9 Tips for Designing a Small Business Network

1:  Plan for the software you will require.

The most important consideration for designing a small business network is the software the business will use. Many businesses use vertical market software that has been developed for and customized to a specific industry's needs. For example: A retail business may need point-of-sale software, or a doctor's office may need medical practice management software. If you want to use a particular software package for your specific industry, you will need to plan your hardware and networking to meet the software's requirements.  The cost of the systems required to support any software package should always be considered when selecting software.

Some vertical market software packages will require a database server and may only work with certain ones. If it will work with different databse servers, you will need to decide which one will fit your budget for hardware, software, and ongoing support and maintenance costs.

2:  Plan for people.

You will need to know how many people need to use which software. You will have to plan for user licenses, storage requirements, network cabling and the devices each employee will require.  You will also need to consider your customer requirements. Will they need to access your website or wireless network? Software licensing can be per server, per user, per device, for a number of concurrent users, or any combination of these.

3:  Plan for devices.

How many desktops will you need to support now and in the near future? Will you support smart phones, tablets or wireless laptops? Will you need network printers, scanners, or fax?  You will need to consider all of these questions in order to plan for network cabling, wireless access points or routers, and network switches.

4:  Plan for remote access and telecommuting.

If you plan on hosting your website on your network or you have employees that will need to securely access sensitive resources on your network remotely, you will want to use a business class firewall and/or VPN access device.

Most small businesses do not host their own websites but, it can be done securely and may be a good solution for integrating a customer service or business application portal website with other locally stored data. This is an area where you will definitely need the help of  an experienced professional! You will need to design for additional layers of security, use a business class firewall and set up alerts and monitoring.

5:  Avoid consumer class hardware and software whenever possible.

Equipment and software designed for consumers is often used by businesses but can have limitations that will end up costing you more than if you started with business class products. Never use Home editions of Windows. They do not offer the security of Windows Professional editions and cannot join Microsoft Network Domains. A good 16 or 24 port, business class network switch will offer more performance and reliability than a hodgepodge of small home networking switches. Business class server hardware can be configured with auto-failover and hot pluggable disks, an important consideration for the next topic, #6.

6: Determine your requirements for systems availability.

Zero downtime will never exist for any system! The dream of many IT executives is 5 nines, or 99.999% systems availability. That only allows for 5.26 minutes of downtime per year! A worthy goal rarely achieved.  High availability is also expensive. However, there are many cost effective ways you can build fault tolerance into your network. To design your systems for the availability you need, you will first need to weigh the cost of downtime, with the cost of preventing it. You will need to plan downtime for maintenance as well.  Maintenance will most likely be performed during non business hours, and you should be able to schedule for most of it. But expect the occasional need for unscheduled maintenance.

It will probably not be feasible to eliminate every single point of failure in your network but, you can plan for recovering all parts of your systems. Hardware is very reliable today but, it does fail. If you centralize all of your data storage onto one computer and require employees to store all business data there, a single employee’s computer going down should not be a catastrophe, especially if you have a spare computer. If you have 10 desktop computers, a fully configured spare would only cause your desktop costs to increase by 10%. That’s less than the cost of many extended warranties and maintenance agreements. PC warranties only cover the hardware. After the failed hardware is repaired, you will be responsible for re-installing all of the software and recovering the data. A spare PC is smart planning. I would also recommend you create disk images for all of your PC workstations and update them regularly. An image can be restored to a new or repaired PC quickly if needed.

Most systems problems are caused by software issues, viruses and accidents.  Regular software updates and virus protection are vital for systems availability.  Accidents will happen.  Backup your data daily. Another good reason to centralize your data storage is that it will enable you to centralize your data backup system as well. This will increase your backup reliability and lower your costs for protecting your business' data.

7: Document document document!

Can you tell I think documenting is important? It will save you money, time and perhaps even your business!  It will also increase your systems availability by reducing maintenance time and the time it takes to recover systems. Did you ever hear that you shouldn't write passwords anywhere? I have and it is one of the dumbest things I have ever heard. You cannot repair, troubleshoot or operate any system without knowing or somehow recovering the password. You can reset some things to the "factory default", but "factory default" means no configuration and no data! Document your passwords! Just don't store them on the fridge door in the employee lounge.

Document all of the configuration information you can and always update it when system and configuration changes are made. Documentation should include, IP addresses, computer names, user names, software versions, configuration files, screen shots of configurations, vendor maintenance agreements, warranty information, support phone numbers,  support customer and PIN numbers, software licensing documents and any thing else you can think of that you may possibly need.

I always tell my customers that I want to make it easy for them to fire me! Well, I really don't want it to be too easy but, if they can call a professional who has never seen their systems and they have access to thorough documentation, they can get their systems back up in running in the shortest time possible.

8: Use at least one professional!

You need to find someone who knows networking and business software to help you plan and design your network. A pro can help design a system that will meet your needs today and be able to grow with your business. When I say, use at least one professional, I mean that you may also need a specialist to help you configure your financial or specific business software and train your employees. They may be technology savvy, but they will probably not have the experience needed to plan, design, install and configure your network systems. Hiring an experienced networking professional to help you with your planning, network design and configuration, will help you to keep your IT costs down and your systems up.

9: Business requirements always come first!

Technology professionals can get wrapped up in a lot of detail while planning and designing systems. It is up to the business to ensure that the needs and requirements of the business are considered throughout the planning process. A seasoned technology professional, will prompt, prod, and perhaps even aggravate you, to help them with capacity planning and growth estimates. They will want you to document your business processes and requirements. There is that documentation word again! They will schedule planning and project status meetings, and insist on reviewing plans with you. The technology supports the business effort.  The business always leads the technology effort!




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