Your internet connection is often taken for granted until the moment it goes down.
For modern small businesses, the internet is the lifeblood that is pumped through the office along blue-covered cables and beamed across rooms via little boxes. If the connection goes down for even a couple of minutes, work will quickly come to a standstill and staff will start cracking jokes about what they did before computers and how they can’t work.
When the internet winks out for a sole trader, particularly one with a busy website, they’ll be screaming about it via Twitter or Facebook thanks to the trusty connection on a smartphone or tablet. It’s moments like that which clearly demonstrate just how reliant a business is on the internet, and how important the infrastructure behind your connection is.
A decade ago, it was common practice to just sign on the dotted line for an enormous bill from your local IT shop to get your connection up and running. This would usually be a solid rollout of cabling, servers, and tedious hours spent on network settings for each computer.
These days setting up a network is nowhere near as complicated, as devices have been engineered with a focus on plug-and-play and you don’t really need to be tech-savvy to plug a router into the wall and run a setup wizard. Where it gets a little trickier is when people that set up their own connection at home suddenly try to set up a few computers by themselves, when it would have been better to part with some change to get the local geek squad involved.
Jamie Bone is no stranger to networking issues, he prevents them happening for other people on a daily basis. He spent many years doing local number porting for Optus (moving business landlines from another carrier like Telstra over to Optus), before he started ICS Tech back in 2006.
“My contract was terminated (six month contract that lasted four years) and I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but I knew I had seen enough stupid managers making bad decisions and then continuing down that path to avoid admitting they were wrong,” he says. “I spent several years installing and then project-managing the installation of PABXs for Telecom NZ from 1987 to 1993, so I thought I would start a business based on that.”
According to Jamie, one of the biggest problems small business owners make when setting up their networking is trying to do it on the cheap and not really understanding what they are doing.
“It actually goes back to what services can be delivered to a premises,” he explains. “If a business is on the hunt for a new premises, it is vital to seek expert advice as to what services can be delivered.
“With the current state of ADSL availability, where the providers are only spending what they have to as they are waiting on the National Broadband Network (NBN), it is quite a minefield. Without expert assistance to determine whether you can get broadband and then how fast it is likely to be you may find it is either not available, or is so slow as to be unusable.”
One of the ways of figuring out what kind of service is available in a new location is to look at coverage maps that are freely available online for most internet providers. The only issue with these is they are often residential-focused, and most businesses require higher-grade connections than a typical home user.
“Most of the new commercial developments are in areas far away from the telephone exchange and either cannot get regular ADSL due to distance, or because there are no ports available,” adds Jamie.
These ports are the point at which your connection is plugged into an internet provider’s physical hardware at a telephone exchange. Often providers have not put their own DSLAM equipment into the exchange, and are actually reselling ports from Telstra Wholesale. Even those with their own DSLAM will resort to reselling Telstra Wholesale ports when their own fill up. In extreme cases, there won’t even be those available.
“You may have to resort to a very expensive symmetric circuit over fibre costing hundreds of dollars a month,” adds Jamie. “For ADSL, some modem/routers are better than others on long lines depending on which chipset they use.
“Certain brands offer extensive feature sets which you may or may not need. Others will be more reliable, and have an uptime measured in months, while others still will seem to require a power reset every other week.”
One of the things Jamie recommends is to allow plenty of time to get your network up and running. He points out that some routers will have an option for a 3G or 4G wireless dongle to be plugged in, which means you can use that for internet access until your ADSL connection is switched on. It also means you will always have a backup should your fixed connection fail.
“If you are moving into a new building, it probably has the bare minimum of cable in it, so you are going to need cabling installed to each desk,” he says. “Some try to get away with using wireless, but it’s a poor substitute for a wired network and is really only a convenience for smartphone, tablet and laptop users.
“If you have old network equipment, then consider if it is really worth reinstalling it,” he adds. “There are a surprising number of 10Mbit and 100Mbit hubs still in service. These will really limit the performance of your network and should be replaced with a proper switch – preferably with Gigabit ports since PCs have had Gigabit network ports on them for some years.”
Nicole Kersh has also seen more than a few businesses make mistakes when they are setting up a network. She started 4Cabling when she was just 21, having grown up with parents that ran a small cable installation business, so it was a natural jump for her to sell networking supplies.
“I used to help my parents out with their business and was constantly frustrated with how inefficient and archaic the industry was,” she recalls. “I mean, people were still sourcing new business leads from the phone book and sending invoices via fax.
“It really needed a shake-up, so while I was still at university, I decided to start selling products online. I started getting updates about sales on my mobile phone during lectures, so I’d rush home after to pack them up and send them off.”
When it comes to actually setting up the equipment – whether you buy that online or walk into a shop – Nicole recommends having a local expert install it for you.
“Unless you have thorough knowledge of correct setup methods, a local IT company should be involved,” she explains. “This ensures your active hardware is configured for efficiency and most importantly for network security.”
If you are in the position of updating your network or installing a new one, it’s also important to look ahead to the NBN. A quick trip to nbnco.com.au and you can see national rollout maps that show when your area will be connected up to the network. This is important because it will greatly increase the data capabilities over the internet.
“With the NBN being progressively rolled out, incoming speeds of 1 Gigabit are possible,” explains Nicole. “This will also affect the amount of local network traffic. Over the coming years, high definition video and ever-increasing file sizes will put a strain on a network that has no head room.”
Questions to ask
Jamie Bone is the founder of ICS Tech, and he believes you should ask yourself some questions when you are setting up your network.
1. Consider what sort of broadband circuit you have and how far away from the exchange you are.
2. Do you want an all-in-one modem/router/wireless access point or would you be better off with a simple modem? To get the best possible performance out of a long line, buy a router that has the features you want and then have separate wireless access points best positioned for your users. With the NBN, an ADSL modem is not required so your router needs to have an Ethernet WAN port on it. Simple modems tend to be quite cheap and in lightning-prone areas can act as a ‘sacrifice’. Much better to blow up a $50 modem than a $500 router. Some older routers do offer Ethernet WAN ports as a backup but may not allow the full performance of the NBN because they were only designed for ADSL speed.
3. Will you or your staff want to remotely access your site to get files or other information? In this case the router has to support a Virtual Private Network or has to allow pass-through if you were going to get your server to do this for you.
4. Will you want to use Voice over IP? Some routers offer analogue adapters enabling you to set up VoIP lines to plug into an older phone system that doesn’t natively support VoIP or is prohibitively expensive to implement. An alternative is to use separate ATA’s.
5. How large is your business? It’s no good trying to use a domestic-grade device in a business of 20 people. Some of the more expensive ‘prosumer’ grade devices are quite happy in a small business environment but the correct device needs to be specified for the job.
Choosing a router
Nicole Kersh is the founder of 4Cabling and she has five tips for choosing the perfect router.
1. Pick a router that has sufficient Ethernet ports to meet your current requirements and also provides redundancy and room for expansion.
2. As the size of files continue to increase, a gigabit router would be my pick. This will ensure efficient transfer of files from computer to computer.
3. Look to purchase from a company that will actively support their equipment, with firmware and software updates as security or other issues arise.
4. Dual or backup WAN? If internet access is crucial to your operations, consider routers, gateways, or firewalls that have a second WAN port or that support a 3G/4G card for failover or load balancing in case your main internet connection goes down.
5. Consider purchasing a wireless internet router of the same brand as at least one of your wireless network adapters. Sometimes vendors will optimise communication with their own equipment. Performance may be slightly higher.