by November 1, 2004 0 comments



Having a basic network in place is a must today. If you don’t have it, and instead just have a bunch of stand alone computers in office for accounting, e-mail etc, then it makes sense to network them for faster information sharing and increased productivity. If you already have one in place, then you need to find ways and means to keep it up and running and also determine how to expand it further. You also have the option of setting up a completely wireless network, or adding wireless capabilities to your existing wired network. Let’s discuss all options in detail. 

Setting up a basic network
It’s very easy to set up a basic network that just needs to connect a few PCs or notebooks. In fact, it’s faster and easier to build the wireless network because you don’t have to worry about cabling, putting network cards into machines etc. All you need are wireless cards for the machines and a wireless router. The router would connect to your Internet connection and all PCs would connect wirelessly to each other as well as access the Internet through it. If you don’t have an Internet connection, you don’t need the wireless router. You can connect the wireless cards to each other in what’s called the ad-hoc mode. This
allows peer-to-peer connectivity between multiple machines with wireless cards.

You have to keep a few things in mind while setting up a wireless network. One is that the throughput you get over wireless reduces with distance and the number of users connected to it. Throughput reduces because the wireless signal strength deteriorates with distance. It also varies depending upon the number of obstructions in the area. Wireless is a shared network, meaning the total available bandwidth on it is shared amongst the users. Second, the actual throughput you get over wireless is lower than that rated. So if you’re using a 802.11b based wireless product, then the rated maximum throughput is 11 Mbps.

Vendors

Most networking vendors today have cost effective solutions specifically for emerging businesses. Some of the major ones include
Cisco, D-Link, Dax Networks, and 3Com 

However, it is never achieved in real life. The third and very important thing to keep in mind is security. The chances of an outsider hacking into a wireless network are much higher than in a wired network. Therefore, you need to ensure that you take appropriate measures to protect it. For this, take a closer look at the security features being offered by the wireless equipment you buy and learn to set it up properly. 

While a wireless network is very easy to set up, it doesn’t give you the same performance as a wired network. So if you just want the network for simple file sharing between various machines, connecting to the Internet etc, then wireless is a good option. However, if your needs are such that you need to transfer huge files over the network or run bandwidth intensive applications, then a wired network might be a better option. For a simple wired network, all you need is a network card installed in each PC, a hub or switch and some Ethernet cables. 

For a larger network, that has (say) 50 nodes or higher, it’s better to implement structured cabling. And you need an experienced agency to do it. We’ve talked more about this in our structured cabling story in the In Depth section of this issue. 
With physical set up out of the way, you need to configure the machines to connect to each other. If you have a few PCs that run just the desktop versions of Win (9x/2k/XP) on all PCs and there’s no server machine, then you can configure a peer-to-peer network (see Accessing Shares on Windows, Page 34). For larger set-ups of around 25 PCs or more, you’ll need a server that other client machines can connect to. There are small business server editions available from vendors like Microsoft, Novell RedHat, etc. 

These offer all essential applications needed for a business like a file server, mail server, database and Web server. They are also comparatively easier to set up and manage than their Enterprise counterparts. Besides these, there are also some other essential services for a network, such as a firewall if you have an Internet connection, anti-virus and anti-spam software to protect from malicious code. 

Managing an existing network
This is no small task, and it depends upon the size of your network and the services running on it. The larger the network, the more difficult it is to manage. The key challenges in managing networks include combating security threats, ensuring availability of services, ensuring minimum network downtime and handling growth. A small organization may not have the necessary manpower to do so many tasks. The option here is to outsource network management to an external agency. For understanding security, check the Network Security article, Page 95. 

Managing service availability depends upon the type of services running on your network, and how critical are they for your business. A business application, like a sale/purchase order system for instance, is extremely critical. It must be run on a server class machine, which has redundant components to ensure protection from hardware failure and is backed by a UPS to protect itself against power failures. On the software front, it must be protected against all possible security threats like viruses and worms and the business application itself must have full support from the vendor.

You can minimize network downtime by constantly monitoring it. There are lots of tools available for doing this, both free as well as commercial. 

Useful products

Network management
Adventnet OpManager (www.adventnet.com)
Nagios (www.nagios.org)
OpenNMS
(www.opennms.org)
Small business servers
Microsoft Small Business Server 2004 (www.Microsoft.com)
Novell small business suite
(www.novell.com)
RedHat Linux
(www.redhat.com)

For instance, low cost commercial network management software such as AdventNet OpManager, which can create a map of your entire network and alert you in case any network device or machine goes down, is available. On the other hand, there are also free software like OpenNMS and Nagios for network management, which are as powerful as any commercial package. A small network with just a few PCs doesn’t need these network management software.

Managing growth is another challenge for a network. You have to manage a growing number of users, network devices, and application deployments. 

Growth increases traffic on your network, and you’ll have to ensure that this doesn’t slow down other processes. For instance, if you’re using a hub on your network, then you may have to change it to a switch for an increase in the number of users.

Otherwise, the number of packet collisions on the network will increase, causing slow down. Another way of managing growing number of users is to extend the network through wireless technology. This way, you don’t need to worry about laying out extra cabling.

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