Planning a Small Business Computer Network
Wouldn’t it be great if your office-space rental came with the perfect network configuration for your business? One can dream.
Chances are, you don’t have a network engineer on staff, and if you’re contracting these services out, you’d like to do some of the planning or at least understand what they’re recommending.
I’d like to share a few guidelines on setting up an office network to suit small-business needs.
When building your office network, the first thing to consider is how much traffic you expect to pass across the network. This depends heavily on how many people work in the office and how often they are using bandwidth. For example, if you have 20 employees and they’re on the phone most of the day, you’ll need to make sure they have enough bandwidth to operate.
This raises the possibility of bandwidth abuse. What happens when one employee decides to stream Netflix when everyone else is trying to make calls? You have two options on this front. Option one is to ensure there is enough bandwidth for everyone all the time. This usually means purchasing more capable devices and an Internet connection with more capacity.
Option two is to police and prioritize how your network handles traffic. Through a technology called QoS, you can do exactly this. Using settings on your router, you can ensure that the traffic you care about most (such as your phone calls) is handled first, ahead of anything else you care about less. The rule of thumb to follow for VoIP bandwidth consumption is ~64 kilobits per phone call. This means that if you have 20 concurrent phone calls, you’re going to be using just over one megabit of traffic. If your Internet connection is only able to handle one megabit of traffic, those phone calls are going to be less than optimal in terms of quality.
Also remember that your phones are not the only hardware on your network using bandwidth. Workers browsing YouTube or Netflix will use large amounts of bandwidth as well.
Selecting a Carrier
When choosing an Internet service provider, make sure you get an Internet connection that’s intended for business use. You’ll probably pay a bit more for “business class” service, but over time it will easily pay for itself. Your team will be far more productive if they don’t have to worry about service quality or outages.
Make sure you’re getting what you pay for though by running an Internet speed test. This will give you a rough idea of how much traffic you are able to pass across your network. Try to calculate the bare minimum you require, and then multiply that figure by three. In many locales your provider options are limited, so do your research and see what’s available.
Selecting Network Equipment
When choosing a router and switch for your office network, it is important to consider what you expect these devices to achieve. Using the formula previously mentioned you can get a general idea of how much traffic you expect. Remember again, that the investment you make here can pay for itself in productivity over time.
If you have the choice between a router meant for home use and one meant for an office of your size, the difference is not trivial. You may have to spend quite a bit of money to get what you need, but again, it will pay for itself over time.
Make sure anything you choose not only has the features you need now, but what you may need in the future. Your business may not need advanced features like content filtering, QoS or VPN now, but who knows what you may need in a few months’ time.
You’ll likely need to buy a router and at least one switch. Choose wisely, as in today’s office they’ll be used every minute of the work day.
Brands to Consider: Cisco, Juniper, Fortigate, and Palo Alto
Designing Your Network
Once you’ve chosen network devices, the mantra for configuring them should be Simpler is Better. A colleague once told me (very wisely) that, “The most complex thing you can build is more complex than what you can effectively troubleshoot.”
In other words, it’s much harder to figure out what’s going wrong when you’ve overreached the boundaries of what you can think about under pressure. And in very simple terms this equates to a need for simplicity when planning out your network!
The best configuration for your office will likely be a single router connected to a single switch that is large enough to plug in every phone and computer on your network. If you have more devices than you’re comfortable plugging into a single switch, you’ll need to start thinking about a hierarchical design. This is outside the scope of this article, but needless to say, if this is the case, you’ll either need to read more about network design or hire a consultant to help.
Maintenance and Monitoring
After you’ve set up your new network, you’ll want to make sure it’s healthy and stable. You’ll need to run a network monitoring program inside your network for this purpose. If you already have a server in your network for storing files or for managing email, you may be able to use it to run this software. Wherever you run it, make sure your software is configured to let you know when things become a problem or are about to. Examples include when you’re nearing your bandwidth capacity, or when an important device inside your network is down.
Software to Consider: PRTG, Cacti, SolarWinds, OpenNMS
Your Network Will Grow!
Setting up an office network is no easy task. Your business’s changing needs will mean that your network will change over time too. However, these guidelines should get you started, and provide a frame of reference for expanding your configuration as your business grows.
If you have questions, please leave them in the comments. We’d love to hear about your networking challenges and successes.