A robust network is the lifeblood of your business, especially in today’s highly interconnected world where nearly everything is done through the Internet. Businesses of all sizes, and small-to-mid-sized business owners in particular, can reap great benefits from the Internet to boost their sales, improve employee productivity, set up business partnerships, etc. It also encourages face-to-face collaboration between team members, enabling them to work basically from anywhere. Internet services have been evolving at an astonishing rate, offering fast, dependable network connectivity, yet it can also be a source of frustration. A slow, unstable network could result in huge periods of downtime, frustrated employees and missed business opportunities. If you desire flawless communication between clients and employees, you’ll need a carefully structured network to take your business to the next level.
But designing a network for your business is a challenging project with many complex steps. Internet brings us great opportunities but also introduces many new stresses and challenges.
Common Challenges in Business Networks
While each business network will experience its unique problems, there are a few network-related problems shared by most enterprises.
• High Installation Cost: The first and foremost problem is the cost. It’s expensive for small business owners to maintain and upgrade their network infrastructures regularly to keep them in shape and meet desired bandwidth and security demands. And network retrofit inside an existing building normally costs more than in new construction since the entire process is more complex. Installing new network infrastructures in an existing company usually averages from $4,000 to $8,000 since more labor costs are generated.
• Poor Network Performance: A slow Internet speed means reduced productivity, sales slide and revenue cuts. Cloud-based office applications offer an effective way to get the job done quickly. And to ensure your network works flawlessly, a reliable connection is highly needed. But due to improper installation, software incompatibility, hardware aging, etc., your network may not be able to deliver its best performance. Out-of-date devices will hinder employees’ ability to fulfill necessary tasks, bog down network browsing experience, etc. Worse still, network congestion will also intensify as more users and network clients access the Internet.
• Lack of Scalability: A scalable network can easily ramp up and down to adapt to varying speed, bandwidth and security requirements. And it also allows quick and simple network expansion as your business grows. However, not all networks are equally built. Most business networks cannot go well with the new technologies because they are not designed to integrate with new pieces of equipment. The scalability of your networks will drastically reduce as there are few software/hardware integrations you can perform. If you want a network retrofit, you will have no choice but to replace it all at once.
• Inadequate Security: Security is the top priority in any business network since a network breach will cost you millions of dollars at merely one strike. All enterprises need a highly secure system to protect their businesses from the wide array of cyber threats and spam. However, legacy networks are becoming more and more vulnerable to IT security threats, making it easier for hackers to gain access to your network, applications, or databases as the hackers themselves are also finessing their techniques over years. In addition, the talent pool of knowledge for legacy systems is also shrinking since many manufacturers have stopped offering support for the outdated networks, which makes it difficult to identify the problems.
Network Design Matters Most
Even though these challenges are common across almost all industries, with the proper strategies and network designs, businesses will soon overcome these problems and focus on their business goals. Setting up a network in a startup business also entails some specialized considerations to ensure an optimal installation.
Step 1: Assess Your Needs
Poorly designed and configured networks are everywhere. Before starting any network design project, gather some information and figure out your business and technical requirements. Simplicity and functionality should always be the guiding principles for any network. In this step, you’ll have to have to decide what types of network you want, how much Internet speed you’ll need, etc.
There are various types of networking options available, and they can be classified according to their sizes (how large an area they can cover and how many devices they can carry) and purposes, such as Personal Area Network (PAN), Local Area Network (LAN) and Wide Area Network (WAN).
PAN: It’s a computer network designed for personal use only. It only provides a limited network within a person’s range (10 meters in approximate) to establish short-range communication between different network devices like a computer, smartphone, tablet, printer, etc. It can be connected through wireless signals such as ZigBee and Bluetooth or through a wired connection via USB.
LAN: It is composed of a group of computers and network devices that are connected in geographically limited areas such as offices, campuses and hospitals, in which multiple computers and other devices (printers, IP phones, fax machines, etc.) are connected to the same network. It can carry more than 5,000 devices at a time and offer a much faster speed than its counterparts. Data and messages can be transferred at higher throughput over networked computers, and since data can be collected in one place, it offers higher levels of security in business networking.
WAN: WAN is a collection of local area networks (LANs), which is designed to cover a larger geographical area, like an enterprise. It’s by now the largest and most expansive form of network that provides Internet access to users in multiple locations and across the globe. It can be used for any data-sharing purposes for which LAN is used. But in most small businesses, LAN would be enough to fully carpet your offices and provide network connections across nearby buildings.
