White Paper: Negotiating the network rapids

Any small and medium-sized enterprise looking to set up a network is faced with a myriad of choices for implementation

Any small and medium-sized enterprise looking to set up a network is faced with a myriad of choices for implementation

The ideal SME computer network must operate invisibly to users and require minimum management and maintenance, while remaining reliable and robust. In most cases, a SME will implement a Local Area Network or LAN. A LAN, as the name implies, provides a system for intercommunication between computers and related equipment operating in the same building or general area. A wide area network (WAN) usually comprises two or more LANs situated in different buildings, but connected together so that users, working for the same organisation but separated geographically, can share information and computing resources.

By following a simple, six-point plan, a SME that introduces a network for the first time can ensure that the implementation of the network meets business needs:

Understand the overall business strategy

Identify the business objectives and requirements by asking: "What do I want my network to enable my business to do? Do I want to diversify or improve my customer service?"

Create a network architecture guided by principles that support the business strategy and objectives

Assess where you are today in terms of complexity, service effectiveness and options for standardising

Build and implement a practical plan that will help you make the transition

Management and support: Ensure that you have procedures for operating, managing and supporting the network

There are a wide variety of different networks available and the most suitable network will depend on what your company does and what it wants to do in the future. The business strategy must be mirrored by the technology employed but it is also important not to be seduced by technology for technology's sake. The essential thing is to reap business benefits as cost effectively as possible.

There are three significant networking challenges. Firstly, managing complexity via standardisation in terms of levels of service and the choice of technologies. Secondly, scalability in terms of a network's capability of supporting planned and unplanned growth and the rapid addition of capacity without re-designing the entire system. And finally, security both in terms of the transactions a company might want to undertake and the security of the network environment itself.

Alongside these challenges, companies need to decide on the choice of network configurations. For example, do I look for a powerful desktop, such as a high end PC (also called a "fat" client), or one that draws its power from the central server, such as a network computer (or a "thin" client)? How powerful does my computer server have to be? How am I going to manage and support my networked systems?

Good architecture, solid foundations

Networks are growing not only in their complexity but also in their functionality. Setting up or expanding a network has its pitfalls but these can be avoided by careful design and planning in the initial stages. Decide the benefits you require from the network and build the system to provide them. If the architecture, design, implementation, management and support of a network are right, the network will make your company more flexible and competitive, enabling improved efficiency, reduced cost and better communications.

In planning the network, always keep in mind the network's responsiveness, availability and performance. Do not forget that architecture is a key part of the planning process and one that is often overlooked. A good architecture will keep complexity under control and will support flexibility and scalability. If you design and implement a solid network infrastructure or architecture in the first place, you can derive the most benefit later on. If you expand or change the network, a good architecture makes it easier to understand the impact of change.

So what architecture should be employed? One of the first decisions to be made is the amount of bandwidth that your business needs. Bandwidth is basically the size of the "pipe" down which you want to channel information. It is important to get it right first time, especially if you want real time applications such as video on demand or digitised sound. In these cases, you'll need sufficient bandwidth such as that provided by ATM with a constant open channel.

But there are a range of options offering different speeds and these include asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), frame relay, Ethernet, Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet, and High Speed Token Ring. Probably the most common architecture for the small business is a network based on Ethernet protocol (a protocol is simply a set of rules by which electronic devices communicate) or Fast Ethernet, which offers data transmission rates of 10 and 100Mbit/s respectively. Ethernet is tried and tested and represents a highly cost-effective solution for networks which require minimum bandwidth.

Internet technologies and TCP/IP are also becoming standard components in a network. TCP/IP stands for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol and is defined as a set of layered protocols that enable shared applications among PCs, hosts or workstations in a high-speed communications environment. If your company has its eye on the Internet as a business opportunity or is considering implementing an Intranet as an internal network, then TCP/IP will play a major role in the communications structure.

