Many small business IT environments evolve from a single workstation (either desktop PC or laptop) and a connection to the internet, which can be via a wireless modem or direct connection to the modem. But as the requirements for a business increase, so should the considerations for the appropriate IT technology to support those business needs. As the business expands and more users are added to the system, so must the infrastructure and the security measures that are put in place.
Let’s start with the addition of new employees, or users who require access to the network. Most modems supplied by the internet service provider (ISP) supply a limited number of circuits, typically 5-8 circuits, for direct connection to the modem. Unless all workstations are within proximity of a wireless modem, there is a limit to how many connections can be made to that modem without direct wiring. Building structures with metal construction can also be impeding factors to wireless connectivity. Furthermore, available bandwidth provided by the ISP can also limit the number of connections before performance on the network is affected negatively.
ROUTERS / SWITCHES
Once direct connection to the modem exceeds the number of ports provided on the modem then consideration must be given to how to expand the network. This is typically done using multiport switches and routers.
Borrowing from Google, a router is a networking device that forwards data packets between computer networks. Routers perform the traffic directing functions on the internet. Data sent through the internet, such as a web page or email, is in the form of data packets. A packet is typically forwarded from one router to another router through the networks that constitute an internetwork (e.g. the internet) until it reaches its destination node. It serves two primary functions: (1) managing traffic between these networks by forwarding data packets to their intended IP addresses; and (2) allowing multiple devices to use the same internet connection.
Borrowing from Google, a network switch connects devices within a network (often a local area network or LAN) and forwards data packets to and from those devices. Switches provide expansion ports to the incoming signal provided from the ISP modem while also limiting what traffic can be allowed across its circuits. This is done through configuration of the switch or router. When calculating how many ports are required to connect to the network, one must consider the following:
- Number of users
- Number of internal on-premises servers
- Number of network-attached storage devices
- Number of peripheral devices (printers, scanners, bar code readers, labelers, etc.)
- Number of Voice over IP phone devices
- Number of expansion switches
The first five items will assist in determining the number of switches required, based on port count and location. Strategic placement of switches can assist in maintenance of the system, as well as control cost of wiring within each location. Consequently, choosing the appropriate switch size is also affected by location. Switches can come in all sizes from 2 port switches to > 128 port switches. More typically, switches can be 8, 16, 24, 32, 48, 64 and 96 port capacity.
When choosing switches, consideration of total bandwidth must be given.
Most modern switches handle 10-megabit, 100-megabit, and 1-gigabit. Selection is largely dependent on the bandwidth being purchased through the ISP, and the loading requirement on the business side of the ISP modem. There would be no advantage to purchasing bandwidth from the ISP that is less than what is required from your business. This can only lead to poor performance for all users and devices.
One last consideration for number of ports is the number of circuits that require power via the ethernet connection, or POE. POE circuits allow devices to receive power through the network cable without having to have an AC power cord. This is typical of many VoIP (network phones) and wireless access points (WAPs). POE circuits are found in more expensive switches but reduce the cost of in-house electrical wiring.
The ISP modem, the router(s), and the switch(es) make up the primary components of a small business network infrastructure. It is through these devices that information flows in and out of desktop PCs and laptops, as well as tablets and other mobile devices. The next step in the process of building out this infrastructure is to consider the security components necessary to control what traffic is allowed/disallowed through the business side of the network. We will delve more deeply into the layers of security required, or optional, in the next article.