While mostly invisible, the network infrastructure is the backbone of any business, large or small. It is the “connective tissue” that allows people, devices, applications and processes to communicate in a reliable and predictable manner. For example, when an email is sent, there is high confidence it will reach its intended recipient. Why? Because the various networks between sender and receiver remain connected and speaking a “common language”. This is all made possible by network infrastructure.
Network infrastructure is sometimes large and complex while other times, simple and straight forward, but no matter the design, the intent is the same: connection to others.
For a modern small business, the network infrastructure is a mixture of hardware and services provided by different vendors, allowing communication, security and reliability. A small business will typically leave the network infrastructure design, configuration and maintenance to its IT Support team or Managed Service Provider (MSP). As helpful as it is to allow the MSP to remain responsible for the network infrastructure, small business managers should understand the components to ensure required technology investment is well placed and costs are controlled.
A network infrastructure design always takes into consideration the intended number of devices that will run from the network. While this may appear straightforward, identification of all devices is not always easy. Any calculation must include:
If the total number of devices connected to a small business network is 20 or more, a different level of equipment, typically referred to as business-grade, is needed. This will not only ensure the most proper performance but help keep the network appropriately secure as well.
Not all networks are the same, but all share some common components.
CABLES, CABINETS + RACKS
For security reasons, network infrastructure, no matter how limited, should remain locked and out-of-sight from unauthorized persons. If a small business does not have a dedicated IT Room or IT Closet, then a small, portable cabinet with a lock must keep the network components secured.
A solid underlying wired network goes a long way toward ensuring a fast, reliable network, including a wireless network. Cables handle delivering sufficient bandwidth to access points. Using modern cable standards such as CAT6 for LAN wiring is a worthwhile investment. This also allows connection of certain devices such as printers, IP cameras and VoIP phones to the wired network thereby freeing the spectrum from wireless dependent devices such as laptops, and mobile devices.
A patch panel is a hardware device that supplies many ports on the front. These ports converge onto one or more ports on the back that lead to a switch. The front-facing ports connect via LAN cables to the network devices such as PCs, laptops, printers, etc. A patch panel is typically mounted on a network rack, close to the switch. Patch panels are useful when many devices must connect to a switch. Patch panels are great assets that not only make future addition of network-devices easy but also keep the network organized. Even a small office has a lot of cables to run. As increased cables culminate in the network closet, the appreciation for cable management becomes clear.
Connectivity Requires Access to the Internet For any small business, access to the Internet and Web Services is provided by an Internet Service Provider, or ISP. This includes a bandwidth range for download and upload speeds. The larger the bandwidth – the faster one can download and upload -- the more the monthly service cost.
There are two flavors of ISP:
Cable modems that transmit to the internet over coaxial cables, allowing TV, Internet and digital phone service all over the same cable.
.Fiber Optic Connections, which transmit higher bandwidth over longer distances.
CABLE MODEM A cable modem is a hardware device usually provided by the [cable] ISP and allows a small business network to connect to the internet. If subscribed to cable Internet connectivity, a modem is needed. If using a Fiber Optic connection, a modem is not needed.
ROUTER A router is a hardware device that transfers data packets between networks. In simple terms, this allows a small business to transmit and receive information from the internet.
FIREWALL A firewall is a security system for a computer network. It watches and controls the incoming and outgoing network traffic based on security rules set by the business. In other words, a firewall is a filter, between a small business network and external networks, such as the internet, that protects the business network from unauthorized external access.
Although most computer operating systems come with a software version of a firewall, a small business isn’t safe with that level of protection alone. Network infrastructure devices are typical targets for cyber attackers and without a dedicated firewall, a small business network and all connected devices are vulnerable to hackers. A dedicated hardware firewall supplies a small business network a much-needed added layer of protection. A hardware firewall comes with advanced features such as VPN, Remote Access, and Advanced Web filtering.
A switch is an essential element of any small business network. It is a network device that allows other devices on the network to communicate and share information, such as computers, printers, NAS (network-attached storage) devices, servers and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phones. The switch ties these devices together.
There are two types of switches for a small business, managed and unmanaged. An unmanaged switch is the simplest and most basic kind of switch. It’s used right out-of-the box as it doesn’t need any configuration. Unmanaged switches are less expensive but lack advanced features. They are best for small offices that have simple networks. A managed switch supplies control over the operation of the switch, such as configuring the switch to decide how network consumes an internet connection. For example, a managed switch allows setting port bandwidth, and creation of VLANs (Virtual Local Area Networks). Managed switches are more expensive and require some technical knowledge for using them effectively. Another key advantage is the ability to managed them remotely. Managed switches are especially useful for large offices and satellite locations. PoE (Power over Ethernet) is a technology that allows network cables to carry electrical power. PoE cuts the need to run power cable to devices. It also brings higher reliability by ending the need for external power adapters and cumbersome power bricks that come with differing power outputs and require connectors.
An Access Point is a piece of network hardware that connects wireless devices to a wired network. An Access Point connects to a wired router or switch via an Ethernet cable and acts as a hub that a wireless devices connect to the wired LAN. For large networks, Access Points perform many critical functions, such as supporting the connection of multiple wireless devices through each Access Point. Access Points can typically handle a fixed number of devices and the maximum number of devices supported vary significantly depending on the type of Access Point, the density of users, desired throughput, etc. The range of an Access Points also varies depending on its location. Placement, height above the ground, and nearby obstructions such as thick concrete or brick walls, mirrors, etc. have a significant bearing on the area covered by an Access Point.
Keep It Simple, Keep It Safe & Plan for The Future The network hardware that is right for today’s small business may not prove sufficient in years to come. It’s easy for a small business to outgrow the networking equipment, especially if the company is growing. Keeping a network simple help to keep maintenance cost down, but simple doesn’t mean limited growth. The network is the gateway to the IT of every small business. Anyone who has access to a device connected to the network also has access to the entire infrastructure. 60% of small businesses that suffer a successful cyberattack go out of business within 6 months. Protecting your network from cyberattacks is crucial for the sustainability of any business. Network equipment typically has a workable life span of about 3-4 years, after which it reaches obsolescence usually due to changes in technology. If your hardware doesn’t give you a reliable and stable network connection for the entire period of its usable life, it can be considered a wasted resource.
Roark Tech Services is an expert in network infrastructure design and management with established, long-term relationships with many IT vendors that span years. We are well positioned to make the best suggestions and recommendations for our clients when it comes to IT vendors. Always consult with us first. If you don’t have an IT Partner that you can trust to give you the right support and advice, we’d love to help. Give us a call.