A computer network connects together all your computer devices, smartphones and other equipment such as printers. An effective network will allow people in your business to easily access data, share resources, get online and communicate effectively.
If you've already paid for your devices, the additional cost of creating a network can be negligible. Up to 20 devices can be combined into a simple network for a few hundred pounds - or even less, if you're happy with a wireless network.
Because your network costs can be kept low, at the very least it usually makes sense to create a simple network.
It's much easier to get started with computer networking than it used to be, especially if you're dealing with a simple computer network.
Because it's easy to get going, simply being able to share your business internet connection between staff is often enough justification for a computer network.
However, if you're getting started with a computer network, there are lots of other helpful functions that you should consider including in your plans:
- Remote access. This allows your staff to connect to your network when they're out and about, so they can access central files and applications.
- Central file storage. Once you have set up your computer network, you can save everyone's work to a central, secure, regularly backed up disk.
- Centralised applications. Programs used by several people at once - like CRM software - work best when you have a network.
- Shared resources. A network makes it easy to share hardware like printers and scanners between everyone in your business.
- Permissions control. Networking lets you increase security by restricting access to files, folders or software.
- Collaboration tools. You can use your network to work together more effectively. For instance, several people can view and edit a document at once.
There are some drawbacks to running a computer network. Principally:
- You may need to install network cables into your building which can cause significant disruption and can have significant costs. However, you can avoid this by creating a simple wireless network for the cost of a wireless router.
- The extra complexity of managing a computer network may require specialist computer knowledge - especially if you have a central file server.
Other network considerations
When planning your network, it's important to think about whether you need a server. These high-powered computers give you flexibility to run centralised applications, but can be complicated to manage and can drastically increase your costs.
If you don't fancy the extra effort and cost of managing a server, you may find that cloud computing services let you achieve the same things but with less hassle.
Cloud computing allows you to access files and applications on the internet, rather than managing them in your business. For example, instead of running an in-house customer database on a server, you can sign in to a service that's provided for you online.
Think about network security too - after all, you don't want a hacker breaking into your systems and stealing your data.
Make sure you take key security precautions: install a firewall when you set up your network, ensure every computer is running up-to-date security software from a reputable company like McAfee, Kaspersky or Bitdefender, physically secure your hardware and make sure everyone uses strong passwords.
The costs of your computer network will depend on your situation: how many computers you have, the physical area in which you want to create the network, the complexity of the network itself and whether your network is wired or wireless.
As a guide, expect to pay your IT supplier about £1,000 to build a simple network of ten computers with no central server. A more complex network - to connect 50 computers, with a server - could cost £5,000 - £10,000 in total.
All networks require some network maintenance. For small networks, someone in your company should be able to take on the job as part of their role. However, managing big networks can be a full-time job.