Network Requirements for a Small Office

One of the most important parts of any business these days is a computer network which allows customer records, files and other information to be shared easily. Of course, computerization of the office is nothing new, but in the internet age it is nigh on essential that a network is not only good for the office workers who will use it, but for customers who want to access it, via web applications for instance. However they must do this whilst providing the right degree of security from cyber threats and from information being inappropriately accessed. Although a network is certainly an enabling technology so far as many small offices are concerned, there are also pitfalls to be avoided. Small office managers need to take all of these factors into consideration, just as much as those running large ones do.

A Single Small Office

For small and medium enterprises (SMEs), a network does not need to be anything very grand. Most office workers will require a computer and - in most set ups - it is simplest to equip all the staff with either similarly specified PCs or Macs. A typical network that an SME will utilise, will have computer terminals for all staff to access a central database where records are held on another machine - called the server. By using the client and server system, records can be updated, read and changed without causing potential problems caused by multiple users accessing the same records at the same time. The server takes control and will only allow one person to make changes, thus avoiding conflicts and data corruption.

Typically, a series of computers connects to a server over a local area network, or LAN. LANs are commonly made with structured cabling connecting each terminal to a switch or a switching router. In simple terms, a switch transmits data to and from servers and terminals via Ethernet cable and only the computer that is requesting the information should receive it. However, in small offices - where there are not that many computers and where the demands of the amounts of data being passed backwards and forwards are not that great - a wireless LAN is also used. This means slightly slower working, but less cabling and start up costs. In some small offices a combination of a traditional Ethernet LAN and a Wi-Fi wireless one is used. Wireless LANs offer a great deal of flexibility because mobile devices - like tablets and laptops - can access the network from anywhere in the office. This means staff can move around from one desk space to another.

Access to the outside world, via the internet is another function of the network. A router which can have multiple devices connect to it is called a switching router and these are commonly used by SMEs to provide internet access as well as a modest network capability. Further servers are required to run things like printing services and email delivery, but these can usually be combined on the same machine.

Small Branch Offices

Where a small office set up is part of a larger organisation, the LAN may also want to connect to the main company's network, perhaps in another location in the country, or even overseas. Along with the small LAN set up discussed, this usually means a private network connection to the main servers elsewhere.

There are two principle ways that small offices connect to their larger, parent ones. Leased lines can be hired from a network operator and they make a physical connection between the two sites. Often little more than digital phone lines these are rented and provide a closed - or private - network which is usually highly secure.

Virtual private networks are the other option. These use internet protocols to communicate data between sites in a virtual way. Packets of data are sent and received between servers at both ends of the network over the internet - or cloud as some call it. This means that although private data is sent over a public network, that it should remain secure, so long as high-level of encryption is used.

Data Protection

These days, even very small offices need to take data protection issues seriously. Even the loss of small amounts of data can land businesses in legal trouble and they can have a serious affect on a company's reputation. Data encryption over the internet should be handled by the devices that provide these services, but all too often office managers forget about the requirement of users working at terminals to keep the data safe. This means setting passwords and changing them regularly. In some cases, where there is sensitive data, some staff should have certain restrictions placed on what they are able to read from their computer terminal. Along with the technology, office workers need adequate training so that they are aware of the issues surrounding data protection, like locking their computer if they step away from their desk.