Choosing the Best Computer Network

Your business is growing. Is it time for a computer network? You've added 2 new staff members in the past year, and all 5 employees are complaining about the increasing difficulty of sharing files. Your billing database is on a computer which can only be accessed by your administrative assistant and you are concerned about not having a centralized backup of the files being saved on each employee's computer. If all this sounds familiar, it may be time to implement a computer network. In this discussion, we'll look at two main computer network solutions for small and medium businesses. We'll explore the pros and cons of each type so that you can gain an understanding of which type might be the best solution for your business.

Network Basics

Networks begin when two or more computers are connected so that information can be shared. In order to connect to any kind of network, a computer requires a network card and CAT5 or CAT6 cables. (This website has more in depth information about choosing network cards).

If the computer has a "wireless" network card, radio signals can be used in place of the cables. A network also requires a piece of equipment called a switch, which acts as a central routing "hub" for the information being shared. A switch is kind of like a mail room in a large company. It makes sure the addressed messages get to the right recipient.

You may have heard the term LAN or WAN. LAN stands for Local Area Network, and usually denotes a network of computers which are fairly close together, say in the same building or office. WAN stands for Wide Area Network. WANs usually connect local area networks which are separated by great distances. (For example, a larger company may have an office LAN in Seattle, and an office LAN in Boston. These two LANs could be connected via a WAN data line.)


Peer to Peer Networks

The most basic type of network is a called a peer to peer network. This type of network consists of several computers which are connected to each other. The "network" consists of shared folders located on computers within the network.

These folders are set to a "shared" status, so that other people connected to the network can access them. Each shared folder is accessed by the users of the network, who set up a certain drive letter (say H:) as a "pointer" to the shared folders on other computers. In addition, any printers connected to any computer can be shared to other network users.

Peer to Peer Network

Here's an example. Susan and Joe work together in a small office and need to look at files on each other's computers. Susan creates a folder called "SusansFiles" on her computer and sets it up as a shared folder. Joe can then use the network connections to "see" the folder called "SusansFiles".

He sets up a permanent shortcut called "H:" drive to the folder called "SusansFiles". Now when he turns his computer on, Windows Explorer will show the folders on his computer's C: drive, the CDROM D: drive and the shared H: drive as his available file locations. Susan can do the same with a folder that Joe shares out from his computer.

Benefits of a Peer to Peer Network:

  • A peer to peer network is inexpensive to set up. It uses the built in networking capabilities of Windows XP Professional (or Vista Business), so no special software is needed. It allows for file and printer sharing, and can be an adequate choice for a very small office.
Limits of a Peer to Peer Network
  • Peer to peer networks are dependent upon the computer knowledge of each employee, as certain rules must be followed in order to minimize network interruptions. If a user shuts down his machine in the middle of the day, other users on the network lose access to the files in that machine's shared folder. In the picture provided above, the laptop might only connect to the network when an employee is not traveling. Any files stored on that laptop are not available (and may not be backed up) when that employee is out of the office.
  • Network and data security are weak.
  • Files are not centralized, so getting a back up of all critical files is more difficult.
  • Ongoing tasks like anti-virus scanning and Windows updates are localized on each machine. Updating virus definitions and patches has to be done manually at each machine, which is time consuming.


Client Server Networks

A more common type of network is called a client server network. This type of network uses a central server and specialized network software. The server is dedicated and is only used to store files and run server tasks. The computers which connect to the server are called clients and these are the machines the company staff would use.

The server acts as the "hub" of the network, and does most of the "behind the scenes" maintenance and storage. Common server network operating systems include Windows Small Business Server 2003 or 2008, Windows Server or Linux.

Benefits of a Client Server Network

  • The server stores all of the shared files for each user.
  • The server runs the file backups which can be scheduled in the middle of the night, minimizing network interruptions.
  • The server manages user security, and insures that all users who access the network are authorized to do so.
  • The server manages printer sharing and acts as a central repository for the printer drivers and settings.
  • The server manages other common tasks such as internet access, email routing, Windows updating and anti-virus definition management.
  • The server can also share software applications out to multiple users.
  • The server can also provide for an "Intranet", an internal website which holds shared company information such as news announcements, HR policies, training documents, and more.

    In short, a client server network provides for easier network administration, and provides a much more robust environment in which provide secure and manageable access to company data.

Client Server Network

Limitations of a Client Server Computer Network

The benefits of a client server computer network are substantial, but there are some limitations.

  • A server based computer network is more expensive to implement. Server computers are powerful machines with built-in redundancy and other hardware to provide data safety. Hence, they cost much more than a simple desktop computer.
  • The server network software is also much more powerful, complicated, and must be installed correctly to run all of the required tasks, and so the cost is higher for both the software and installation charges.
  • The server is a critical point of failure. If it goes down, the entire network comes to a halt. This drawback can be minimized with the installation of redundant drives in the server (so that if one fails, the others will still be working), and even a second server that can take over if the primary server fails completely. Cost then becomes the only issue.

Which Computer Network is Best For Your Business?

Peer to peer computer networks are reliant upon the computer users, so employee behavior is a major factor. Peer to peer networking could work for your business if you have the following:

  • Computer savvy employees whom you trust.
  • Low employee turnover.
  • Five or less employees.
  • Newer desktop or laptop machines with lots of memory and hard drive space.
  • A large capacity portable data storage unit for backing up files and taking them off site.
  • Time and motivation to keep the computer patches and maintenance up to date.

A client server computer network is more secure, easier to manage, and would be a better solution for your business if the following is true:

  • You want to secure your company data and provide access to certain files and folders to only a few employees.
  • Your business experiences high employee turnover.
  • You have more than 5 employees.
  • A secure, complete backup of all of your critical business data is needed.
  • A central information repository for your employees would be helpful.
  • You want to have a cohesive email solution using a single domain address (i.e., jack@yourcompany.com, megan@yourcompany.com).

Think of the cost of implementing a network as an investment in your business. As your business grows, implementing a computer network will help your employees share information and resources, and in the long run, will play a major role in the successful growth of your business.



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