Practical tips for building SOHO networks

When you're called upon to set up a network in a home office/small office environment, you'll need to plan carefully and accommodate specialized SOHO requirements--such as equipment accessibility, ease of administration, and scalability for future needs.

The SOHO network is becoming as prevalent as the big corporate multiserver setups we're used to in our everyday lives. It's increasingly likely that any home-run business will now have more than one computer. Ever-falling hardware prices make it easy to acquire extra units, so the accountant can keep track of finances without having to wait for the photographer to finish editing images. I recently visited a customer who was operating a world class Web site from a large (by English standards) wooden cabin in his back garden. That's what comes to my mind whenever SOHO is mentioned.

As a field engineer, it's not unusual to be asked to set up a network for a small business. There may be only a small handful of employees, but their networking needs are just as important as the large corporate system. Moreover, the challenge imposed by the need to allow for expansion can make the configuration of a small network quite demanding.

There probably won't be a huge budget and there may not be the facility or need for structured cabling. Indeed, the company may operate from a single room and not require it. But they will need safe wiring with no trip hazards, expandability, and a wide range of resources. The network must also be to be easy to administer, as it is unlikely that the company will be sufficiently well resourced to run to a dedicated network administrator and will rely on the most PC savvy member of staff.

Assess client needs

Before you make any design decisions, spend some time working with the client, observing their needs, and studying their work practices. I was able to save one client the cost of running a fax machine when I noticed them preparing a fax document in Word, printing it, and taking it over to their fax machine to send it. Discovering that the PC used had a built-in modem, I installed the windows fax component and they started to fax from screen.

Many small clients are fearful of the cost of setting up a network, so it's important to show them the benefits in terms of efficiency and cost savings—another reason why the consultation period is so important.

Small companies are also prone to attempt complicated and time-consuming backups (if they bother backing up at all.) Networking the workgroup, creating home directories on one nominated system, and installing a backup device takes the sting out of this job that nobody likes to do.

The secret to designing and implementing a small business network is planning. Do your homework. Select an ISP that offers multiple e-mail accounts; one that will register a domain will be better. Decide where the equipment is going to be located. There's a tendency with small companies to want to locate servers in unsuitable out-of-the-way corners, which makes administration and cooling a problem.

Allow extra capacity on your installation. An eight-port router will not cost a great deal more than a four-port model and will allow for 100 percent expansion. Decide whether you're going to use a patch panel or plug in directly. If you have a single room, it is more likely that direct plugging will be used. A full site survey is valuable. Knowing how you will run cables and getting your client's agreement on that is vital. You don't want to have to redesign the whole thing on installation day.

Spend time talking to the client and make a good assessment of their needs, then go away and come up with a plan that is cost effective, realistic, and allows for future expansion. The way a small company operates today will hopefully bear no resemblance to how it will look in five years' time.

Explain the equipment

Make sure your client knows what each piece of equipment is and why it's there. They will become suspicious if you add large expensive items onto the bill without any apparent benefit to them. Let them decide what the best configuration is once you've explained the options to them. If they decide that they want a 24-port patch panel, put one in for them. If they want a mounting rack, well, they're the boss and they're paying the check.

If they decide that they want to be all wireless, explain the limitations. You may still need to run a few ports around the building so that there can be access points in all areas for complete coverage. With any installation, security is an issue, and never more so than with wireless connections. I never fail to be amazed at the high number of locations around my working area where I can connect directly to a wireless network with no password request, and this isn't limited to private home networks. I was horrified when I was able to log straight into a large corporate network at a customer's premises. I was looking up a part number for a mailing machine and my laptop detected a network. Out of idle curiosity, I clicked Connect and was soon looking at a huge array of servers! What was really worrying was that this was the international headquarters of a major UK bank!

