Top 10 Small Business Networking Terms

Monday Aug 2nd 2010 by Joseph Moran

Confused by networking terms? Here's the skinny on 10 technologies that keep your small business network humming.

Small business people don’t necessarily need (or want) to know the nitty-gritty behind every technical term that reaches their ears. On the other hand, it’s helpful to be familiar with the networking basics. Here are 10 networking terms (for wired and wireless networking) you should know; they can help improve the performance, reliability and security of your small business networks.

1. DNS

The Domain Name System, which is responsible for determining the corresponding IP address when you type a site name like into a browser. DNS service is typically provided by an ISP (though many small businesses also run DNS internally to locate resources on corporate networks), and it can often be a source of poor browsing performance and intermittent site connectivity problems.

Free or inexpensive alternative DNS providers like ClearCloud, Google Public DNS or OpenDNS can provide speedier and more reliable website access, protection against malware and phishing pages, as well as enhanced features like Web content filtering and activity logging.

2. Dual-Band Wi-Fi

This refers to 802.11n-compatible Wi-Fi hardware that can utilize two distinct frequencies -- the standard 2.4 GHz frequency used by 802.11b/g, and/or the 5 GHz frequency used by 802.11a. Although 5 GHz Wi-Fi devices generally have a shorter range than their 2.4 GHz counterparts, using the 5 GH z frequency can still be beneficial because it provides higher capacity -- i.e. more access points in a given amount of space-- and is far less susceptible to interference from outside sources, including from other wireless networks.

Using 5 GHz 802.11n requires a compatible access point and wireless adapters. (Note: Unless an 802.11n Wi-Fi product is explicitly labeled dual-band or 5 GHz, assume it only supports 2.4 GHz operation.)

3. HomeGroup

Don't let the word "home" fool you -- for small offices without a central server, Windows 7's HomeGroup feature offers basic file and printer sharing among a group of PCs without any setup headaches. All you need to create or join a HomeGroup (alas, only Windows 7 systems can do so) is a pre-defined password that's common to all computers in the group. Then you can choose which items to share as well as whether you want to allow read or read/write access. (For more details, search for HomeGroup from the Windows 7 Start menu.)

4. MAC Address

Media Access Control (MAC) address, an identification code composed of six pairs of hexadecimal numbers (0-9 and A-F) that's permanently assigned, or "burned-in" to every network device (PCs, servers, printers, etc.). Unlike IP addresses, which can change, MAC addresses are unique to each device. Devices with multiple network interfaces (e.g. both wired and wireless) will have a different MAC address for each. To view the MAC address on a Windows PC, type ipconfig /all from a command line and look for the number next to "Physical Address".

5. NAT

Network Address Translation allows a group of computers on a private network behind a router or firewall to communicate with the Internet via a single public IP address or a small number of public addresses. (A public address is one that is directly accessible from the Internet, as opposed to a private address, which is reachable only within a local network.)

Although computers on the private network can't access the Internet directly (or vice versa), NAT maintains connectivity between networks by tracking all incoming and outgoing traffic and ensuring data gets routed to the appropriate system. In addition to providing a rudimentary level of security, NAT eliminates the need for a small business to have a public IP address for every computer on its network. (Without NAT, we would have run out of IP addresses long ago.)

6. Network Ports

Numbers that denote different types of network traffic and act as a common communication channel between two connected computers. There are 65,536 network ports available in all, and applications may need to use numerous standard and/or custom network ports in order to function properly.

Some common standard network ports include port 80 for HTTP (Web browsing), 110 and 25 for POP and SMTP (incoming and outgoing email respectively), and 53 for the aforementioned DNS. Although you don't always need to concern yourself with the particular network ports an application uses, they can become very important when you need to configure hardware or software firewalls to permit communication on certain ports, as they automatically block communication on most ports for security reasons.

7. QoS

Quality of Service, an umbrella term for various technologies that provide an acceptable level of quality for delay-sensitive data types -- such as streaming video or voice (see VoIP below) -- by ensuring they receive priority on the network over less critical types of data such as file transfers or email.

8. Tethering

 The ability to connect a mobile phone with high-speed (i.e. 3G) data service to a PC -- either via a cable or Bluetooth link -- for use as a broadband modem. Tethering is an extremely useful way for mobile workers to access the Internet from their laptops when Wi-Fi isn't available. The catch -- not all devices or carriers allow tethering, and those that do may charge a premium for the privilege.

9. VoIP

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) converts voice into digital signals and thus allows phone calls to travel across a data network rather than on dedicated phone lines. VoIP-based small business phone systems are generally less expensive to purchase and install, and they're easier to maintain than traditional systems.

VoIP phone systems also tend to offer a high degree of PC integration, with features like the capability to receive voice mail messages via email and to place and receive calls from a "soft phonem" or desktop software application.

10. WPA/WPA2 Enterprise

This technology is a better way to protect access to a Wi-Fi network. It's more secure than its ubiquitous counterpart, WPA/WPA2 PSK (Pre-Shared Key), which requires each computer to be manually configured with a common security passphrase (the pre-shared key) and authenticates computers rather than people,

WPA/WPA2 Enterprise offers improved security. It generates unique encryption keys for each computer and requires individual users to log onto the network with a username and password, which lets you easily disable network access for specific computers or users, say, if a laptop is lost or stolen or an employee leaves the company.

To use WPA/WPA2 Enterprise you need an access point that supports it (most small business-class devices do) as well as a RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial in User Service) server for user authentication, which can reside on an independent server like Elektron from Periodik Labs, a hosted service like AuthenticateMyWiFi, or in some cases, the access point itself.

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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