By setting up telecom connections two weeks in advance, Neopost’s Matt McMillan can install and test circuits before the staff moves into a new office.
Nov 12 2008

Network Starter Kit

Follow these best practices to build a small office network from scratch.

Say your division merges with two others. Suddenly your network has tripled, and you have two months to plan for a network expansion that will accommodate your current staff three times over. Now what? If you’re Matt McMillan, IT manager for Neopost Software & Integrated Solutions in Austin, Texas, you go shopping.

“Our existing equipment was fairly old, so I wanted to get something that was newer and faster,” says McMillan, who opted for Cisco switches and all new cabling for the new office.

“We purchased new equipment because we’re building out a new office, and I wanted to set up as much of the network as I could ahead of time,” he says.

McMillan says Neopost Software operates as an application service provider. It produces web-based shipping software and also hosts the product in the United States and Europe. The data center is at a collocation site 10 miles away.

For both sites, McMillan uses Cisco switches and routers, Juniper devices for firewalls and a Cisco ASA 5510 VPN for data center access. The office network, which now supports 50 full-time staff, includes four switches and one router.

The only remnant of the old office is the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system. McMillan also increased the bandwidth to the data center, where all the production equipment resides. “We went from a T1 to a 10-megabit-per-second Ethernet connection, which is 10 times faster and more reliable,” he says.

One important choice McMillan made for the new office was to set up the telecom connections ahead of time. “I like to have a two-week overlap so there’s time to install and test the new data circuits before people move into the office,” he says. That way, “if you do have problems, you’ll have time to correct them.”

If you are building out a new network, it’s a good idea to leave room for expansion or purchase equipment that is scalable, McMillan says. He recommends asking human resources for staffing projections so you can estimate near-term and long-term requirements. Companies building new networks should also follow these valuable best practices:

Test existing network drops. If you are using existing network drops in a new office, ask your data cabling contractor to test them. “We reused 100 existing network drops in our new office and about 5 percent of them ended up testing poorly and had to be repaired or replaced,” says McMillan, who adds that reusing the existing network drops saved the company quite a bit of money. McMillan advises getting quotes from two or three vendors (the quotes he obtained from three vendors varied by $3,000). Also, before you commit to reusing existing cabling, verify its quality. If it isn’t Cat 5 or better, then you will need to run all new drops.

Separate database servers from app servers. For some small companies without IT staff, a new network can be a daunting undertaking. A Window Between Worlds, based in Venice, Calif., works with domestic violence shelters in 28 states. Through collaboration with the shelters, the organization reaches 40,000 people a year. But as the organization grew over 17 years, the system it cobbled together did not.

“We grew bit by bit and expanded by more than 20 percent every year for five years, so we kept adding computers without addressing the overall network issues. So it kept slowing down and crashing more until it was really unworkable,” says Cathy Salser, executive director and founder. “We had seven computers hooked up to one computer but no server. So it was really inefficient.”

The organization then added on 10 iMacs and two Apple servers, as well as switches and Adobe Creative Suite software, MS Office, Quicken and a Filemaker database.

Salser says the most critical lesson they learned was the importance of having two different servers for the database and document sharing functions.

How likely is your company to deploy any (or additional) wireless technology in the next year?

30% Somewhat likely
20% Extremely likely
20% Neutral
20% Not very likely
10% Not at all likely

Source: CDW poll of 576 BizTech readers

“Our database is the heart of the knowledge of our organization, and it’s constantly being accessed by eight full-time staff as well as volunteers, so it’s important that it’s not on a shared server with all the other documents and applications.”

Determine traffic patterns. Michael Hall, director of PC engineering at DriveSavers Data Recovery in Novato, Calif., says if you’re planning a new network, the best way to start is by determining which type of traffic pattern you’re going to have internally and designing the network to accommodate that.

“If you’re generating a great deal of information that needs to pass through the network on a daily basis, it’s a good idea to set up a centralized server to handle that and make sure the server is very robust with a tremendous amount of storage,” he says. Hall also recommends that SMBs consider fiber for greater throughput because speed, efficiency and safety are paramount.

Have a backup plan. Hall also recommends implementing a backup procedure and testing it regularly. “Often what happens is that small businesses hire a consultant to set it up, and then they start backing up. But once the process gets started, they never check it,” he says.

“They never try to restore it to an alternate form of media and verify the integrity of the data set itself.” He says it’s very important to test the backup system regularly to make sure that you can restore the data on another form of media.

Conduct a site audit. Michael Speyer, a Forrester Research consultant, recommends a site audit of the office space where you’ll set up the network. If you’re moving into a new office, you need to find out if there is existing infrastructure. Check to see if there are wiring and patch panels, if you are inheriting a phone system, or if you have to build everything from scratch. If you’re moving into an existing infrastructure, you’ll need to consider which upgrades might be required and whether your new network will be wired or wireless.

Get a top-tier ISP. Ben Gray, IT director at Palm Beach Tan in Farmers Branch, Texas, recommends going with a top-tier Internet service provider instead of the least expensive DSL provider.

“We don’t have control over what our franchise retail stores choose, so often they pick the lowest-cost providers,” Gray explains, adding that this leads to connectivity problems.

When you call one of the lower-cost providers for help, Gray says, you get the same tech support that home users get because most low-end providers aren’t set up to support businesses. “They don’t care that you’re losing money because your network is down,” he concludes.

Michael O’Brien

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