as newer wireless equipment has seen a dramatic drop in price and is becoming more and more easy to configure, deploy and use.

There are several advantages to going wireless:

  • No unsightly cables to trip over and sully your sightlines
  • More flexibility in terms of general office setup and design
  • Access the network from any computer, anywhere in the office
  • Allows your visitors, customers and clients to access your internet via your Wi-Fi connection

Wireless does have some disadvantages, however. An Ethernet (wired) connection is still more reliable and often much faster. Wired network solutions are also less expensive. Additionally, a wireless signal can vary even within the office, depending on router placement, office design, thickness of the walls, network interference and other variables – even the weather. Ultimately, you will have to weigh the alternatives, and decide which is the better choice for you. Even if you decide to go wireless, having a wired system as a backup is always a good idea.

What are the different types of business computer networks?

When it comes to running multiple business networks, they must be all connected to optimise business communications. That is why you can implement several types of business networks for your business. Some of the most common types of business networks you will encounter are the following: 

Cloud-based computer networks

Cloud-based computer networks are the best systems to use when multiple devices are linked to one network. This is very useful if you have multiple devices with several users who all need to access the same piece of work or require access to an internal network. You can also use this network to ensure that all their emails and internal communications are done through a centralised system, and online, meaning that your staff can work at optimal efficiency entirely remotely. Cloud-based computer networks are therefore the best option for organisations that run their businesses predominantly online. 

Local Area Networks

Local area networks, also known as LAN networks are the networks used to link multiple devices together in a shared space. For example, in an office environment where users have to have access to the same printers, scanners, or internal systems, the IT manager will implement the use of a LAN network. These are usually more secure and cannot be accessed from a remote location, therefore are usually used by those who work in a prominently office-based environment. 

Personal Area Networks

If you run a business on your own or with a small team, you may be able to make use of a personal area network (PAN). These are usually networks used to link devices’ functional features. An example of a PAN would be a bluetooth connection between a speaker and a smartphone. In corporate settings, these could also be used to present to a board room using wireless connections.

Setting up your network: decisions you will need to make

Before you begin to set up your small business network, you should take some time to map out your specific needs. Knowing this beforehand will help you in determining what equipment and software solutions will be required.

Answer the following questions:

  • Will you require a wired, wireless or hybrid connection?
  • What types of computers or devices will be used on the network?
  • Where do you see yourself in the future? Is there a need for expansion flexibility?
  • How much bandwidth do you anticipate you will require? Will you be sharing large amounts of data or media?
  • How many users or workstations will be on the network at any given time?
  • Who is going to be the network administrator?
  • What sort of security is required for access to files, apps and other network resources?

Once you have determined these points, you should have a good working idea of the available options based on your specific needs.

Network Equipment: Hardware

Most commonly-used operating systems have networking capabilities already built in. This should make it easy to add on to your existing computer systems without too much change to your established processes. So whether you are using Mac OS or a PC running Windows or even some sort of hybrid system, it should be relatively easy to connect everything quickly and efficiently.

It should be stressed that if your existing networking equipment is old or outdated, newer items should be purchased. Older equipment is more vulnerable to hacking and does not comply with current internet security protocols. With cyber-threats to small business at an all-time high, security should be at the top of your list of priorities. Additionally, older equipment may not be able to handle higher speeds or newer technologies, so your best strategy is to start fresh with gear that is a little more future-proof.

The two primary pieces of network hardware you will be working with are routers and switches. Though these items have similar functionalities, there are some fundamental differences that you should be familiar with.

A switch is a piece of hardware that allows connected devices to communicate. These devices can include desktop computers, printers, hard-drives, VoIP systems or anything with an Ethernet port.

There are two types of switches to choose from: managed switches and unmanaged switches. A managed switch is more feature-rich, and can be programmed and monitored. It provides more control over the flow of data to each device and can be reconfigured either directly or remotely, depending on the specific technology. Though a managed switch allows more control, it also requires more technical ability on the part of you or your staff.

An unmanaged switch is an out-of-the-box solution that generally offers a pre-determined configuration. While not as flexible a solution as a managed switch, it is an easy solution for offices that do not require more robust monitoring.

The more Ethernet ports a switch has, the more devices can be attached to it. When choosing your switch, you should plan beyond your current configuration to avoid having to repurchase when and if your needs change. Purchase a switch that can provide enough slots to handle your bandwidth and growth projections for at least the next two to three years.

The price for a network switch is determined by its capabilities, both in capacity and performance. Performance is defined as the rate at which a switch can deliver data; if your company needs to be able to transfer large amounts of data, you should consider a high-performance switch. If this is not necessarily what you need, you might want to opt for something a little more middle-of-the-road.