Common components

Most networks have common components that include an operating system such as Novell's Netware, Microsoft's Windows NT or Unix. These operating systems are similar to a PC operating system such as Microsoft's Windows '95 but include added functionality that allows the network supervisor to manage the network by, for example, adding users or changing user access to parts of the network. One of the most common networking terms in use today is "client/server", where a number of PCs (clients) are connected to a server that acts as a centralised service for users on the network. The server may hold centralised data or shared applications and, in effect, is simply a more powerful version of a PC on which the network operating system sits.

The network is then connected by a series of cables to a network hub. The network hub is a box that provides all the ports that connect every device together on a network. Hubs and network switches, such as those launched recently by 3Com, exist to maximise network speeds for all users and hardware devices connected to the network. As a network expands, so other hardware devices may be added such as a router that connects two or more LANs together and allows information to be transferred between them. Another type of network worth considering is the wireless LAN, which involves sending and receiving data using radio signals rather than cables. The technology has overcome many of the earlier difficulties associated with range, speed and interference and is now breaking the 10Mbit/s speed barrier.

Keeping IT secure

Security is a vital component of any network, particularly if you want to communicate with external parties, whether partners, suppliers or customers. The general rule is if you create a line out, then there is a potential line into the organisation. Companies need to adopt the same principles of security as they would any other area of their business. Risk has to be balanced against threat and the appropriate security levels implemented. As a firm pursues its use of network computing, a comprehensive security strategy is essential to gaining the trust of customers and the respect of suppliers. Any security strategy needs to consider:

( Data integrity

( Authentication rules

( Different forms of asset security (personnel, physical, environment)

( A risk assessment of each type of transaction

While every organisation needs to be concerned about security, there is a host of tools available to secure the corporate network. Companies should also remember to address the issues of employee education, encouraging best practice, acceptable usage, guidelines and policing the security.

Remotely yours

Security also becomes an issue when an organisation wants to allow its staff to work remotely. Some manufacturers make products that allow staff to plug into the company network from anywhere in the world and access information whether its customer, product and/or stock information. But, like all IT expenditure, investing in a remote system requires careful consideration and planning.

A company can ensure that the system meets employee needs, while providing the required security, efficiency and manageability. Remote access technology makes companies' applications and databases more accessible to employees, whether at home, in branch offices, on the road or at customer sites. The technology provides a reliable, high-performance resource that can drive business efficiencies and increase productivity, as well as leading to a general improvement in employees' working conditions.

Success can be gained from the strategic approach - you may save around 70 per cent on Internet access call charges alone just by changes in your IT strategy and deliver a better service externally to its customers. Firstly, when setting up a remote access system, companies must decide which technology to use for the link between the remote site and head office. There are many options, varying in cost, to choose from including conventional analogue lines, leased lines, ISDN and the newer cable modems, xDSL technologies and GSM cellular communications.

An essential element of remote working is to stay in control. Buy a product that enables the system to be remotely monitored and maintained and that allows in-house technical staff, at the central site, to maintain contact with outlying colleagues and systems to monitor line usage. And most importantly, look for products that have integrated security mechanisms. Products that enable remote access need to include adequate firewalls and other security features to maintain the integrity of the company network.

Bring on the benefits

A well-designed network can provide a host of business benefits to the SME. A SME working with individual standalone PCs will be well aware of the costs involved in time wasting while individual users wait to print or sit frustrated as a colleague sends a large email attachment from a floppy disk. A network reduces the queues and removes the waiting time for access to common devices such as printers and modems. A network facilitates shared information and applications, removing the constant frustration of moving desks, copying files, waiting for email or Internet access and backing up any number of hard disks. These are all time consuming tasks, time that can be better spent on managing the business, winning new clients and developing business strategy. Technology should support business strategy, not hinder it.

Unfortunately, only a few companies seem to be prepared to focus on networking solutions for the SME marketplace. SMEs require a "no pain" networking solution. These new products are aimed specifically to support the network needs of companies with either less than 50 employees or those with between 50 and 500 staff.

More and more value-added resellers are committed to the SME market and that can only be good news for companies looking to get the right advice and implement the right network to support the business objectives. The combination of the new products and the skills of our channel partners will ensure that SMEs can achieve competitive business advantage without pain.

( 3Com July 1999

Compiled by Rachel Hodgkins

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