Businesses are always focusing on maximizing productivity. Evaluating how much speed you need is crucial to help your business run smoothly and quickly in a budget-friendly way. Factors that choosing business internet speeds vary from business to business but must be determined according to the number of devices in use and what tasks need to be done. The average business requires at least 25Mbps of download speed and 3Mbps of upload speed (the required network speed in a broadband connection) to complete daily tasks, like sending emails, downloading files, etc. For more complicated jobs like business transactions and video streaming, a higher bandwidth (300-500Mbps) is required to avoid any sort of network congestion during the operation. And as your company expands, a Gigabit network can help you handle bandwidth-hungry applications and complicated tasks like streaming conference calls and running multimedia projects.
Step 2: Decide Network Topology
Network topology explains the way how devices are connected together and the data flow within the designated connections, and each topology is designed to fulfill different needs.
1) Point-to-Point Topology
In the point-to-point topology, the devices are directly connected via a cable to realize a fast-speed network connection between two endpoints, and since only two nodes are using the data link, more bandwidth is reserved for point-to-point communication. One of the biggest advantages of using this topology is that it’s simple to implement and easier to maintain. But it’s only applicable for small areas where only two nodes need to be linked together.
2) Bus Topology
The bus topology is a network type where every device is connected to one main cable that runs from one end of the network to the other. In this network structure, data can only be transmitted from one direction, and only the device that recognizes the MAC/IP address will use the data. You can easily add new devices or remove existing devices without affecting other devices connected to the network. But since all the data travels through only one cable, you’ll experience slow operations as the network traffic increases. And this limitation also makes the bus topology only suitable for small networks as the more devices you connect, the slower the transmission speed will be.
3) Ring Topology
The ring topology, also known as Token Ring, is one of the traditional network structures in data transmission. Devices are connected to each other in a circular format where data is transmitted in sequence, which greatly reduces packet collision and minimizes data loss over long distances. The ring topology is mostly unidirectional but can also be made bidirectional. In the normal ring topology, a single failure in the cable can disrupt the whole network, but the dual-ring topology provides each node with two connections, one in each direction. Thus, data can flow in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction to reduce network downtime.
4) Star Topology
In such a configuration, each node is connected directly to a network hub (often a switch) with a separate cable to create a point-to-point connection between the server and client. If one endpoint wants to forward the message to another endpoint, it must transmit the data to the server first and then deliver it to the destinated client. It allows you to manage multiple devices from one location, and you can also add new devices to the server without taking the network offline. And if a node goes down, the network can still remain up, but the failure of the central hub can bring down the entire system.
5) Tree Topology
As its name suggests, the tree topology is a network structure where the central hub functions as a trunk with other nodes stretching out in a branch-like fashion. It’s the combination of the bus topology and the star topology (the central nodes of each star topology, i.e. the secondary hubs, are connected together on the central hub), however, the tree topology has a parent-child hierarchy where there’s only one connection between two connected nodes. It’s easy to manage and expand, allowing you to check out network performance issues systematically. It’s widely used in large networks such as offices, university campuses, and hospitals where devices need to be grouped together for centralized management. But the main downside to this topology is that when the main server goes down, everything goes down.
6) Mesh Topology
In a mesh system, all the nodes are interconnected. There are basically two ways how data is transmitted: routing and flooding. When data is routed, it’ll find out the shortest distance to the destination. In contrast, flooding is where data is transmitted to all the nodes within the network. And there are two forms of mesh topology: full mesh topology and partial mesh topology. In the full mesh network, each node is connected to every other node which makes it extremely resistant to failure but also challenging to implement and maintain, whereas in the partial mesh network, most nodes are interconnected but there are a few that are only connected to two or three other nodes. The mesh topology is a labor-intensive and time-consuming project that is normally deployed in small-and-medium-sized businesses where a high-speed, low-latency network is highly valued.
7) Hybrid Topology
A hybrid topology is normally consisted of two or more different topologies to meet specific network requirements, which is commonly used in medium-to-large-sized enterprises. There are very few constraints in this network structure since it’s highly flexible and adaptable to the equipment use. But the hybrid topology is very complex, and professional management is required. And setting up a hybrid network can turn out to be quite costly considering the complicated designs and administrator costs.
Step 3: Choose Physical Network
The physical network usually involves cable wiring, hole drilling and other infrastructure work. And depending on how data is communicated, it can be either wired or wireless, so you can tailor your network to your specific requirements and figure out the best solution for your business.
