10 Networking Tips for SMBs

10 Networking Tips for SMBs

There are a million and one things to know about networking. But here are 10 tricks that SMB (small- to medium-sized business) owners can implement without getting degrees in network engineering.

Share storage without a PC. Storage is something you can have too much of, contrary to popular opinion. It's wasteful to buy a bigger drive for one computer when another computer's drive is 90 percent empty. Get an NAS (network-attached storage) device. Essentially, it's a very big, very fast hard drive that connects to your network without the aid of a computer. Now everyone can share file space and have fast access to it. Administrators can set limits on how much space each user can fill. If you happen to have a spare USB drive around the office, it can effectively become an NAS with a little help from the D-Link Express EtherNetwork DNS-120 Network Storage Adapter .

Stay connected during power outages. A minority of people keep their workstations and servers connected to a UPS (uninterruptible power supply). Surprisingly, many of those smart few neglect using the UPS for their Internet gateway appliance or broadband router. These network devices don't draw nearly as much power as a desktop PC, which will run for 15 to 20 minutes on a typical UPS. Internet access can remain up for two hours on the same UPS, and a battery-powered laptop will let employees continue working through most power outages .

Send large files without hassle . Sending large files — upward of 10MB — can be a frustrating experience. People typically send files to business partners via email, but two problems arise when a file exceeds a couple of megabytes. First, the email client must convert the file to the MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) format, which takes a great deal of time for large files. Second, many ISPs enforce limits on the size of email attachments and typically cap out around 10MB. Oh, and the 7MB file you thought was OK swelled to more than 10MB in the MIME format, so you are out of luck after waiting a half hour to send it.

One solution: a Web-based service that allows you to upload a file, then email a URL to the intended recipient, telling him or her where to download it. Senduit is one example. This service allows users to upload a file as large as 100MB and set an expiration time on it ranging from a half hour to one week. If 100MB isn't large enough, DropSend has a limit of 1GB.

IM (instant messaging) is another way to send large files, and you don't have to leave your file on a third-party server. You and the file recipient must both be at your PCs and logged in to the same IM service, each of which has its own procedure for sending files.

Have fun with the hosts file. The hosts file (no extension) is a text file that can be used to speed up or block access to specified locations on the network. Each Windows computer has its own hosts file. When the PC gets a request for a network location, it looks first in the hosts file before going out to the DNS (Domain Name System) server on the Internet. Putting the domain name and the IP address of a frequently visited Web site into the hosts file will avoid the need for a sometimes-lengthy DNS lookup. On the other hand, if you do not want a user visiting that site, just change the IP address to something else.

Resolve IP address conflicts. Many network users at SMBs have seen the Windows warning message, "There is an IP address conflict with another system on the network." This message is accompanied by the loss of the network connection. What happened?

Before the message appeared, every device on the network had a unique IP address. Then, somehow, an IP address changed so that it was the same as your computer's. On virtually every modern network, IP addresses are changed by the network's DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server. Some IP address was changed to match yours, or yours was changed to match another device's. What can you do?

To get your network connectivity back immediately, open a command-prompt window and type "IPCONFIG/REL" (no quotes) to wipe out your current IP address. When you get the ready prompt again, type "IPCONFIG/RENEW" to get a new IP address. It will probably be different from the old one.

Use Windows Remote Desktop. Many users are not aware that they can access their office PC remotely via the Internet or from any workstation on the office LAN. This option is called Remote Desktop in Windows. It allows you to use a remote computer and the applications on it exactly as if you were sitting in front of it.

You must prepare the computer that you plan to use remotely, which is called the "host."

To enable Remote Desktop in Windows XP Pro, click My Computer > System > Properties, then check the box that says, "Allow users to connect remotely to this computer." Administrators automatically have remote access, but you can add other users via the Select Remote Users button.

To access the host from another computer, which is called the "client," you must use the RDC (Remote Desktop Client), found under All Programs > Accessories > Communications.

Try a subscription-based remote-access solution. One big problem with Windows Remote Desktop is that it can be very hard to configure a LAN firewall to allow the remote connection. It also doesn't work well with dynamic IP addresses. An easier alternative is a subscription-based remote-access service.

These services get around the problems of Windows Remote Desktop by installing a small software agent on the host computer. The agent sets up a link with the service so that the host is always accessible, even when its IP address changes. The firewall considers the agent's connection legitimate. Your host is accessible now.

GoToMyPC is one of the oldest subscription-based remote-access services. Other popular services include WebEx PCNow and LogMeIn .

Save Energy with Wake On LAN. Many people enjoy having remote access to their office PC, but most of those people think that they must leave the office PC on all the time, which wastes energy. It is possible to remotely "wake up" a completely powered-down PC using the Wake On LAN feature found on Ethernet cards.

The procedure for enabling Wake On LAN varies depending on the hardware and operating system. But in general, Wake On LAN must be enabled in the computer's BIOS Power Management and in the card's power-management options. Now, when the computer is powered down, a small trickle of power will be kept on to power the network card in standby mode. It will be listening for a signal from the network.

The signal is called the magic packet, and it is specific to the network card that it is trying to awaken. The magic packet can be sent by any of several free utilities available on the Web, such as Depicus .

When the network card receives its magic packet, it boots the computer.

Speed Up Firefox. The Firefox Web browser is almost endlessly configurable . Simply type "about:config" (no quotes) into the address bar to see a mind-boggling array of parameters that you can tweak. If that's not enough, you can create your own parameters. But most people just want to do one simple thing without a lot of hunting and pecking.

You can make Firefox surf the Web faster with the Firefox extension Fasterfox. The add-on automatically tweaks several configuration settings:

  • Prefetching, which downloads and caches the content of links on a page while you are it so that the links can be displayed quickly
  • Pipelining, which allows a Web server to serve multiple objects over the same HTTP connection
  • DNS caching, which stores the IP addresses of sites you visit
  • Simultaneous connections, which controls how many page requests Firefox will make at once.

Troubleshoot with Ping and Tracert. Sometimes you don't know if the problem on your network is with the computer you're trying to reach, your computer or something between the two. Two built-in Windows command-prompt utilities can help you pinpoint the trouble.

Type "ping" (no quotes) and the name of the computer that you want to reach (or its IP address). The result should tell you how long it takes to send a message to that computer and get a reply, measured in milliseconds. Of course, if you don't get a reply, that means that there is a problem along the way to that computer.

Type "tracert" (no quotes) and the name or IP address of the computer you want to reach. Tracert displays every hop along the way to that computer and how long it takes. You may see some "request timed out" messages along the route. These would indicate a point of failure or a severe slowdown.