A router ties together different networks, an example of which would be connecting your inter-office computer network to the internet. It directs the flow of internet signal to your devices and protects your computers from incoming threats.

Your choice of a router should be determined both by how you plan to use your internet connection and your security needs. Be sure to choose one with features that support your specific requirements.

It may be necessary to purchase more than one router for your office, especially if there are areas where it is difficult to connect via Wi-Fi. Take stock of the size of your office and all its workspaces, and be sure that the range of your wireless router is ample enough. These days, you need to consider how people connect as well, as the trend toward BYOD (bring your own device) continues to grow.

Small Business Network Security

Small business network security has many layers, and regardless of what type of business you are involved in, you should never think that you or your company’s data is exempt from a malicious attack. Cyber-attacks on small businesses account for 43% of all internet threats, and small businesses are more apt to be targeted than larger, enterprise-level business. While your best defense is to train your employees how to spot and avoid the techniques these villains use to gain access to your system (hint: it’s not through hacking), you can add extra layers of security with firewalls, anti-virus/anti-spyware software, UTM’s and various other perimeter security solutions.

A firewall can be either a hardware or software solution, or a combination of both. A software-based firewall protects the individual computer or device, but in order for this to maintain your desired level of security it must be installed and maintained on every device: a proposition that can become complicated if you experience a growth spurt, a change in personnel or anything else that pulls your attention elsewhere.

A hardware solution protects all the computers on the network, and generally provides a more robust set of security features that bundle together anti-virus/anti-spam/anti-spyware, content filtering, geo-filtering and VPN support. A hardware firewall solution such as this gives you expanded capability to configure your system the way it makes the most sense to you.

Advantages to firewalls include:

  • Protect business-critical applications from security breaches
  • Block unauthorized access from outside threats
  • Control access to your company’s files and resources
  • Application-layer security for a range of functions, including VoIP, email and media applications
  • Increase employee productivity by preventing denial-of-service and other cyber attacks

Anti-Virus Software
While there are plenty of free anti-virus and anti-spam applications available (most computers come with something like this pre-installed), the limitations are similar to that of the pre-installed firewall: it must be installed separately on each device or computer, and each must be maintained and updated as a stand-alone. If this already sounds like too much work, you should consider other options.

Small businesses should be looking for something that provides more security and more endpoint control than your standard free anti-virus offering. Paid anti-virus software can be purchased in packages geared toward the number of users on your system – in other words, a package that provides protection for 10 users or 20 users or more. Pricing is often based on a year-long license, and many offer free trials at the outset so you can get a first-hand feel for how it fits into your workflow. Many also offer the flexibility of adding licenses as needed, so if you expect to scale up, choose something that will support your growth. Most current network anti-virus applications are deployed remotely, and offer convenient dashboard control for easy configuration and administration.

UTM’s: Unified Threat Management Systems
A unified threat management system, or UTM, combines a range of security features into a single hardware, software or hybrid appliance or group of appliances. Today’s UTM’s combine high-performance firewall, application control, VPN, anti-virus, anti-spam, web filtering and more, all controllable through a single dashboard that is either network-based or cloud based. By combining all of these security features into one appliance, small businesses can realize significant cost savings through consolidation. Pricing and licensing is generally similar to the anti-virus solutions referred to above, but eliminate the need to purchase those extra “a la carte” layers of security.

A UTM provides protection at the point of attack as opposed to an endpoint solution, preventing threats from entering the network through geo-targeting, URL blocking and other variously configurable methods. If your network has more than twenty users on its system, you should consider a UTM solution, though there are some drawbacks. Performance can be affected, depending on how many security functions are running at any given time. Though any network security protocol will result in a certain amount of latency, the more layers you add, the more pronounced this latency can become.

Your network administrator should be able to configure your UTM to balance your security needs against network performance to the satisfaction of all – it’s a matter of prioritizing the security features you absolutely need so that they don’t negatively impact your network function or your employee’s ability to do their work.

Additional Network Security Measures
Additional security can always be implemented at the end-user level, and should be a part of your larger security policy:

  • Each user should have their own unique account with its own password
  • Limit access to authorized users only
  • Develop a security policy and train each and every employee on its finer points
  • Distribute information on cyber-threats and ensure each employee knows how to avoid common pitfalls such as phishing and clicking on malicious ads, links or emails
  • Establish a disaster recovery plan (DRP) that includes provisions for IT recovery

EC-MSP: Your Partner in Small Business Networking

If you have questions or concerns about setting up your small business network, the experts at EC-MSP are always ready to help. Call today to set up a consultation, and find out how easy it is to get started with the UK’s most trusted small business IT consultancy.