When personal computers first hit the market they were very much stand-alone devices. But it didn’t take long to realise that, particularly in a business scenario, they were much more useful if they could be linked together to share information.
That gave birth to the local area network. Initially, there were a number of competing standards, all of which relied upon bulky multi-core or coaxial cables. Over time, the industry gradually began to standardise on Ethernet using thinner twisted pair cable as it was easier to handle and could be shared with telephone connections.
Today, Ethernet is still the most used networking technology but it’s now likely to be via a mix of wired and wireless connections.
Wires or no wires?
Your first decision when networking a business, therefore, is likely to be whether to use wired or wireless. There are pros and cons to both and it’s important to consider these in the light of what you want your systems to do.
Wired networks are faster, so if you need to move large volumes of data around, then they should always be your first choice. Most off-the-shelf desktop PCs now have an Ethernet port built-in, so the costs of connecting machines to the network are also minimal.
A further consideration is that a wired network is inherently more secure as it’s difficult to intercept the data without physical access to the network.
Wireless networks, on the other hand, are easy to set up with no need to run cables. It’s easier to connect mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. They make connection for guests and contractors easier too.
On the downside, wireless networks are slower, more open to security risks and if you intend to connect all of your devices wirelessly, then you will have extra costs to add wireless cards to your desktop systems.
The downside of wired networks can be that you lose flexibility as each of your machines needs to be connected to a wall port and thence to a switch. Most networks, therefore, take a structured approach in order to give you the advantages of wired connections while retaining a flexible approach.
A structured network will use patch panels located close to the server to allow connections to be easily re-routed to different ports. This type of network also allows the same cabling to be shared by both voice and data connections, thus delivering additional flexibility.
It’s also important to consider how your network is going to be structured. With only a small number of machines, it’s common to have a peer-to-peer arrangement where all devices are equal and any system can talk directly to any other.
This is easy to set up, resilient to failures of individual devices and doesn’t need any specialist hardware. However, it’s more difficult to administer and secure; it’s harder to ensure that all of your important data is being backed up and it can become unwieldy as your network grows.
For these reasons, a better approach for larger networks is the client-server model. Here data is stored on a central server which all of the client machines can access. Clients do not access each other directly.
This makes it easy to find and secure data because it’s all stored in the same place. However, specialist hardware in the form of network switches is required and, by having a central server, you do introduce a single point of failure.
If your business operations are divided over several sites then you may also need to consider wide area networking. This expands your network over a wider area using data connections. Historically these would have been leased lines but increasingly the traffic is now carried over the internet via a VPN or other secure connection.
With more applications moving to the cloud, it’s quite likely that the need for an in-house server will be eliminated. You can still use the client-server network approach, but here the main server is in the cloud and your local network is used to access an internet gateway.
If most of your computing is being managed in the cloud, you can save money on desktop hardware by using ‘thin clients’. These are less powerful machines that simply give users the ability to get online to access the systems they need.
As with any field of technology, networking doesn’t stand still, but by getting the basics right with a well-planned, structured approach, you can help to protect your investment and future proof your business.