Five tips for designing a small business network

When you design a network for a small business, you have to address different issues from those you face in an enterprise environment. Brien Posey offers some tips for handling the special considerations that come with the SMB territory.

Over the years, I have designed numerous networks for various organizations. In doing so, one thing I have learned is that you have to use a different mindset when you are designing a small business network than you would use when developing an enterprise grade network. Here are five simple tips to keep in mind when you build a small business network.

1: Determine whether you want to host services locally or in the cloud

I have to admit that I have never been a big fan of hosted services. Over the last year, I have received letters from several network administrators who have found themselves unemployed after the companies they worked for began outsourcing network services to cloud providers. Even so, using hosted services may be ideal for smaller organizations.

Cloud service providers take care of configuring, maintaining, and backing up network services. An organization that is using a hosted service may not need a dedicated IT staff. Hosted services may also save smaller organizations from having to make a large investment in server hardware and software. Instead, they can pay a monthly subscription fee. Over time, the subscription fees can add up to more than the cost of purchasing server hardware and software, but the startup costs are much lower.

2: Look for ways to control costs

Small businesses typically have to watch every penny, so if an organization does decide to host its own network, it's important to look for ways of controlling costs. Using server virtualization is one obvious way of reducing the costs of server hardware, but sometimes you have to get a little creative. For example, in extreme situations, you may have to settle for using high-end PCs instead of true server hardware. Likewise, you may be able to control costs by using Linux operating systems instead of Windows.

3: Have a support plan in place before you need it

Small businesses often lack the resources to deal with any major technical issues. When I have done consulting projects in the past, I have found that a lot of small businesses don't have a dedicated IT staff. They often have one employee who knows a little bit about networking and becomes the go-to person for computer problems.

I have also seen a few small businesses hire someone to provide full-time IT support. In these situations, though, budgetary limitations have prevented the organization from hiring someone with a lot of experience.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not bashing the way small businesses do things. Organizations have to work within their financial limitations. But problems will occasionally occur that are beyond the staff's abilities to fix. So organizations should have a plan in place ahead of time for how they will deal with such problems when they occur. These plans might involve calling a technical support line or bringing in a consultant. Regardless, when you build a network for a small business, be sure you take up the issue of long-term support with the company's owner.

4: Plan for future growth

When you design a small business network, remember that the business may not stay small forever. Make sure you design the network in a way that allows for growth.

I have known consultants who automatically use Microsoft's Small Business Server 2008 any time they build a network for a small business. I don't deny that Small Business Server is a good choice for some organizations, but it has a limit of 75 client access licenses. Furthermore, it does not allow for the creation of child domains or inner forest trusts. The products that make up Small Business Server are not licensed in a way that allows them to be installed on separate servers.

So while Small Business Server may be a good choice for an organization with 10 employees, an organization that already has 50 employees could end up outgrowing Small Business Server fairly quickly. It may be better for such an organization to spend a little extra money up front so that it doesn't have to pay for an expensive migration later on.

5: Never underestimate the importance of a good backup

I couldn't even begin to guess how many times I have done consulting projects for small businesses only to discover that they had no backup or that their backups were inadequate. (Running a backup every Friday night just doesn't cut it.) When you design a small business network, disaster recovery planning should be part of the design process, not an afterthought.

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Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

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