A network can link all the computers, tablets and smartphones in your office, allowing users to share files, programs and resources such as printers and internet access. You’ll almost certainly want a network if you have more than one device.
As well as having the right networking equipment, you need to understand how to install and manage your network.
1. Network basics
A network is a way of connecting all the computing devices within your business. Even if you only have two devices, creating a network is still worthwhile.
A network makes it easier to work together, share resources and maintain a high level of data security
- You can share files and databases easily.
- All connected devices can access the internet and email.
- Everyone can use a single printer.
- Each connected device can benefit from the same antivirus software updates and security protocols.
- Files can be stored, accessed and modified based on user hierarchy.
- You can set up an intranet and allow employees to access company resources from outside the business.
You can build a network with or without a server
- A server is a central computer used to store files and run the network and will either be placed on-site or, more commonly, remotely in a cloud environment.
- Introducing a server makes your network more versatile.
- In general, if you have a small number of devices (five or fewer), a server is not required.
- You may benefit from a server if you have more devices or need to run centralised applications like a customer database (although such applications are often provided as cloud-based solutions, negating the need for on-site server hardware).
- Setting up and managing a server can be complex which is why many businesses now turn to cloud-based services to perform similar functions.
2. Network equipment
You may need to purchase a network server
Wi-Fi is commonly used for network connections, but you can also use cables to connect your devices together
- Wireless networks are simpler to implement due to the reduction in cable requirements.
- The most common type of network cable is often referred to as an 'Ethernet cable'. These cables are similar to telephone cables and have a plug on either end that looks a bit like a telephone connector.
- The cables are rated for speed. Most cables are either Cat5, Cat6 or Cat7. Choose Cat6 or Cat7 cables and equipment for the fastest speeds. You can mix different categories of equipment on the same network.
Every device you connect to the network must have a network adaptor
- New laptops, desktop computers, tablets and smartphones will have network adaptors built-in, but you can also purchase add-on network adaptors for computers without from around £10.
- If you are creating a wireless network, your older computers might need wireless adaptors. Laptops, smartphones and tablets have these built in. If not, you can buy plug-in adaptors or expansion cards.
- Some thin laptops and most tablets will only allow you to connect to the network wirelessly.
You will also need a router
- The router sits at the centre of your network, connects to the internet and provides both cable and Wi-Fi connectivity for devices.
- Routers can share their internet connection with multiple devices.
- A router will manage the traffic on your network, provide internet access and ensure all devices communicate correctly.
- Make sure your router has enough connections (called ports). If you have five computers and one printer, you will need at least six ports, unless any of those devices connect via Wi-Fi.
You may require a wireless access point (AP)
- An AP acts just like a hub and effectively extends the reach of your network for devices that connect via Wi-Fi.
- You can buy access points separately, or as part of a hub or router.
- You may need several access points to provide wireless coverage throughout your premises.
A hardware firewall can protect your network from online security threats
- A firewall blocks malicious internet traffic and hacking attempts.
- If you have a server, make sure a hardware firewall sits between it and your internet connection
- Most internet routers have firewalls built in. These are adequate if you do not have a server.
Wireless (Wi-Fi) networks
Wi-Fi networking is often favoured over wired networks – particularly within small businesses.
Wi-Fi networks replace network cables with a radio link
- Wireless is not as fast as wired networks, but constant innovation means speeds are increasing, and Wi-Fi is more than adequate for day-to-day work.
- All new laptops, tablets and smartphones have wireless built in.
- Wi-Fi connections are fast to set up and you can add new devices by selecting the network from a list and entering a password.
- Multiple Wi-Fi networks can be configured in order to offer separate connections for guests, customers and staff. This enables businesses to retain full control over the available bandwidth and network security.
There are some issues to be aware of
- They have limited range. You may need to install several wireless access points to cover your business premises, especially if you have thick walls.
- Interference can be a problem. It can be caused by other Wi-Fi networks, electrical equipment and a host of other items.
