Small Business Networking: Where to Start

These days a business that can’t get online can’t go very far. From emailing appointment confirmations to processing credit cards, when the network goes down, business productivity grinds to a halt. Small business owners are stuck in a unique position: they need more reliability than small-buisness-network computer repair portlanda standard wireless firewall router can offer, but likely can’t afford the enterprise solutions offered by Cisco. In this, part two of my “Buy This, Not that” series for small businesses, I’ll explore a mid-range networking solution to bridge the gap.

When I started my company in 2004, I ran our call center out of a room in my house. Budgeting was tight and we used our DSL connection and a standard 4-port D-Link wireless router to maintain our customer database, appointment scheduling and webpage. What a headache! Every time the signal dropped (which was often), all of the systems would get disconnected from the server. If someone was partially through entering appointment notes or updating customer contact information, everything would be lost.

Luckily, moving to our first office location later that year afforded us the opportunity to set up a more reliable network. First, we invested in a Sonicwall router. Recently purchased by Dell, Sonicwall (www.sonicwall.com/us/) offers a wide range of networking solutions for small and medium size businesses with prices from around $400 for entry level routers to $2,000+ for units that support more users and integrate more security features.

What makes Sonicwall “security appliances” different from basic firewall routers is that they offer integrated anti-virus and anti-malware and the ability to control content access through the device. This means that instead of depending on your employees to police themselves – not go to adult content sites, download games or files, or open suspicious attachments – the Sonicwall can be configured to block content, viruses and spyware before it enters your network. This security extends to VPN client access. While this is incredibly important for any business that allows customers to access the Internet over their business network, I’m planning to invest in one for the house when the kids are old enough to surf the net.

They also offer additional levels of reliability. Their entry-level wireless router, the Sonic Wall Tz 100 Wireless-n Network Security Appliance (available through Amazon for around $380) includes automated failover to divert traffic (when needed) over alternate connections to ensure uninterrupted network access. Putting your business on hold while you wait through a modem-router-switch power cycle will be a thing of the past.

Because of the huge range of available options, consider consulting a computer or networking professional before deciding which version fits your needs. Many Sonicwall products require additional monthly or annual fees to continue phone support, VPN client access, and integrated anti-virus and anti-malware after the initial trial periods end. While I still believe that Sonicwall offers the best solutions for small and medium size businesses, it’s important that you research the ongoing costs to maintain the features you require, as with any networking solution. They’re also more complicated to configure so you’ll likely want to budget for professional installation.

I ran cable in our office to allow as many systems as possible to maintain a hard-wire connection to the router. While Sonicwall controls all access to the network, reducing exposure to hackers, my experience is that the more parts you count on to make a system work the harder it is to keep everything running smoothly. A wireless connection requires a wireless adapter on the computer to be functioning properly, as well as additional settings that can be inadvertently broken by the user. Connecting the majority of our office systems via Ethernet cable allows for more network stability.

About The Author: Andrea Eldridge is CEO and co-founder of Nerds On Call, an on-site computer repair  for consumers and businesses. Andrea is the writer of two weekly columns, Computer Nerds On Call a nationally syndicated column for Scripps-Howard News Service, and Nerd Chick Adventures in The Record Searchlight.

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