In today’s market, setting up and running a successful small business also means setting up the proper technical necessities. For a freelancer, this means having at least one computer with adequate internet access and a reliable backup service for all important files and documents. If your business has more than one employee, it will be necessary to have multiple computers set up on a network. If concerning yourself with technical matters is not at all interesting to you, the best thing you can do is find someone you trust to do it all for you. A good IT person who can set up your network right the first time can save you many headaches down the line.
But even if an outside IT person is out of your budget, there’s still hope. Building your own network can be time-consuming and frustrating. But it can also be rewarding, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing your network inside and out. If you are interested in learning how to build a small business network yourself, then here are a few simple steps to get you started.
1. Sketch Out Your Network
The first step in creating a network is to list what you hope to accomplish with it and draw it out on a piece of paper. Take stock of the different business applications (e.g. Office 365, Adobe Creative Suite, etc.) that you and your employees use frequently. For example, what type of access to databases and software programs will users need? Which wireless network standard is appropriate for your team, based on speed, cost and maximum coverage? Will you use a LAN line or VoIP? Also, be sure to budget enough money for the necessary amount of licenses your programs require (usually one installation per computer or one account per employee).
Try drawing a rough diagram that indicates where each computer and printer will be located, as well as any extra hardware that will be associated with each device. For example, installing devices with in-line power (i.e. with a cord that provides both data and power, like a traditional phone line) enables you to situate wireless access points and other computing equipment anywhere your office has a wall jack. It will also save you the expense of installing electrical outlets and wires for multiple devices.
2. Purchase the Necessary Equipment
Let’s talk about cables first. Unless otherwise specified by an IT professional, your network will likely run on Ethernet cables. Ethernet cables have plugs that look like oversized telephone jacks and are built with various speed ratings that are listed in categories. Unless your business routinely sends large amounts of data, a speed rating of category 5 (or “Cat 5”) cables will be more than enough for your network. These cables will connect your computers to each other and likely to the internet via a router.
Routers act as the glue that connects networked computers to the internet, and they are usually installed between your computers and a cable or DSL modem. In addition to ensuring your computer networks share a single internet connection, routers order (or “route”) data throughout your network, prioritizing which connected device receives data and when. If you plan to allow wireless connections to your network using smartphones, laptops, tablets or desktop computers, make sure to get a wireless router with a high-speed standard. As of the publication of this piece, the highest standard is 802.11ac, which is commonly marketed as “Wi-Fi.”
Switches allow computers, mobile devices, printers and other computing devices to communicate and share data with each other. If you have exhausted all available Ethernet ports on your router, you can use a switch or hub to add more ports. The switch or hub ties these disparate devices together within a single network.
3. Establish an Access Point
When setting up your equipment, there should be at least one access point that establishes and manages your wireless and wired networks. An access point is a centralized location that broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal; your devices join that access point using a network name and/or a password. You can also install additional access points to expand your network and allow employees to wirelessly access company files while outside of a normal Wi-Fi range.
For Wi-Fi access, you should encrypt your connection using the highest available security standard. As of this piece’s publication, the highest consumer-grade level is WPA2-PSK, which should suffice for the majority of small business installations.
4. Manage Your Files and Data
Next, you’ll require a central control center for file sharing and server management. Services such as Microsoft’s Windows Server Essentials and Apple’s Snow Leopard Server can be used as an alternative to a network-attached storage (NAS) device; Apple and Microsoft software feature administrator dashboards with familiar interfaces and lower learning curves, which make them easier to manage for non-IT professionals. Windows and Mac OS X also give small businesses more control and flexibility over accessing files, particularly if you require a customized web or e-commerce server for your network.
If you are proficient with Linux, there are many versions that can be used to create flexible and secure file servers. Linux’s learning curve can be quite high, but those willing to brave frustration will have a wealth of security and networking options at their fingertips.
5. Protect Your Data and Equipment
You’ve probably seen the maze of wires, cords and cables that typically accompany a work desk connected to an IT network. In the event of a power outage or spike, use surge protectors to protect against equipment failure. Lost or corrupted data translates to lost time and money, so invest in premium battery backup power that safeguards your IT equipment and devices.
Moreover, run a backup program that schedules regular backups of your data, including photos, videos and other sensitive business documents. For instance, NAS devices are already equipped with backup capabilities, as are Windows servers and Mac’s Time Machine feature. If you’re nervous about local disasters or possible theft jeopardizing your data, consider using online backup services such as Carbonite and SpiderOak.
6. Hire an IT Consultant
Now that you’ve researched and purchased the equipment you’ll need for your office network, it’s time to hire an experienced IT professional who will help you get it up and running. If you’re unsure of where to start or even which components to buy, it’s worth bringing in the consultant earlier in the process so your network is designed with reliability and redundancy in mind. Start off with a solid IT foundation so that you can add complexity and size to your network as you hire more employees and expand your business.