The wireless network transmits data via radio signals to enable devices to communicate with each other and the Internet without being hardwired to a network modem. In general, the cost of implementing a wireless network is much lower than that of a wired network. Structured cabling and hardware are still necessary, but fewer cables and wall outlets are needed. And installation is much easier and faster as it requires less equipment. Most importantly, it gives allows more freedom to access the network from any location. But the wireless network is more susceptible to interference and attenuation. Wireless signals can be easily impeded by physical obstructions like walls, doors and counters, so this network structure is more suitable for an open-plan office.
Mesh WiFi System
The mesh system is an integrated network system that consists of the main router that directly connects to your modem and two or three mesh nodes that act as satellites to bring seamless connectivity to every corner. The mesh router is the backbone of the mesh system to transfer packets to and from the mesh nodes (clients) and establish communication between these clients. Unlike the traditional WiFi routers, they all belong to a single wireless network and share the same SSID and password, so you can easily access one of these wireless stations wherever you are. The mesh system is designed for places that suffer weak or incomplete WiFi coverage to repeat and boost up the signals during data transmission.
A wired network is where you physically connect the devices to the Internet via a wired connection, like coaxial, Ethernet and fiber. The wired connections are normally more stable and reliable than the wireless network and they rarely run into data loss and random outages. And the latency issues are greatly reduced since it’s unaffected by signal interference that will compromise its transmission. In buildings where there are concrete walls or other obstructions, the wired connections will be more reliable. Moreover, it also features a faster network speed and a higher level of security. But it’s not without its own frustrations. The installation is more complex and expensive since laying new cables in an existing structure is not only technically challenging but labor-intensive. Additionally, it’s inflexible in terms of mobility. If you want to add a new device to your network, you’ve to run a new cable.
1) Power over Ethernet
Power over Ethernet (PoE) provides a powerful solution to supply power to the PDs from a centralized point rather than a collection of distributed power outlets. It transmits power and data via the same network cable to the powered devices (PDs), such as IP cameras, wireless access points, IP intercoms and All-in-One touchscreen computers, at a maximum distance of 100 meters, eliminating extra power cabling on the job site. PoE gives you more flexibility on where to place the network devices since they don’t need to be tethered to an electrical outlet. The devices can be placed wherever they are needed most and repositioned easily if required.
2) Fiber Optic Cabling
When building a high-speed network that requires long distances and higher bandwidth, there is no doubt that fiber optic cables are obviously the best solution. Fiber optic connection has a world-renowned reputation for long-distance and high-speed data transmission. Normally, the transmission speed of fiber optics could reach 10 Gbps or more with a symmetrical upload and download speed. Fiber connection is also known for its durability with a prolonged service life of up to 30-50 years, which makes it a worthwhile investment in the long term. But since the fiber optic cable doesn’t carry any electricity, so you can power the edge device with an additional power source.
The Best Solution: A Hybrid Network
The hybrid network is a combination of both wired and wireless networks. It basically uses wireless access points as satellites to provide complete WiFi coverage for your premises and uses the wired connections as a backhaul. It gives you more freedom and mobility to expand your network and secures a better network connection. Moreover, to eliminate unnecessary cable running in your office, you can also take advantage of PoE to transmit the data and power through the same network cable. It’s also a good option to install the devices in places where it’ll be more challenging and expensive to install new electrical infrastructures. It’s highly customizable and adaptable to different business layouts.
Network Equipment for Your Business
For small and mid-sized businesses, user experience is crucial when we build a business network. Considering that hardware can also influence the reliability of your network system, it’s important to choose the right equipment to set up a strong and scalable system.
Basic Components You’ll Need for SMB Networks:
2) PoE Switch
3) Wireless Access Points
4) Ethernet Cables
The router is fundamental hardware for your business network to function flawlessly. It receives the information from the Internet (normally from a modem) and transfers the data packets through the Ethernet cable to the connected device. The network devices often use a network switch or PoE switch as an intermediary device for Internet connections. The WiFi router normally uses the radio frequencies of 900Mhz, 2.4Ghz, 5Ghz, 3.6Ghz and 10Ghz bands to provide Internet access for your phone, computer, or other Internet-connected appliances. It provides a platform where different devices can communicate with each other.
