Over the next few weeks, we'll be taking an in-depth look at the essential software and hardware that every IT business needs. Today: networks.
If you want to get your business to stop — turn off the network. All the computers, server and storage arrays in the world are little more than expensive paperweights unless they can communicate with each other.
Wired vs Wireless
Wireless networks offer great flexibility. However, there's still a place for wired connections. Our general rule is that equipment that stays in one place, like printers, desktop computers and security cameras, should get a wired connection. In our experience, wired connections are simply more reliable and offer better performance.
Wired networks have undergone a shift in recent years. We are now well and truly operating in the Gigabit Ethernet era. Gigabit Ethernet is rated for it's designed ability to move 1,000,000,000 bits of data per second across the network. It has largely superseded Fast Ethernet, which was rated at 1,000,000 bits for second.
The communications between devices on your network, such as when you send a print job from your computer to a networked printer, travel out of your computer, along an Ethernet cable to a central point called a switch. The switch then directs that request to the appropriate devices, often via a server on your network.
Ethernet cables are made to a set of standards with Category 5, 5e and 6 usable for Gigabit Ethernet. These are usually just called CAT5, CAT5e or CAT6. Wireless networking is extremely popular and has reached a level of market maturity that makes it reasonably easy to set up securely.
The standards governing wireless networks have changed significantly over the years with the latest standards, called 802.11ac now becoming increasingly common in the market.
However, 802.11n is still very popular. Unless you're still using some very old devices, 802.11b and 802.11g probably aren’t going to figure in your planning.
With 802.11n and 802.11ac, you have the option of using either the 2.4GHz frequency band or 5GHz frequency band. If you're buying a less expensive router then you might find your options are limited. However, business and enterprise wireless gear will support both and have multiple radios for both. This is a great advantage as it allows you to create multiple, separate wireless networks.
If you employ contractors who need access to the Internet but none of your other corporate services, then you can create a separate "Contractor" wireless network for them. This will give them the access they need and you can keep them isolated from the rest of your network.
While the routing and wireless functions of home networks are usually combined in a single device, in a business, they are usually separated.
Wireless network provisioning is usually done by deploying wireless access points. These act as "beacons" that allow devices to connect wirelessly to the rest of the network.
If you're looking at deploying several wireless access points to cover your office, you'll probably need to consider a controller as well as the access points. While managing one access point through a web browser is reasonably easy, if you have several, there's a bit of a balancing act in making sure that they don’t drown each other's signals and that they are all configured correctly. A controller makes it easy to manage multiple access points and deploy new ones when the network expands.
If you're planning to provide wireless access outside the office, such in a courtyard area, you can purchase weatherproof wireless access points. Just remember to get your Ethernet cable ot there so it can be connected to the network.
One other thing - if you're planning to deploy wireless access points, look for units that can get their power over an Ethernet cable and ensure that your network switches can deliver power that way. This is called PoE, or Power over Ethernet.
One last thing - if it's impossible of prohibitively expensive to run network cables through walls or wireless signals don’t penetrate your walls, you might want to consider powerline networking equipment. These allow you to transmit network traffic across electrical wiring.
Although these aren’t as fast as Gigabit Ethernet, they do provide you with an option.
We'll be going into more depth next week when it comes to firewalls but your firewall is an important element of your network design. It will take all of your inbound and outbound Internet connections and apply rules so that things are kept safe at the border of your network.
If you have multiple Internet connections (a good idea if you rely on Internet connectivity to run your business) then ensure that you choose an edge device like a firewall that can manage multiple incoming connections and distribute them appropriately.
For example, you might use a firewall device to take two inbound connections and aggregate them so that you get the benefit of fast connectivity. But if one fails, all of the traffic automatically fails over to the other connection.
Checklist: Network Gear
So, in designing your office network, there are a few things for you to think about:
- Decide where wired connections will be best.
- Deploy wireless access points so that the office area is adequately covered. Don't forget outdoor areas.
- Either purchase switches that support PoE or check that you can add this function later
- Design the network cabling so that it reaches all the places you need - measure twice, cut once!
- Label both ends of every cable and label every wall port and every switch port in your rack. Tracing cables by hand is very time-consuming and is likely to induce insanity.
- Consider whether you need multiple Internet connections and how those will be managed for the network.
You should now have a pretty solid understanding of the ins-and-outs of networks. Check in at the same time and place next Monday for an overview of storage.