Cabling scenarios

When it comes to connectivity, there are two ways to go with a SOHO network—or possibly three: good old-fashioned cable, the increasingly popular wireless, and the approach I chose for my home system—a mixture of the two. My ISP provides an 8 Mbps connection, which is shared around the house. I've just moved from a modern house with stud interior walls to a 200-year-old stone-built cottage, which is fantastic, but the wireless access point works only in the main living room and one of the bathrooms. The wired portion of the network covers my office and two of the bedrooms. We use a router so that any of the connected computers can access the Internet without the need for any other PC to be switched on. ICS (Internet connection sharing) requires that a PC that's directly connected to the Internet remain switched on so that any other devices can share the connection. With the ISP login being stored in the ADSL modem, any of the household's PCs, laptops, or PDAs can connect.

I like the resilience of having separate units for each function. If the router fails, I can connect directly to the modem and go online to order a replacement. If the wireless access point fails, I still have cable to fall back on. To complete the "emergency plan," I also have a spare USB modem and could, if need be, fall back on that and implement ICS. The thought of having wireless, Ethernet, and ADSL modem all in one box is not a comfortable one for me.

Tools of the trade

As with any occupation, there are tools that make the job easier. Some of these are obvious and will probably already be in your kit. I've listed these in kit A. Kit B lists those items that may not be so obvious but that are still useful to anyone installing cabling.

Kit A: The obvious stuff

  • Wire cutters
  • Screwdrivers
  • RJ45 punch-down tool
  • Cable continuity tester
  • Small penlight
  • Crimp tool
  • Drill
  • Cable tacker

Kit B: The not so obvious (but equally useful) stuff

  • 24" long 6mm hollow aluminum tubing—A broken aluminum arrow is perfect. When you have drilled through a wall or floor, simply push it through the hole and then push the cable through the tube. On the other side, withdraw the tube and the cable is threaded. Pushing a loose cable through a drilled hole is a most frustrating process.
  • Wire coat hanger—A straightened-out wire hanger has a thousand uses. Use the hook on the end to reach for cables threaded through floor spaces or guiding a cable through floor and ceilings. It can be a nightmare trying to push cables through holes, as they tend to bend and refuse to line up.
  • String—Sometimes string will go where ingenuity cannot. Once string has been run, tape on the cable and pull it through.
  • Adhesive tape. This is useful for attaching cable to string or wire. Tape the ends of cables into loops so that they can be fished for with the wire coat hanger. It can also stop bleeding in an emergency.
  • Small fishing weights. These are a great help when trying to keep cables neat. Create perfect verticals by hanging weights on the drops, then tacking at even intervals.
  • Handheld metal detector—Locate those power cables and water pipes with this rather than with your drill. It's a lot less messy.


Once you and your client have agree upon a plan, you can get to work. Make sure that you have sufficient power outlets close to the networking hardware and that there is somewhere to put the equipment. Mine is located on a small shelf behind a sofa. The router, modem, and WAP stack together, and the cables from them run down the wall behind it. The patch sockets are on the wall below the shelf, so that the patch cables can hang unobtrusively. The fixed Cat 5 cable then disappears behind paneling, up into the ceiling, and off to the other rooms. On the other end of the cables are wall-mounted RJ45 sockets. Short patch leads then attach PCs to them.

To install networks, you need to know about buildings as well as IT. A couple of years' experience as a building contractor is so valuable to me when it comes to knowing what to cut through and what to go round! If you aren't sure, go round. Running a few extra feet of cable is a lot cheaper than rebuilding a wall.

Once it's all in place, you're ready to plug in and test. Windows has a simple networking wizard that will help you set up a peer-to-peer workgroup. Each device needs to be named and the correct workgroup entered into the network identity screen. Make sure that you create the necessary shares for folders and printers. Simply right-click on the resource icon, choose Sharing, and select the desired options. You might want to take advantage of the options to require a login to access the resource.

The future

The focus here has been on setting up a simple network designed to allow centralized storage and printer sharing, but as the business grows in size and complexity, it will require additional, more sophisticated configuration. The customer is likely to need your services in the future, for upgrades, repairs, expansions, and so on. You might be able to offer a maintenance contract, with quick response times and the opportunity to resolve issues remotely using such tools as PC Anywhere. That way, you too could earn some of your living without even leaving home.

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