PoE switch is a network switch that has Power over Ethernet functionality built into it. The most obvious advantage of using a PoE switch is that it offers great flexibility for installation and relocation in places where no power is present, which greatly improves the scalability of network architecture and reduces the costs of the initial investment. The PoE switch is hot-swappable, which makes it ultra user-friendly for average families and small and medium-sized businesses. An active PoE switch is equipped with auto-sensing PoE ports that automatically detect the compatibility of the connected devices to lower the chances of power outages, operation failures, etc., and prevent irreversible electrical damages caused to the PDs. The PoE switch is widely used in different scenarios, from home to office, industry to neighborhood, indoors and outdoors, etc.
How Managed Switch Benefits Small Businesses?
When your business grows, a higher level of management is required, and this is why you’ll need a managed switch to create an optimized network to fulfill more than basic needs.
• Optimized Network Traffic: The managed PoE switch helps to prioritize the traffic flow of each network port. Since different network devices have different bandwidth requirements, when these devices are connected on the same switch, the managed switch can help you control the amount of traffic each port is forwarding to ensure the optimal performance of each PD. By using a managed PoE switch, you can easily configure the low-bandwidth-consumption devices to low priority so other devices can get enough bandwidth to function properly.
• Less Network Downtime: Network failures pose a great safety and economic risk to enterprise networks, and occasional IT downtime may cost you thousands of dollars per year. But by deploying a managed PoE switch, you’ll experience less network downtime during the operation. The managed switch can provide services like network monitoring and problem diagnosis to allow you to have better control over your network. It provides full reports of status on each port and speeds up troubleshooting if necessary to shorten the time wasted on data recovery.
• Increased Security: Another major advantage of using managed switches in business networks mainly lies in its high security. Unmanaged switches only provide basic security features, but the managed switches can only provide access to trusted devices to prevent unauthorized access and block unknown devices. With the 802.1X Port-Based Network Access Control (PNAC), the user can set up the level to access the switch.
Wireless Access Point
The wireless access point is a piece of network equipment that creates a wireless network connection throughout your company, the backbone of any wireless network. It can receive the signals wirelessly and rebroadcast them to Internet-capable devices. The wireless access point can be used to extend the WiFi coverage of an existing network and cover the dead spots in your offices. Although the access point works very similarly to an amplifier, it can do more than just extend the network range. For example, it can take the bandwidth from the router and projects the signals to the designated area, to an extended distance.
Ethernet cables are the key to connecting everything together. Unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cables are one of the most commonly used network cables in SMBs. It’s highly recommended to use Cat5 or Cat5e Ethernet cables to connect the access points to the PoE switch and each other to secure a high-speed data transfer between computers. Normally, the Cat5 Ethernet cable is capable of transmitting data at speeds of up to 100Mbps, but for Gigabit-speed networks, a higher-category network cable (Cat5e/6/7) is demanded. And you should use pure copper cables for best which has a greater conductivity, while the CCA cable would generate more DC resistance and therefore create greater power loss.
Step-by-Step Network Installation Guide
Now, follow the instructions below to set up your business network:
1) Find the Best Location for Your Router
A WiFi router can support a transmission range of 45 meters indoors and 90 meters outdoors. While it may seem it’s enough to cover small and medium-sized offices, the obstacles and other sorts of interference inside the house will cause the signals to degrade and result in poor coverage. So you should place your router in a more centralized location that is free from physical obstructions to mitigate the interference.
2) Place the Wireless APs at the Proper Locations
When designing your wireless network structure, you need to choose the best location for placing your access points to provide maximum coverage for your business. The APs should be placed in an open and unobstructed place, like right in the center of an open workspace. Most wireless access points and routers spread the signal 360°, so it’ll be a good idea to keep them closer to the center of your workspace rather than placing them above the ceiling or next to a wall. And inevitably, your business will experience coverage overlap, especially in high-traffic areas if you don’t optimize your access point placement. Whenever it’s possible, you should map out the position of each access point first.
3) Complete the Connection
First, use a short Ethernet cable to connect one of the LAN ports of the router and the uplink port of the PoE switch, and plug the router into a nearby power outlet. Then, power the PoE switch and use a long Ethernet cable to connect the switch and the wireless access point. For units that are not PoE-enabled, you can also use a PoE splitter to separate the data and power into two different streams and feed them to the non-PoE AP. Finally, to make sure the access point offers the best strength wherever you need the connectivity, you have to measure the signal strength at the installation site.
Note: No matter what business you are in, security plans should be implemented to prevent unauthorized access to the confidential information of your clients and employees. Make sure that your router’s security protocol is configured to the highest level, and if possible, install a physical firewall as well.