Editor’s note: Russ McGuire is the online director of Business Reform Magazine. Each issue of Business Reform features practical advice on operating successfully in business while glorifying God.
Most businesses couldn’t survive today without a network connection. But, if you’re a small business owner, chances are you didn’t plan on having to create a computer network when you launched your business. If you’ve put off creating your network, you may be truly blessed as it has become cheaper and easier than ever, thanks to new wireless technologies.
Computer networking is a pretty complex beast. At the risk of overly simplifying it, let me provide the most basic of tutorials. Technology geeks could spend hours explaining the seven layer model of networking, but let me just touch on the three layers you need to worry about in setting up a network.
You’re probably creating a network to use Internet applications, especially e-mail and the web. Internet applications use something called the Internet Protocol (or IP). Each computer has an IP address. When you type in “www.businessreform.com” it actually gets translated into a set of four numbers separated by periods – specifically 220.127.116.11. Every computer that is connected to the Internet has to have a similar address, and when your e-mail client talks to your e-mail server, they use each other’s address to know where to send packets of information to each other. So, in setting up your network, you will likely end up needing to deal with some IP issues. I’ll come back to this later.
The next networking layer that you will almost definitely use is Ethernet. Ethernet is a standard protocol that takes the Internet packets that e-mail software and web browsers use and efficiently puts them onto a physical network to connect together computers. Using technical terms, you are going to create a Local Area Network (LAN) and Ethernet serves somewhat as the traffic cop to make sure that the packets traveling to and from your computer safely get to their destination in and amongst all of the packets traveling to and from your co-workers’ computers. Thankfully, computer manufacturers have built Ethernet support into nearly all computers sold to businesses today and you shouldn’t have to mess with any Ethernet settings.
The final layer is where you have some choices. This is the layer that physically connects your computers together. There was a time when you really only had one choice – coaxial cable. This was a mess to work with and very expensive. But those days are long gone. Most office networks today use something called cat-5 cabling. To you and me, cat-5 looks just like a telephone cable, although the plug-in connectors are a little wider than you’d use to connect your telephone. Since most computers have an Ethernet port built in and since cat-5 cable is relatively inexpensive and easy to work with, this may be the right answer for your business network.
However, if your office has physical barriers (like walls – or worse multiple floors) that make running cable difficult, don’t despair, there are more solutions. Last year, when I moved my office into my home, I faced this challenge. Although my main office is upstairs, I also have a work area set up downstairs. Taking into account placement of heating ducts, a fireplace and chimney, and a stairway, I realized that running cat-5 cables just wasn’t going to work.
For several years companies have been selling home networking solutions that take advantage of the wiring that’s already in your home. Some of these use your telephone wires to create a home network. You simply connect a computer to a networking device plugged into a phone jack in one part of the house, do the same with a computer and networking device plugged into a phone jack in another part of the house, and you’ve established your network. Although I’ve never used any of these solutions, I’ve heard they work relatively well. However, since they are sharing the wires with telephones, and since home builders typically don’t have computer networking standards in mind when stringing wires through a construction site, I wouldn’t expect the fastest connection. The second major approach to home networking is almost identical, but using your electrical wiring. You plug the networking devices into power outlets in two parts of the house and you have a network. Since power circuits tend to be pretty noisy, these solutions also tend to provide relatively slow connections.
However, over the past couple of years, a much more elegant solution has leaped to the forefront – wireless LANs, also known as Wi-Fi. Technically, these networks are defined by the 802.11 family of standards, and these standards come in several flavors. For almost all small office solutions, the 802.11b standard will work just fine. This version provides networking at up to 11 Mbps (that’s more than 10 times the speed of most broadband connections and 200 times the speed of a dialup modem) and can work at distances up to 300 feet. The newer 802.11a offers higher speed connections (up to 54 Mbps), but typically only work at shorter distances. A third version, 802.11g is also starting to become available from vendors. This version also offers 54 Mbps connections, but can interoperate with older 802.11b equipment. Unless you have a lot of employees sharing the bandwidth, or if you need to move really big files around over your wireless network, you can easily get by with 802.11b and the price difference, so far, is tremendous.
