How-to Guide: Small Office Network Setup
Simplicity and functionality should be the guiding principles for designing a small office network setup that meets the needs of your growing company. Remember that networking hardware that fits right now may not keep pace two or three years out, and outgrowing your hardware before it reaches obsolescence is generally thought of as a waste of resources. Knowing the basics about networking hardware is the first step in planning for the appropriate purchase.
Understand the difference between a switch and a router
Think of a small office network setup as having a foundation of switches and routers. Knowing the difference between the two sorts out a lot of the confusion SMB owners may have about choosing the right networking hardware.
- A switch is what allows networked devices to communicate and share information. These devices can be desktop PCs, printers, servers, network attached storage (NAS), voice over IP (VoIP), surveillance systems—any device with an Ethernet cable port. Switches tie together these devices into a network.
- A router, by definition, ties together different networks. In most cases for SMBs, this means tying your network to the Internet, the greatest network of them all. It prioritizes the flow of information from the Internet to your networked devices, and protects your devices from cyber threats.
Choosing a switch that fits your needs
There are two basic types of network switches to choose from when setting up a small business network: managed switches and unmanaged switches.
- An unmanaged switch is the likely choice for most small business networks. It works out of the box and offers only basic configuration features. Unmanaged switches require minimal technical aptitude to install and operate. In short, they just work.
- A managed switch gives you more control over how your network consumes an Internet connection. It can be programmed and monitored; most modern managed switches have a proprietary GUI for this. Managed switches can be adjusted on-premises or remotely, and generally require some technical training to take full advantage of their feature set.
Scalability for both managed and unmanaged switches should be understood by the number of Ethernet ports it has. This should directly correlate with the number of devices you expect to connect to your small business network. The more Ethernet ports a switch supports makes the price higher.
Performance also determines price for network switches, meaning the faster a switch can transfer data (called packets) the more expensive it tends to be. Business operations that involve transferring large files across a network will benefit from having a higher performance switch. If this does not describe the way your business handles data then consider something inexpensive. Learn more about network switch cost-to-performance considerations.
When choosing a switch, remember to scale for growth. Make sure to purchase a switch with enough ports and bandwidth to accommodate the size of your small office network two or three years ahead of time.
Selecting a router for your small business
What kind of router you pick for your small business network is largely dependent on how you plan to use your Internet connection. It also depends on your desired level of security. The type of router you choose should support features that meet these ends. These features are important for small business networking equipment.
- A firewall or security appliance is an essential router feature for any small business network. It is essentially software built in to a router that helps screen and filter incoming cyber attacks on your network. Unified Threat Management (UTM) devices have become a popular choice for small business networks for their robust feature set, relative ease of use and SMB-friendly price point. What is a UTM?
- Virtual Private Network (VPN) support is important if users need to access your office network from outside the office. If this feature is important to your small business network setup, learn more about setting up a VPN.
- Wireless routers and wireless access points (WAPs) in a small business setting have become mainstream since the “bring your own device” (BYOD) mentality is now the norm in many work environments. Consider the size of your office space and make sure range of the wireless router is sufficient. Plotting out a Wi-Fi heat map can help with your purchasing decision. Small business Wi-Fi typically operates over the 802.11n frequency as it offers the best throughput, so look for a router that supports that standard.
- Modern small business networking equipment is conveniently powered over Ethernet (PoE) meaning that it powers up through the networking cable and needs not to be plugged into an electrical outlet. PoE makes planning and installing network equipment easier.
Related content: Q&A: Networking for basics for SMBs
While these tips and best practices are a good starting point, understand that every small office is unique and there are no real one-size fits all solutions. It comes down to how well you can assess your needs and pair them with the networking hardware that is available within your budget. Taking that into consideration and remembering to scale for growth will allow you to make the most out of your small office network setup.