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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 three basic types of network switches to choose from when setting up a small business network: managed switches, unmanaged switches, and smart 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. Usually IT controls a managed switch using the command line interface (CLI), but newer managed switches do have a graphical interface to use. Managed switches can be adjusted remotely, ideal for large-scale or satellite office deployments. A managed switch generally requires some technical training to take full advantage of their feature set.
  • Several manufactures market a smart switch, also called a Layer 2/3 switch. A smart switch is an in-between for unmanaged/managed switches. It’s ‘smarter’ than an unmanaged switch because it gives you control over Layer 2 of the open systems interconnection (OSI) model. However, if you need full-on Layer 3 controls for your small office network, opt for a managed switch.

Look 3-5 years ahead for scaling your network

Scalability for your network should be understood by the number of Ethernet ports your switch(es) have. You want your open Ethernet ports to outnumber the endpoints desired on a small business network. The more Ethernet ports a switch supports makes the price higher, but choose your ports wisely. Make sure you plan ahead to the extent of your product life cycle. Having to buy a switch with more ports before the old one reaches end of life is a waste of resources.

Performance is the other determinant for the price for network switches. The faster a switch can transfer data packets the more expensive it tends to be. If your operations involve involve transferring large files across a network, you will benefit from having a higher performance switch. If that’s not the case, you might opt for something a more baseline switch. Learn more about network switch cost-to-performance considerations.

Again, think about your performance needs 3-5 years out when making decisions about buying a network switch.

Selecting a router for your small business

A router receives broadband signal from the modem and makes Internet and intranet connectivity available to devices on your network. A router with 16 or 24 or 48 ports servers as a network switch for LAN endpoints. Wireless routers have a built-in wireless access point serving Wi-Fi. For wireless connectivity from a wired router, you need to port in access point hardware into an expansion port. Be mindful of the transference rates for each port. Some routers have built-in firewalls, other less expensive options might not. When shopping and comparing wired routers and wireless routers, make sure to note the following:

  • 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.

How-to Guide: Small Office Network Setup
Article Name
How-to Guide: Small Office Network Setup
Knowing the basics about networking hardware is the first step in planning for the appropriate small office network setup.
Adam Lovinus

Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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