information technology and depiction of a network

Small Business
Computer Network

The basic small business computer network requires the following hardware:

Server, uninterruptible power supply, switch, cabling and workstations. To add internet access to the network we'll also need a router and a firewall.
Building a good quality network that will serve your business well is actually less expensive today than it was 15 years ago!

Small Business Computer Network

Network Server - Choosing the right server for the job is critical. There are a lot of great products to select from out there. Generally speaking, I think it's safe to say that if you are planning a Microsoft Windows environment you should look at Dell, IBM or HP for a server. We've utilized servers from all three of these makers and today we've gone to all Dell servers (we have six Dell servers in the racks now and as the others are replaced, we plan to go with Dell).

The options you choose for the server will include whether it's 64 bit or 32 bit. Before deciding make a list of the different software programs you will be using and take look at the software vendor requirements and compatibility sheet. Secondly, you will be deciding on the processors and again, depending on what software you plan to use you may spend a lot of money or save a lot of money.

The final consideration on the server hardware is how you will handle backups. Tape drives are almost a thing of the past and if you are planning internet access, there are methods of automatically performing the backups off-site. There are many advantages to this approach.

Uninterruptible Power Supply
From 25 years experience, I say this is one area where if you spend a little more money upfront, it will save you lots of dollars down the road. If I had to pick one piece of hardware in the network and identify it as a priority in the budget, this is it. I've actually bought some "used" servers, switches and workstations in the past. Of course that was a good many years ago when things were actually more expensive than they are today.

Let me tell you about our experience with power. Twenty years ago our local hospital was located just down the street. Back then we didn't have too many problems with power. A new hospital was built at a different location and the old one was torn down. After that, our position on the priority list with the power company dropped significantly.

We began to notice that our computer equipment was requiring a lot of parts replacements. We were replacing servers and workstations more frequently than usual. This trend increased until we realized, there must be a problem. We had an engineer from TVA come in and put a monitor on the building to check the power. It was all over the place, up, down, up, down.

A constant supply of power that is not sufficient (brown outs) will destroy your computer equipment. We invested in better battery backups that would monitor power and make up any deficiency and keep a constant flow of the correct power level. Since that time, our computers have outlasted their usefulness. In the old days we were replacing computers because they crashed or died. Today we are retiring fully functional, good working computers.

One large power supply for the server, switch, router and firewall device and smaller individual power supplies for the workstations is all you need. We recently installed a 36kw Generac natural gas generator to power our entire building in the event of a power outage. Now as we replace the smaller power supplies we only worry about keeping the equipment up for the 15 seconds it takes for the generator to kick in.

Network Switch
The technology is the same, so just a good quality switch will do. We went to gigabit over copper as soon as it was available several years ago. From my experience, the most expensive switches we've utilized in the past were the first to have problems, so I can't get real excited about spending money on a switch. The thing to remember here, and it's important, get a switch with more ports than you think you will need.

Switches come in 4, 8, 16, 24, 32 ports, etc., so if you know that you need 12 ports, go ahead and buy 24 if you can. Five years from now when you decide to replace your server, you might want to keep the old server around and just add the new one to the network. A port might die on the switch and if you have plenty of extra ports it's easy and inexpensive to unplug a cable and plug it in another slot, not to mention very little down time. If you don't have an extra slot to use, you must buy a new switch to remedy your problem.

Network Cabling
All of our cabling is Cat 5E I believe. There may be a newer version. Get the latest version and be sure you have the guys that install the RJ45 outlets to put extra outlets in any place that you might conceivably put a network device. Doing it all at one time is less expensive and less troublesome.


Computer Workstations
There are true workstations (dummy terminals) and then there are desktop systems that are utilized as workstations. We have a total of eighteen workstations at the office and they are all Dells. I think most of them are Optiplex 700-900 series. In our current environment (Windows 2012 server and Windows 7 Pro workstations) we require a good bit of processing power from the workstation.

I see a lot of changes coming from Microsoft in the near future that may change the dynamics of the server/workstation environment. Again, a lot depends on the software and programs you will be using. One of the best things to come along for us, was the ability to use dual monitors on our workstations. I really like the setup and it is a huge time saver for everyone.

Network Router
Get a good one and plug it into that really good power supply and forget about it. We are using a Cisco (can't recall the model number just now), but that thing has been running trouble free since 2001 I think. Sure I've had to reboot it a few times over the course of the last 8 years, but wow, I wish everything was as dependable as that thing (especially those expensive switches I mentioned earlier).

The type router you utilize will depend on the type internet connection you plan to use. We have a Fiber Optic and I highly recommend it over T-1, DSL, ISDN or whatever. Remember that your network will only be as fast as its slowest part. For us the "bottleneck" is the firewall and router, but we still zoom, externally as well as internally.

Network Firewall
You have lots of options when it comes to choosing a firewall. In the old days we had a server running firewall software. When the time came to replace the old dinosaur I did a lot of research. After I researched it and researched it some more, I talked to others with comparable networks to see what they were doing.

One client in Tennessee with a computer network the size of ours had been using a device made by SonicWall for 3 or 4 years with no problems. I checked into SonicWall and went with them. I must say that we have been very pleased with this firewall. Dell bought out Sonicwall so you know they will be around for a while.

Conclusion
I didn't mention a printer or printers on purpose. Whether you have a need to print or not and whether you want to share the device on the network would depend on your circumstances. We have four very large Konica-Minolta BizHubs. They all have printing and scanning capability and one acts as our fax machine (yes we still have to use a fax).

I also didn't talk about cost. Prices are changing all the time and by the time you are reading this there will have been some changes. Also, you could build a small business computer network very cheap if you were so inclined, and that may be appropriate for the situation.

If I were building a simple computer network today, I would budget $8,000 for one server, $5,000 for the power supplies (more depending on number of workstations), $3,000 for the router, firewall and switch and $1,500 each for the workstations with dual monitors. If I had to cut costs in the hardware budget I would look at the server first. The cabling costs will be specific to the building. Any labor costs you might incur will vary greatly.
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