Depending on how sophisticated you want to get, you can set up a wireless LAN simply by purchasing and installing cards for each of your computers ($20-$40 each) and a wireless access point ($30-$100). Unfortunately, getting a wireless LAN to work isn’t always as easy as it should be. I’ve installed 802.11b cards in several different computers and set up two different wireless access points over the past couple of years. Each time I’ve carefully followed the instructions. About half the installations have gone very smoothly. For the other half, I’ve had to spend hours troubleshooting and reconfiguring settings to get it to work.
Unlike traditional computer networks, where you can see every physical connection to your network, wireless networks extend beyond your walls and it’s possible for unauthorized people to tap directly into your network. Therefore, it’s critical to set up at least minimal security using the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) or Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security mechanism built into all Wi-Fi products. However, this also adds to the complexity in setting up a new network or adding a new computer into your network.
You can also suffer performance problems with your Wi-Fi network. Since 802.11b operates in the same frequency band used by some cordless phones, microwave ovens, and a variety of other electronic devices, all of these signals can interfere with each other. I’ve also found that there are a few spots in my home that get very poor network signals, even though they have an almost direct line of sight to my access point. However, the convenience of being able to set up office (almost) anywhere and the simplicity of installation (no drilling, no pulling) are an incredible blessing.
However, no matter what you choose for physical connectivity – Wi-Fi or cat-5 or one of the other methods, eventually you need to deal with the IP addressing issues. Depending on the Internet service package that you’ve purchased from your provider, you likely have fewer IP addresses available than you have computers that you want to connect. However, even if your provider has given you plenty of addresses, you will be best off to implement a firewall to hide your computers from everyone else on the Internet. There are many different types of firewall products with a range of features and capabilities (and price tags), but at the least, you’ll want to place a firewall router between your Internet connection and your network of computers.
If you go the Wi-Fi route, you can purchase a combined router and Wi-Fi access point. For a cat-5 Ethernet network, you can purchase a combined router and Ethernet hub or switch. In either case, make sure that the router has firewall and DHCP server built in.
Whoops – the technology geeks have snuck in the back door again. Let’s stop and define each of these terms.
- A router is a piece of equipment that tells Internet packets how to get to their destinations. Without a router, an IP network won’t work because the packets won’t know where to go.
- A firewall provides a protective separation between your computer network and the untamed Internet. The firewall’s job is to make sure that only packets that you’ve authorized can get onto your network.
- A Wi-Fi access point is the equipment that connects all of the wireless devices onto a wired Ethernet network.
- An Ethernet hub connects together several different cat-5 cables into a single network so that all the computers can find each other and share network resources.
- An Ethernet switch is like an Ethernet hub, except it’s smarter – only sending the packets down a particular cat-5 cable that need to go down that cable. This improves network performance.
- A DHCP server supports the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). It allows each computer on your network to be automatically configured without you having to mess with lots of settings.
A device that combines all of these functions uses a single IP address to talk to the Internet. Each of your computers is given a private IP address that is hidden from all outsiders. To you, it’s transparent – everything just works. And that’s the way it should be.
Once your network is up and running, you’ll want to test it to make sure it’s working – and while you’re at it, how about sharpening your strategy skills. I recommend Moonbase Commander. This is an important strategy development tool. The demo version can even be used by two players, I mean strategists, across a local network, although the demo will suddenly end in the middle of a game if you don’t complete your mission quickly enough.
Now to get back to my game, I mean network performance test…
Russ McGuire is Online Director for Business Reform. Prior to joining Business
Reform, Mr. McGuire spent over twenty years in technology industries, performing various roles from writing mission critical software for the nuclear power and defense industries to developing core business strategies in the telecom industry. Mr. McGuire is currently focused on helping businesspeople apply God’s eternal truths to their real-world business challenges through Business Reform’s online services. He can be reached at [email protected].