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Simple and Effective Small Office Network Setup Tips

Simplicity and functionality should be the guiding principles for designing a small office network that meets the needs of your growing company. Also, remember that networking hardware that fits right now may not fit in a couple of years as your business grows. For this reason, it is wise to purchase equipment that is upgrade-able as your company expands. Knowing the basics about network hardware is the first step in making informed choices.

Small Office Network

The Difference Between a Switch and a Router

Switches and routers are the foundation of almost all office networks. Knowing the difference between the two sorts out a lot of the confusion SMB owners may have about choosing the right networking hardware.

A switch is any piece of equipment that allows networked devices to communicate and share information. On an Ethernet network, typically you are connecting desktop PCs, printers, servers, network attached storage (NAS), voice over IP (VoIP), surveillance systems, or any device with an Ethernet port. Switches tie together these devices into a network.

A router, by definition, connects different networks both inside and outside of your network. In most cases for SMBs, this means connecting your office network to the Internet (the biggest network of them all). A router is “smarter” that a switch. It prioritizes the flow of information from the Internet to your devices and usually helps protect your devices from cyber threats.

Where it might get confusing is that nearly all wired routers have a switch built into them. Furthermore, a wireless router acts as an access point, as well as a switch, all at once. The nomenclature gets a little cumbersome if you don’t have an IT background.

Choosing a Switch that Fits Your Needs

There are three basic types of switches to choose from when setting up a small business network: managed switches, unmanaged switches, and smart switches.

  • An unmanaged switch is the likely choice for most small business networks. It works out of the box and offers very limited, if any, configuration options. Unmanaged switches require minimal technical knowledge to install and operate.
  • A managed switch gives you more control over how your network operates. Managed switches can be adjusted, segmented, and optimized for particular needs. A managed switch generally requires technical knowledge to take full advantage of its features.
  • Several manufactures sell a smart switch, also called a Layer 2/3 switch. A smart switch is a hybrid of unmanaged and managed switches. It’s ‘smarter’ than an unmanaged switch because it gives you some basic controls. However, if you need full or more advanced controls for your office network, opt for a managed switch.

 Selecting a Router for Your Business Network

By definition a router connects different networks. In most cases for SMBs, this means connecting your office network to the Internet. Most Internet routers have a network switch built into them. Wireless routers have a built-in wireless access point serving Wi-Fi. Be mindful of the port speeds when choosing a router. Is the WAN port 10/100 or Gigabit? Are the LAN ports 10/100 or Gigabit? What speeds and bandwidths does the router support?

When shopping and comparing routers make sure to note the following:

  • A firewall is an essential router feature for any small business network. It is essentially software built into a router that helps screen and filter incoming traffic on your network.
  • Virtual Private Network (VPN) support is important if users need to access your office network remotely.
  • For wireless routers and access points (WAPs) in a business setting there are several considerations.
    – What is the size and layout of your office? Do you plan on expanding soon?
    – What speeds and bandwidths do your computers and devices support?
    – How many devices will typically be using the wireless at the same time?
    – Is there anything else present that might cause interference?
  • Most network equipment requires power to run. However, some is conveniently powered over Ethernet (PoE) meaning that it is powered through the network cable and does not need to be plugged into an electrical outlet. Is this a feature you need?

Looking 3-5 years ahead for scaling your network

Scalability for your network should be understood and taken into consideration. Try to plan ahead to the extent of your product life cycle. Having to buy a switch with more ports before the old one reaches the end of life, and is otherwise getting the job done, is a waste of resources.

While these tips are a good starting point, understand that every office is unique and there are no real one-size fits all solutions. It comes down to how well you can assess your needs and pair them with the network hardware that is available within your budget. Taking that into consideration and remembering to scale for growth will allow you to make the most out of your small office network setup.

PTS is a full-service business IT service and solutions partner. With over 30 years of business networking and systems knowledge we can help you company design, install, and manage a network that can meet your needs today and grow with you in the future. Contact PTS today.

PTS Computer Network Services web site administrator.