Networking a Small Business Office from Scratch

by Joseph Moran

There’s a lot of networking that goes into starting up a new small business office. Here's what you need to consider before opening your doors.

It takes quite a bit of networking to get a new office up and running. To be clear, we’re not talking about making the rounds at a tradeshow, polishing your elevator pitch, or bulking up your LinkedIn connections (though these are certainly all worthwhile activities).

Rather, we mean actual networking, the kind that lets your office’s technology devices communicate with each other and with the world. Read on for a rundown on what you need to consider when setting up a small business network from scratch.

Making the Internet Connection

A solid Internet connection is the cornerstone of any small business office, and depending on your location you may have several options from which to choose. For most small offices, the local cable or phone company ISP (Internet Service Provider) is a good place to start, because they generally offers speedy cable modem or DSL connections for $100 a month or less.

Small business networking: routers

Routers such as the D-Link DSR-500N provide more features than devices typically provided by an ISP.

Cable modems almost always provide a speedier connection than DSL, and rejoice if you’re in one of the handful of geographic areas where you can get Verizon’s FiOS, because it puts both cable and DSL to shame.    

Be sure to specify a business-class rather than a consumer level account—the former costs a bit more, but typically offers better reliability and customer support.

It always pays to get the fastest Internet connection your budget allows, but that’s particularly true if you plan on hosting your company data in the cloud (i.e. distant online storage) rather than a local server.

Buy Your Own Router/Firewall

Both DSL and cable ISPs frequently provide their own access hardware that combines the functions of a modem, router, firewall, switch, and Wi-Fi access point into a single device. Although they can be suitable for basic needs in small offices, replacing it with your own device provides you with a lot more features and flexibility.

For example, devices such as the D-Link DSR-500N include WAN failover, which can give you a redundant Internet connection (provided you establish accounts with two ISPs). Others such as Watchguard’s XTM Series devices offer add-on modules that can do things such as filter Web content, block spam and viruses, and prevent sensitive data from leaving your organization.

Data Cabling and Switches

Before you occupy an office space, it’s crucial to evaluate its Ethernet data cabling. Although Wi-Fi—which we’ll discuss below—is an excellent supplement to Ethernet, it’s seldom an adequate substitute. If there’s any existing cabling in place, make sure it’s not the older CAT 3-type; the wire jacket, which is accessible where the cable emerges from the wall, will indicate the cabling type.

Small business networking: switches

Compact, inexpensive switche,s such as the Netgear GS-105, let you connect multiple devices to a single Ethernet wall jack. However, if you’re wiring anyway, it pays to put more than one jack in each location.

CAT 3 is still ubiquitous due to its use with phones, but it’s not suitable for modern Ethernet devices. Use of 100 Mbps Ethernet devices requires CAT 5 cable, while 1000 Mbps (a.k.a. Gigabit) devices require at least CAT 5e.

Speaking of Gigabit, since virtually all modern desktops, notebooks, and servers support it and the cost of Gigabit Ethernet switches (the devices that provide additional ports to expand your network) is not much higher than for 100 Mbps Ethernet switches, in most cases it will make sense to go with Gigabit.

Another feature to strongly consider when selecting switches is PoE (Power over Ethernet), which eliminates the need for certain devices, such as IP Phones,  video cameras, and Wi-Fi access points, to obtain power from an AC wall outlet.

And whether you wire your office space from scratch or just add to existing cabling, it’s a good idea to run at least two cables to each location. Running multiple cables from point A to point B costs only nominally more than running one cable; and it’s good to have the extra ports handy for future expansion. (You could also expand single Ethernet ports into several through the use of small desktop switches such as the Netgear GS 105, but that can get messy.

Let's Talk Wi-Fi Networks

It’s always good to have Wi-Fi, so that workers can roam within the office with notebooks or tablets. (Not to mention smartphones—configuring them to use the office Wi-Fi network can help reduce the use of pricey cellular data.) To guard against eavesdropping, just be sure to use WPA2 security with a long, strong passphrase. Better yet, for the utmost in wireless security you can upgrade to WPA2-Enterprise.

If your office is relatively small, the Wi-Fi access point built into your router/firewall should give you adequate coverage. If not you may have to add extra Wi-Fi access points, such as the D-Link DWL-6600AP, to your network.

Small business networking: Wi-Fi interference

When your Wi-Fi access points (or those of an adjacent business) interfere with each other, Metageek’s InSSIDer Office can help you pinpoint and straighten out the troublesome areas.

However, it can be a challenge to ensure that your access points don't interfere with each other (or the access points of adjacent businesses) due to overlapping use of 2.4 GHz wireless channels. In this scenario, Metageek’s InSSIDer for Office can help by exposing how multiple Wi-Fi networks may be competing for the same frequencies.  

Using 5 GHz-capable Wi-Fi hardware greatly reduces the potential for interference, but it’s not a panacea. The 5 GHz signals have a shorter range than 2.4 GHz, so you’ll likely need more access points to cover the same space. Moreover, 5 GHz support is not standard on most notebooks; in some cases it’s an optional upgrade, in others, simple not available (other than via a bulky external adapter).

Network Printers

The Paperless Office has still not come to pass for most small businesses, nor is it likely to in the near future. Thus, a network-connected printer (or multifunction unit with scan, copy, and possibly fax capabilities) is a necessity for almost any office. Almost all printers—even low-end sub $100 models—come with built-in Wi-Fi, but it’s worth it to go upmarket a bit to find models that also include Ethernet connectivity, such as the HP Officejet 8600 Plus. (Ethernet is easier to set up and generally offers a more reliable connection.) 

When shopping for a multifunction printer, look for one that can scan documents directly to a shared folder or a to an email address; this can save you the trouble of having to install the printer’s software on all of your computers. And if you expect to need to print from smartphones or tablets, choose a printer that supports Apple’s AirPrint, Google’s Cloud Print, or a vendor-specific mobile printing technology such as HP’s ePrint or Epson Connect. (Read more about printing from smartphones and tablets.)

Small Business Phone System

It wasn’t long ago when installing a phone system in an office was a complicated and expensive proposition involving multiple analog phone lines and requiring a significant up-front investment for PBX equipment. Fortunately, thanks to VoIP-based phones, that’s no longer true.

Small business networking: VoIP phone systems

For (very) small offices, the Ooma Office is a powerful yet simple and inexpensive VoIP-based phone system.

Many ISPs now offer Internet-based office phone systems that provide a full range of advanced business-class features (e.g. auto-attendant, company directory, voicemail to email, etc.) without the need for an on-site PBX and that can be paid for monthly without any large initial outlay—though some ISPs may require a multi-year contract.

Even better, these phone systems are generally easily manageable via a Web browser, so routine administration chores (adding/removing extensions and other configuration changes) cost little time and no money.

Another option is to go with an independent phone system provider, such as RingCentral, which provide completely cloud-based service.

One caveat—although VoIP-based phone service is usually more powerful and less expensive than PSTN-based service it’s also more susceptible to call quality and reliability issues, so research carefully and try before you buy whenever possible. (Learn more about differences between the VoIP and PSTN).

If your office is small and you expect it to stay that way for some time, the Ooma Office is about as easy and inexpensive as office phone systems get (read our Ooma Office review). Note that when going with VoIP phone service, you may still need may need a few conventional phone lines for things such as alarm monitoring or fax machines.

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

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This article was originally published on Thursday Aug 22nd 2013
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