It’s All Part of the Plan

It may not be intuitive to some small business owners, but the best way to begin the design of a small business network is with a thorough review of the company’s business plan.  Without a clear understanding of business goals and requirements, you’re leaving the ROI on your technology spending to chance.

Here are a few key questions to answer during your business plan review:

  • How long can the business operate without key services like email, phones, business applications, etc., and how much would downtime cost?
  • Will staff work locally or remotely?
  • Will the business rely heavily on Internet access?
  • Will core business applications run in-house or at a service provider’s location?
  • Will payments be collected through point-of-sale (POS) devices or an e-commerce website?

Once these and other business requirements are prioritized, design and budgeting is much easier.  You’ll know when a lower cost product or service will suffice and where you’ll need to invest in higher-end solutions.  Small business budgets are always tight, but going cheap on critical equipment or services can end up costing much more in the long-run.

Here are some pointers to help determine how much you should spend on technology for your business:

  • Select a quality Internet Service Provider (ISP) that can provide reliable service at adequate speeds for the business.  If your business is extremely reliant on Internet access, contract with a secondary provider in case the primary goes down.
  • Choose a reputable telecommunications provider for voice services.  Unless the business plan warrants a separation of services, consider using bundled Internet and voice services through the same provider.  Bundling typically lowers costs and vendor management overhead.
  • Look for hardware and software vendors that have quality support and strong warranties.  If your business plan defines an acceptable outage as 4 to 8 business hours, then you should have matching service level agreements from critical vendors.
  • Buy a commercial firewall appliance for data security.  Software and residential-grade multi-function devices don’t adequately protect a business.  Better firewalls offer anti-virus and spyware protection, and secure remote access.  Consider your needs for each of these services before finalizing your selection.
  • The network switch is the network’s traffic control center and must be scaled correctly.  If it doesn’t have enough ports, or isn’t fast enough, it can slow down the entire network.  If budget allows and your data cabling can support it, invest in a gigabit-capable switch so you won’t need to upgrade the device in a couple of years.
  • One to several servers may be needed to run business applications, store data, and integrate work stations.  Low-end servers usually lack redundant power supplies, hard drives, and cooling, and also have limited expansion capabilities.  Plan on buying the best server(s) you can afford.  If a server fails, the entire business can be affected.
  • Data backup and business continuity solutions must integrate well with your network and meet continuity goals.  If you are considering a web-based remote backup service, check to make sure you have enough Internet bandwidth to handle your data volume and time window.
  • Staff PCs and laptops should be selected and configured based on job function.  Since laptops are more expensive and more likely to be damaged or stolen than desktops, their deployment should be limited to staff who absolutely need them.
  • For office collaboration and productivity, there are a number of evolving options.  You can purchase the established Microsoft Office Suite, or download one of the newer low to no-cost options such as Google Apps or Open Office.  Consider your business plan and the need for shared communications when making a product selection.  Using non-standard or “bleeding edge” products internally can sometimes cause difficulty when sharing data and documents with partners or customers.  You may save a few bucks upfront, but the on-going productivity loss can cost you much more in the long term.

These are just a few items to consider when planning a small business computer network.  If you use your business plan to guide its design and budget, it should serve as a foundational platform on which your company can build its future success.  By aligning the network design and technology acquisition with the business plan and best practices, your company will experience fewer and shorter network outages, avoid major unplanned technology expenditures, and realize a greater return on its technology investment.