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What is a computer network?

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What is a computer network?
Simply put, a computer network is a logical grouping of computers designed to communicate with one another. This communication allows users to share resources between different computers.

Why have a computer network?
The whole point of a network is to share resources. So what are resources? Resources can be many things. Some of the more common shared resources today would be things like the internet, databases, data files, and printers. Designing a network allows you share items like these among multiple PC’s or users. Deciding whether your business needs a computer network is pretty simple; do you have the need to easily share computing resources?

So you need a network, now what?
For most businesses there are two basic network types: a “client-server” network, in which you have a server; and a “peer-to-peer” network, in which there is no server. So which is right for you? That depends. Let’s start by discussing a peer-to peer network.

Typically peer-to-peer networks are found in smaller business environments. Most of our clients that have peer-to-peer networks are five PC's or less. Microsoft does not allow more than 10 simultaneous connections to a given PC inside a peer network, so that is typically the threshold. Peer networks are typically found when the only real need for resource sharing comes in the form of the internet and printers. The disadvantages of a peer network revolve around management. Within these networks, PC and user management has to take place on each individual PC. Let’s look at an example of this.

Let's say you have five PC’s on your network and each user is in charge of certain projects that contain data files that need to be accessed by all other users. In order for this to take place, each user’s name and password needs to be set on all 5 PC’s and this information must be identical on each of them. The owner “Stuart” also has confidential information that others should not have access to. It comes to Stuart’s attention that someone else has his password. At this point, Stuart needs to log into each of the 5 PC’s and change his password in order to keep his files confidential. This can be a somewhat cumbersome change to make.

The example above is relatively simple, but is true of all management inside a peer network. A more relevant example may be the user's ability to install software. Downloaded software from the internet could potentially damage or slow the PC with viruses or spyware. Controlling the users ability to do this would need to be done from each station and each individual user who logs into that station. An example such as this, is a management pain. Never the less, peer networking is a good tool to accomplish resource sharing in the right environment.

Well, what about server based networks? There are many benefits to a server based solution or a client-server network. In general, implementing a server brings a “center point” to your network through which all PC security, user file access, backups, and network traffic flows. There are many examples that illustrate the benefit of a server, below we will outline a few:

•With a server based solution you can centrally manage all PC’s and make sure current updates are applied.
•You can limit a user’s ability to install software that potentially could damage or slow down the PC with viruses or spyware. Not to mention the legality of the software being installed.
•In fact, if you really wanted to tighten security, you could make it so that when a user logs in, all they have are the icons on the desktop that they need to use. They wouldn’t even see a “Start” button.
•Implementation of “roaming profiles” is possible with a server based solution. This allows users to log into multiple PC’s and see the same desktop with all the tools they need on each PC.
•Server based networks allow users to save documents on their local computer and then redirect them to the server so they are backed up from a centralized backup solution.
•File security, for Confidential employee files, is greatly enhanced. Users are assigned security privileges when they log into the server. These privileges dictate what can be accessed regardless of the user’s location.

The main advantage of a server based solution revolves around increased network performance, increased network stability, and centralized management.  In the long run, these factors provide a better platform for your business needs.

So when do you need a server? The reality of that question is more than likely driven by the software companies you are associated with. If you have industry specific software, they may require a server based network regardless of your size. If not, some justifications for servers are of course the benefits listed above, but also the need for databases and reporting for your organization. The need for greatly enhanced email flexibility, calendar sharing, and contact sharing may justify a product like Microsoft’s Small Business Server. This is a great tool and a very attractive price point for small to medium sized businesses.

For most businesses, these criteria are the main aspect for your network decisions. Of course, there will always be different variants for all businesses, but this is a good foundation for the decision making process for your computer networking needs.

What brand of hardware should we look at?
Okay, so you made a decision on what type of network suits your business needs, so what type of hardware do you need. The big question on what type of PC’s or servers you should buy is “white boxes” or branded hardware (Dell, IBM, HP, etc.). If you put a bunch of “techies” in a room they could possibly debate this for hours. Our take on it boils down to this, support.

At MicroTech we have always been and supported branded solutions. Never the less I decided to “white box” my PC at home. I did my research, found the different hardware I wanted to go with, found the best pricing, and away I went. When I was finished I thought that the experience was great. Maybe our philosophy had been wrong. Then a few weeks later I turned my PC on. Nothing, not even a blinking cursor in the top left corner. After turning the PC off and on several times, there it was. Phew, it must have been a fluke. Nope, 50% of the time I turned on the PC, that was the result. Well now what? Is my problem the power supply, the motherboard, memory, hard drives, or what? The problem here is dealing with different companies’ support, or lack thereof, for each individual component. In a business environment, where time is everything, this can be nothing short of a nightmare.

Regardless of what you think of the branded companies support, for business our philosophy is right. When you have branded hardware it doesn’t matter which component the problem lies with, it is still the problem of that manufacture. We can't stress this enough for businesses, branded hardware is better.

Okay, so you will take our word for it. You found a great deal on an HP at a local electronics store for $500. Wrong. That branded hardware has no place in the business environment either. There is a reason it has a 90 day warranty and acts sluggish and slow. In addition to this, it most likely has Microsoft XP Home or Vista Home. These operating systems do not work in a business environment. You are not able to attach them to a domain (server based network). In addition, they have a maximum size of 5 PC’s in a peer to peer network.
When making purchases for your business, look at decent business class PC’s that have a three year warranty. This doesn’t mean you have to spend thousands of dollars on business class computing equipment. Your initial purchase price will be higher but the costs over the long run will be lower.

We might as well start this with the obvious, we are biased. Companies are always better than individuals and we are the best company that you could select. With that out of the way let's take a look at some issues.

Selecting an IT Services Company
When selecting an IT services vendor, we believe companies are a better choice than individuals working out of their homes. The main reason for this is depth or redundancy. With a company, you are not tied to a single individual and there are multiple support personnel that can assist you. “But I would rather deal with one person, they have a better knowledge of my network.” This may be true, so when selecting a company ask if you have a primary point of contact or if they are just sending whoever is available. Also consider the alternative, if your person is unavailable, on another project, on vacation, or just plain missing, you have no other source that you can trust or rely on.

The moonlighter works for another company’s IT department and can be very popular with businesses. This is what they do and they do it for you cheaply. In addition to still having the same problems outlined above, now you only get support after 5:00 PM. If your problem is an emergency, call us, we will help you during business hours!!

Our favorite is the son, daughter, relative, or friend of someone working for your organization, that is an incredible computer whiz. This may be true but think about that for a minute. This is your business, shouldn’t a key component of your business operations be managed by another business that specializes in exactly that area? Would you trust your accounting or legal needs to an employee’s teenager or relative who likes to “play” with these things for hobbies. There is more to effectively and efficiently designing and administering a business computer network that just enjoying computers as a hobby. Secondly, is it worth straining employee relations if something goes wrong?

A good IT services company should have multiple support staff but also assign you a primary point of contact for your network. Be careful, that company touting 40 engineers most likely has 35 of them contracted to various corporations for 40 hours a week. They are not available to you. You should also check support staff’s experience and industry certifications. We will be the first to tell you that certifications are not the end all, experience counts! Never the less, you should use combination of the two as a guide for your selection process. Lastly, ask for references and call them. This is not for employment, you can ask the questions and they can respond. And ask what the companies’ strengths and weaknesses are. Take it from our experience, selecting a good IT services company will most likely be a better solution for your organization.