How to build an SMB network in 9 easy steps

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Small businesses typically lack full-time IT staff. Taking a self-proclaimed techie who serves another role in the business and assigning that person to provide network and tech support can be a great idea. I call these people the business’s resident tech, someone who can help with first-level support. An outside IT service provider can be called in to help when more complex support is required. Here are nine key steps for building a successful small business network.

1.     Choose the right type of network

A domain network with a Windows Server allows administrators to centrally manage user accounts and control most of the Windows settings. Users can also typically login to any domain-joined workstation. These features are great for large networks with many users and workstations. However, purchasing, installing, configuring and maintaining a Windows Server might be hard to justify for networks with fewer than a dozen or so workstations.

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I've seen situations where a business with just a few workstations was sold a Windows Server by a third-party IT provider. In most cases, they didn't even utilize the central management functionalities. In addition to the cost of the server itself and its initial installation and configuration, I saw issues with them being able to properly maintain the server. Even a relatively simple task for an IT admin, like adding or removing user accounts, can be intimidating to their resident tech. If outside help is needed for regular maintenance, managed services or regular service calls can be costly as well.

Typically, workgroup networks are the most economical for networks with fewer than a dozen or so computers. Though you can't centrally manage the user accounts or Windows settings like you could with a domain network, there are third-party solutions, which are typically more user-friendly for non-IT staff.

Other things to consider: A business-class Internet security suite, for instance, typically offers endpoint solutions that can allow SMBs to centrally monitor and manage the security of their PCs.

Another great investment for small businesses is network storage hard drives or entry-level NAS (network attached storage) appliances, which allow files and/or backups to be centrally stored. (See our review of software-based NAS boxes.)

2. Choose the right class of networking gear

Just like it’s important to select the right network type for a small business, the same applies when choosing the network hardware. An IT service provider might suggest installing high-end Cisco gear, which costs more upfront and requires their services for maintenance, just because that’s what they’re used to deploying.

Choosing small business-class equipment from Cisco or another vendor, for instance, could save some money and resources both initially and in the future for maintenance. Having small business-class equipment may make it easier for the resident tech from the business to support it, rather always having to call an IT provider.

3. Make sure your ISP connectivity is optimized

Most ISPs these days provide a full wireless router/gateway device for small business Internet connections instead of just a plain modem. This can be convenient for very small networks that don’t plan to add their own network gear. However, if you have your own router, managed switch, or wireless access points, the ISP’s gateway can become a nuisance.

Having more than one device functioning as a router can cause IP conflicts and complicate remote access into the network. Having a managed switch connected to a simple ISP gateway can also be a pain since you can’t control the ports on the router as well. Having Wi-Fi capability on an ISP gateway can be good if you want a small coverage area, but isn’t ideal if additional access points are installed.

If you plan to install your own network gear, you might ask the ISP to provide a basic modem instead of a gateway. However, also keep in mind that many gateways can be put into a bridged mode where all the routing functions are disabled. Along with that, you can usually disable the Wi-Fi, effectively allowing you to convert the gateway into a basic modem without having to switch out the equipment. Some ISPs hide the ability from customers to enable bridging mode, but you can usually Google it for details on how to do it or give the ISP a call.

4. Pick the appropriate Wi-Fi security method

Though the personal mode of Wi-Fi security, technically called pre-shared key (PSK), is initially easy to setup and use, it’s not designed for business networks. This mode of Wi-Fi security allows you to set only one password for the Wi-Fi that all users enter when connecting. Thus if an employee or staff member leaves the organization, they’ll still have the key to the network unless the password is changed. The same applies if someone loses a Wi-Fi device; the thief will be able to connect to the network.

The enterprise mode of Wi-Fi security requires a RADIUS server and initially requires more to setup than the personal mode. However, this mode is more suitable for business networks. Each user can be given their own login credentials. If an employee leaves or a Wi-Fi device is stolen, simply revoke or change that individuals login credentials.

Keep in mind, you don’t have to run your own RADIUS server. There are online or cloud-based RADIUS services out there, making it easy for smaller organizations to utilize enterprise Wi-Fi security.

5. Don’t rely solely on Wi-Fi

Though wireless is a must-have for most businesses, a wired network is great for stationary desktops. Investing in having data ports added to offices and purchasing the switch that will connect them to the network is typically worth it. Having computers hardwired into the network helps reduce congestion on the airwaves and generally provides a faster and more reliable connection. Computers utilizing the Wi-Fi will be susceptible to interference from neighboring Wi-Fi networks, or even your network if it’s not properly configured.

6. Don’t buy cheap computers

Like the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Buying a cheap new $300 PC, for instance, will likely give you less computing power than say a $500 or $600 PC. I’ve heard many people rationalize buying the very cheap computers by saying well they aren’t going to be doing anything special, just web browsing and general office use. However, even those simple tasks can certainly be noticeably slower. Time is money, so perhaps spending that $200 or $300 more for a better PC can increase productivity and be better for the company’s bottom-line in the long-run.

Additionally, the very cheap computers typically include too few USB ports, PCI slots inside, and can even have their processors soldered onto their motherboard. These shortcomings reduce the ability to add peripherals and perform upgrades, even relatively simple ones like adding a second graphics card to support dual monitors.

7. Make sure to backup files and data

I can’t tell you how many businesses I’ve helped with IT issues that don’t properly backup. Whether you’re from the business or an IT provider helping the business, ensure the files and data on the computers and any file servers are regularly backed up. Since a disaster can wipe out any local storage and backup, I also recommend having an off-site backup. This could be achieved by signing up for online backup or cloud storage. Just keep in mind though, cloud syncing solutions, like Dropbox, don’t provide a full backup solution by default.

8. Evaluate software compatibility before upgrading

Before upgrading a computer or buying a new one, ensure the software you use (especially any special programs related to your particular industry) will work with the newer Windows version. I've seen many businesses that utilize older versions of software for economic reasons, but these out-of-date programs can complicate upgrades.

For instance, the software may only be compatible with Windows XP. If it isn't possible to update to a more current version of the software that will support newer Windows versions, other tricks can be used to run it on newer computers. These tricks include utilizing the compatibility mode of Windows or running an older version of Windows on a virtual machine.

9. Keep computers and software maintained

You should keep your network equipment, computers, and software up-to-date and maintained to ensure optimum performance, reliability, and security. The better maintained the computers are, the more productive employees will likely be, helping to increase the company’s bottom-line. Having a good Internet security suite, using extra malware protection, and keeping software up-to-date can help decrease the chances of viruses, adware, and malware from slowing or halting work.

Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer—keep up with his writings on Facebook or Twitter. He’s also the founder of On Spot Techs providing IT services, and NoWiresSecurity providing a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service.

This story, "How to build an SMB network in 9 easy steps" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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