- They are less secure than cabled networks without the right security measures. You should always use strong access controls and encryption to prevent unauthorised connections. Look for hardware that supports WPA-2 encryption.
Some businesses find a combination of wired and wireless technologies works best
- Fast, reliable access can be supplied to fixed desks via cables.
- A Wi-Fi network can be set up to cover meeting rooms and common areas. It is ideal for ad-hoc work, meetings and providing temporary internet access to visitors.
Internet connections can easily be shared within your premises, but they also enable the network to be accessed by employees who work remotely.
To connect to the internet, you’ll need a broadband connection
- The cheapest type of broadband is called ADSL. It connects to the internet over an ordinary telephone line. ADSL packages cost from about £10 per month.
- If you have a basic network without a server, you can buy a router which connects directly to the internet using ADSL.
- The router also acts as the centre of your network, so you need to connect all your devices to it to share the internet connection.
- Operating systems like Microsoft Windows, macOS, Android and iOS will automatically recognise the internet connection when you connect each device to the router via cable or Wi-Fi.
An ADSL connection may not be adequate
- With ADSL, uploading is much slower than downloading. This means ADSL is not usually suitable if you regularly send out large files.
- Although ADSL can provide speeds as fast as 100Mbps, many packages do not have guaranteed levels of service and offer poor contention ratios when shared with surrounding businesses or homeowners.
The benefits of fibre broadband
- Fibre connections are now available across most of the UK. They are significantly faster and more reliable than ADSL - and usually worth the extra cost.
- If you have a large network or specialised needs, talk to your internet service provider and your IT supplier to establish what type of connection best fits your needs.
4. Installing your network
Installing a network is disruptive and requires careful planning. It often pays to bring in a specialist contractor, especially if you are installing a server.
Installing cabling will cause the biggest disturbance and take the most time
- Install enough cabling and outlets to see you through any planned growth. Spare outlets let you add new devices quickly.
- Remember to install a cable that runs to your wireless access points. These are often located on the ceiling.
Install network hardware once the infrastructure is in place
- Connect the network server and one desktop computer to configure the system.
- Check all parts of the network server are working correctly.
- Install any other communications hardware you need, such as routers.
Install the network software
- Configure the network operating system software using the test desktop computer.
- Install any network applications on the main server.
- Run a full backup and check it carefully.
- Configure one of the desktop computers.
- Configure and run any network management software you use.
- Copy the desktop configuration to each device once you are confident the system is working.
- Establish access rights and passwords for individual users.
- Test Wi-Fi connections from several devices simultaneously.
5. Network security
Your data is valuable and vital to your business. It is important to keep this information secure.
Control access with usernames and passwords
- Each user of the network should have their own username and password.
- Only grant each of your employees access to the resources they need.
Use security software on all your company computers and servers
- Good security software will protect against viruses, spyware, ransomware, hackers and other online threats.
Use multiple firewalls
- Firewalls protect your devices from people trying to access them over the internet.
- You should install firewall software on every computer. Most operating systems have built-in firewalls – ensure they are turned on.
- A single hardware firewall between your internet connection and network will provide extra protection.
Keep your server in a secure location and follow good IT security practice
6. Network management
Networks become more complicated as they grow. You need to have a realistic idea of the resources and support you will need.
A typical small network only demands at most a few hours' attention each week
- There is little complexity involved.
A medium-sized network requires more management
- For example, a network with a server and 10 to 100 devices needs at least one person working full-time to manage it.
- There may be more complex issues about who can access files and software.
Do not underestimate the resources required to keep your network running smoothly
- You may need two or more people to provide network support if a large network is central to your business.
- Seek advice from your IT supplier or consultant if necessary, and budget accordingly.
"IT networks need to be intelligent and able to help your business to grow, not hinder it. Staff need always-on access to email and files whether they are in the office or working remotely and data needs to be backed up so it cannot get lost. IP networking represents a way to consolidate IT and telephony investments, realise costs savings through single suppliers, lower maintenance and call costs and most importantly enhance business by providing new features that help bring companies closer to their customers." - James Passingham, Foehn