A Trusted Network Advisor
Too many small companies believe they can build their network themselves. After all, the kid in the blue polo shirt at Best Buy said he could sell them all the components they need. If all your network components can fit into a grocery cart, how hard can it be to plug them all together?
Very. Helping you avoid the mistakes made by other companies in your situation may be the single most valuable service offered by your trusted network advisor. You know your issues better than anyone, but an outside expert knows how other companies have solved similar problems. There are some consultants who specialize in fixing do-it-yourself networks full of Best Buy components. Don't be the next company that calls one of those consultants.
Trusted network advisors are everywhere, but they are hard to find. Local resellers sometimes offer comprehensive services, but many focus on selling a short list of products and mash your problems onto their products whether they fit or not. National resellers, like CDW, often have trained staff to help small companies pick the right products and services for their needs from the many offerings available. Larger local resellers often have the overview needed to guide your company to the right tools for your situation.
How do you know when you've found a trusted network advisor? When they ask questions, they listen to your answers, and respond with a range of options to satisfy your needs. They will understand and work with your budget constraints. They will explain the components and services they suggest until you understand how those will benefit your business. And they will keep you looking forward so your network doesn't hit a brick wall.
Your trusted network advisor may be an individual consultant who coordinates services from diverse vendors to solve your problems. And you may need two or more advisors, depending on how wide ranging your information service needs.
You don't do your own taxes, roofing, plumbing, legal contracts, or automobile repair. Why try to build your own information services system, when mistakes mean your company can't function in the modern business world?
A Solid Physical Foundation
Just as your kitchen relies on a solid foundation with reliable electrical, gas, water, and drain support, a modern network needs reliable physical components. Electrical power capacity and outlets must be available to support your devices. Network connections for hard-wired devices must be available and able to support high speed data transfers. Wireless network access devices must be secure and provide throughput necessary for unfettered data access. Check out the Networking Market Primer for a detailed list of the physical building blocks for the modern network, along with a glossary and a list of vendors.
When you rent, lease, or purchase office space, demand the physical network infrastructure in the space be certified to handle modern networking needs. You'll never have more leverage than you do before you sign the lease agreement or purchase contract, so put network infrastructure on your "must have" list for space. Paying for an infrastructure audit will certainly cost less than just hoping the plugs in the wall actually connect to something somewhere.
Wiring contractors can handle networking, telephone, surveillance camera, security, and environmental wiring and connections. When you need to add or adjust your physical foundation, build in more capacity and plan for the future. And make sure battery backup systems for your digital devices are rated for the load you require.
Reliable Internet Access
There are businesses that don't need Internet access, believe it or not, but your business is not one of them. Every modern business that communicates quickly with customers and suppliers needs Internet access, and that access needs to be reliable. You must talk to an ISP (Internet Service Provider) or NSP (Network Service Provider).
Internet access options range from $60 per month for a small business with a few employees up to $10,000 and up for medium sized companies. Your local phone and cable companies offer business class Internet access, and dozens of data communications providers offer customized services, often at better prices than the official local monopolies (DSL from the phone company and cable).
The more services you need, and the more users connecting regularly to the Internet, the more bandwidth you need to support them. Ask suppliers for their SLA (Service Level Agreement) that specifies the percentage of time they guarantee you will have access, and how they reimburse you if they fall below those percentages.
Routers with dual WAN options that support two broadband providers are available for $300 or less, and offer an inexpensive way to build Internet access redundancy. Each office will need their own Internet access service, and offices linked together can share resources.
Once your company connects to the Internet, you can reach the world. Unfortunately, the world can also reach you. A solid security plan is necessary for all connected businesses, and the time to organize security is before you get connected.
Security must be enabled at the entry point to your network, meaning your router. Smaller businesses tend to buy "all-in-one" router security packages that include a firewall, NAT (Network Address Translation), spam filtering, and more. Larger companies with more volume tend toward separate devices to handle specific security functions, but that raises the cost and complexity.
Each intelligent device on your network needs protection against spam, viruses, and browser-based attacks. Security client software ranges in price from $30 to $200 depending on how comprehensive and manageable the security utility. Companies that believe they are too small to be targets are wrong, and a lack of security will lead to serious issues in a short time.
Every modern business needs email, but not necessarily an email server. Small companies save money and management time by outsourcing email to any of the thousands of hosted email providers available. Google provides an excellent email service as part of their Google Apps suite, and even Microsoft now offers hosted Exchange services for a few dollars per user per month.
Benefits of using a hosted email service? They handle security and spam. Insecure email servers, many in small businesses, are hijacked and used to send spam. Hosted services stop that. They also stop the vast majority of your portion of the 40 Trillion (with a T) spam messages sent each year.
Secure Shared Data
Letting users store and manage their own data files leads to lost files that aren't backed up, can't be found when needed, and are invisible to other users. Every business will benefit from some type of shared file storage.
NAS (Network Attached Storage) units offer enormous amounts of storage space (500GBs-4TBs) starting at under $100. Each unit will provide a place for private files per user and public files for all to share. They make backing up those files easier, and can also segregate files by user groups for security purposes. Some files are only meant for small groups of authorized employees, and secure shared storage device makes that possible.
The next step up from a NAS is a file server, usually based on Microsoft Windows. The separation and security features are upgraded, as is the price and management complexity.
A few small companies, especially those geographically dispersed, store, secure, and share all their files through online services. These make collaboration easier, and remote user access security is handled by the service, not the company, providing peace of mind for a few dollars per user per month.
Reliable Backup System
Data files must be protected from damage and disasters through a reliable backup system. If you lose your data files, you lose your company.
The system must automatically backup files without user involvement and reliably restore those files when needed (run regular tests). Files must be stored offsite to protect against disasters large (hurricanes) and small (sprinkler system malfunction). Companies that lose all their data files almost never last more than a few months after the loss.
Hundreds of online backup services provide gigabytes of storage for a few dollars per month. The old "backup is a lot of bother" excuse no longer works, and neither does your company when you lose all your data.
User Access Controls
Yes, a small business is a family of sorts, but families have secrets and so should your company. Restricting access to data files, resources, and communication services reduces risk and is a requirement in all regulated data situations. If your company takes credit cards, for example, your regular audit will demand to know who has access to those card numbers, and how you block access to other employees.
The secure shared data requirement above makes this possible for data files. Other sources, like access to non-business Internet sites, requires configuring the router and security tools properly. You will almost certainly need outside to lock down Internet access controls.
Access Whenever Necessary
Even the smallest business has two locations: the office, and the owner's home. Data provides value only when users can use that data, and that may mean from a branch office, a home office, or random hotel rooms.
Routers can accept connections from remote computers or other routers using VPN (Virtual Private Networking) technology. Microsoft clients can make use of Remote Desktop Services to access other computers. Many third party services such as LogMeIn and GoToMyPC allow users to remotely access and control a PC from another location. Online collaboration services and file storage hosts also make it easy to access data files from anywhere.
Although not normally considered a network service, voice now uses the same data networks and products as your computer files. Smaller companies particularly have adopted VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) as a cost effective phone technology that provides more features for less money than traditional small business key systems.
However, the worlds of telephone and computer resellers don't overlap enough yet. You may well need to rely on your trusted network advisor to recommend a specialist in modern telephony, and to coordinate the intersection of the two disciplines.
That said, when your phones don't work, you don't. Investing in a modern phone system will keep your phones, and your customers, active.