What you need to know about SMB network infrastructure upgrades

Many organizations are cautious when investing in anything new — especially technology. Familiarity often leads companies to stick with what they know or have always used. Holding on to the past, however, can be costly. Stepping out of your comfort zone is crucial if you want your IT department, and your organization as a whole, to stay competitive in today’s business world.

One of the most common changes organizations make in their IT infrastructure is an upgrade of their network infrastructure. While a complete overhaul is no easy feat, the benefits are often worth the investment, increasing both efficiencies and capabilities within the IT department.

In most cases, there are two reasons why organizations decide to upgrade or overhaul their network infrastructure:

1. The business is expanding. Many businesses start small, both in numbers and in budget, and purchase basic IT equipment in the beginning to get off the ground. As they begin to expand, they realize their current network no longer fully supports their evolving needs.

2. The need to consolidate space and data. Whether an organization is downsizing or just trying to cut costs, virtualization is often a critical step in the consolidation process. Virtualization, however, drives significant increases in IT network traffic, and many organizations lack the network capacity to support virtualization. As a result, they have to upgrade their network infrastructure before implementing newer technologies like desktop or server virtualization.

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Not all IT budgets are capable of absorbing the cost for such an upgrade. Understanding your budget and network needs is critical before moving forward. Establishing expectations up front enables businesses to determine what they can actually afford and prioritize accordingly. No matter your business’s situation, consider the following best practices before you make the move.

Networking

Establishing and maintaining reliable connections is critical to the success of any business. While some may opt for wireless over cabling due to purchase and installation cost advantages, it is not always the best solution. A wireless router can be an easy fix, but its total bandwidth is limited, making it unreliable for organizations that require high bandwidth.

Ideally, organizations would either use Ethernet or wire the network through their data center. For those who want to stick with wireless, investing in 802.11n routers is the best option, because this standard allows for more throughput than the older 802.11b or 802.11g standards. 802.11n is intrinsically faster and it works on two different frequencies, enabling greater throughput when used efficiently.

Most businesses reach a point when they need to move their computing technology to the next level. Whether that means upgrading the internal network or investing in a larger Internet pipeline, procuring the right level of Internet service for growing businesses is essential. Keep in mind that growing businesses will likely require more bandwidth and a more comprehensive network to account for increased network traffic.

New businesses often invest in a 24- or 48-port switch in the beginning and, as they grow, add more switches. This leads to an accumulation of switches that provide no visibility into network traffic. While it’s fine to operate the system like this when an organization has few users, those multiple switches become unmanageable as users increase. By upgrading to a switching structure that allows for greater control and visibility, businesses can take advantage of more useful features and capabilities, including the ability to log into one switch and manage the whole system remotely from a central console.

Similar to other upgrades, it is important for businesses to consider multiple avenues before committing. Businesses looking to upgrade their Internet service, for example, should examine all available options before investing in a T1 line or upgrading through their current Internet service provider (ISP). Today, there are a number of alternatives, such as metro Ethernet.

More and more communities are building metro Ethernets as economic development initiatives, because they lower the cost of high speed Internet access to growing businesses. So don’t assume that, simply because a business is in a smaller community, metro Ethernet services won’t be available. Even geographically remote areas are developing these capabilities.

One thing to consider with metro Ethernet is that organizations will need a router that can handle the input, often costing them over $10,000 if they want to obtain a gigabit connection (see “The push is on to cut 100G Ethernet’s price”). However, smaller, less expensive routers may be practical if your organization is not using the Ethernet connection to its full potential.

Another investment worth considering is Power over Ethernet (PoE). PoE no longer costs as much as it used to, so it may be worth factoring into a budget as well. If you anticipate eventually investing in wireless networks, Internet protocol (IP) phones, wireless access points or routers with security features, it’s better to upgrade to PoE sooner rather than later so that it’s in place when you’re ready to make those upgrades.

Server/storage

Virtualization is a key factor to consider during an upgrade or overhaul. When an organization virtualizes, the data center’s bandwidth requirements expand. Though virtualization can have an immediately positive and measurable impact on overall efficiency, it may also require extensive network upgrades to work well. So before taking the leap into the virtual world, consider the actual needs.

If your organization does decide to go virtual, look at upgrading your switches to as much as 10 gigabits. If you are only considering virtualizing a few blade servers, then a 24- or 48-port gigabit switch should suffice. While it may initially seem like a hassle to upgrade the network, it will keep your organization competitive and ultimately save money.

Business continuity/disaster recovery (BC/DR)

If most of an organization’s business occurs over the Internet, maintaining an Internet connection is crucial. By having multiple Internet connections available, a business reduces its risk of complete network outages. If being down for as few as 30 minutes affects the bottom line, consider investing in multiple ISP connections.

To further guarantee your organization stays connected, invest in a backup modem. If you lose your main connection, a backup modem ensures alternate connectivity. Many newer routers include backup capabilities for business continuity or disaster recovery purposes; While it may be slower than the primary Internet connection, it is an inexpensive way to secure backup and get through an emergency. Before investing in a backup modem, however, consider network requirements. For organizations running primarily on 10 gigabits, for example, a three gigabit modem should suffice.

Another option to consider is WAN optimization, which is critical if an organization needs to maintain a 100% Ethernet connection. WAN helps ensure that an organization maintains its connection, while increasing efficiency, eliminating redundancies and prioritizing data. While WAN is slightly more expensive initially than service through an ISP, it ends up paying for itself in the long term.

Almost all organizations will reach a point when their core starts to weaken and will need to upgrade or rebuild to stay competitive. By considering these tips, your organization will be better prepared to do so. And when making any kind of upgrade, consider speaking with a solutions provider. They can provide in-depth expertise on a wide range of topics and options not available on the back of a box or at a retail store.

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