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How To Set Up A Small Office Computer Network

Getting all of your computers hooked up in your small or home office can be easy, affordable, and effective. Before you call in your IT person to help you out here are the things you want to think about so you can give him or her some direction.

Wired or Wireless

Working wirelessly on the small office network

Ten years ago, perhaps even five, we would have recommended wiring the place up: running ‘Cat5’ or ‘Cat6’ cables through the walls. Not so now. With the latest Wireless-N Wi-Fi systems giving great speed and coverage over a wider area you might want to save the cost and effort of cabling. For general web browsing, email, copying of documents and spreadsheets, and working on your typical business management software, you shouldn’t have any reason to doubt wireless performance. If your small office isn’t so small after all, wireless repeaters and boosters are available and are relatively cheap at less than $100.

Where you might want to remain wired is when:

  • Your office already is cabled up, and all you need to do is plug in a network switch, or
  • You work on large documents and need to copy these around regularly: such as large raw images from cameras, video files, and large databases, or
  • Your IT guy has issues about Wi-Fi security or other technical restrictions. Take note: IT guys are often very busy so if they are recommending something it probably means they are trying to save more work and headaches for both yourself and themselves down the track.

Data Storage

A ‘NAS’ or ‘Network Attached Storage’ is a great idea for storing files centrally. A NAS is a small box, connected to the computer network, that contains hard disks inside (at least 1, but often 2 or more: creating redundancy in case one disk dies). If you have a server (such as a Microsoft Small Business Server) you might already have ‘shared drives’ set up, which we can think of the equivalent of a NAS. If not, you can purchase a NAS for a couple of hundred dollars, plus a hundred or two more for some large disks, and be able to store everyone’s files centrally. All NASs come with various security options to restrict people to only the folders they need to work in.

We highly recommend a NAS over storing files on personal computers and laptops. They let people share documents far more easily, ensures that there is the ‘master’ copy of any one file centrally stored, and makes backups a breeze.

Printing

Printers these days often come with wireless capabilities, giving you freedom to place them anywhere in the office where you can find a power point. Even if you don’t need a wireless printer we would highly recommend getting a network enabled printer (also known as an ‘IP Printer’ or a printer with a ’10/100 interface’). A network enabled printer lets you plug it in to one of those blue network cables directly, and avoid the need to connect it to a turned-on computer for staff to print.

Small and home offices might get away with a single multi-function centre that does printing, scanning, copying, and faxing. Just make sure you purchase a reputable brand and, where possible, get it serviced regularly. It hurts when the printer starts playing up and there is no alternative in the office for staff to print to.

Also look at the ‘duty cycle’ quoted in the product literature, which states the maximum recommended number of pages to print a month. Realistically you would divide by three or four to get the ‘actual’ duty cycle: manufactures are unfortunately very optimistic about how much load their printers can handle!

Telephones

Internet telephony (also known as ‘VoIP’) is increasing in popularity thanks to more affordable systems, cheap phone calls, and better internet connections from your office to your service provider. If you have a good internet connection, and your internet or VoIP provider is willing to guarantee that for telephony purposes, you might want to consider going for a VoIP system instead of the usual PBX.

VoIP will save you a lot on phone call charges, and give you greater flexibility such as being able to connect a headset in to a computer and avoid the need for a dedicated telephone handset. There are cordless phones that are VoIP enabled as well. For many small offices VoIP will also eliminate the need to call in a specialised telephone technician, since many IT people have enough knowledge to set up a VoIP system themselves.

Just be aware of the limitations with VoIP before you dive in:

  • If your internet connection is not that fast, or you have limited bandwidth or downloads, you might struggle to maintain call quality
  • Setting up VoIP phones requires a bit of technical knowledge, and nowhere near as easy as just plugging a cable in to a wall when you want to move phones around the office
  • If your internet goes down, or power, so will your phone system. You probably still want to have one or two analogue phone lines (‘PSTN lines’), or cell phones, for such downtime, and for making emergency calls.

Central point of control

Finally, get all the gear hooked up in one place: your internet modems, telephone system, server computers, NAS, etc. If you have a small room, or closet, or even just a free desk that is ideal. Having all the gear in one place makes it much easier to connect everything up and diagnose faults when they occur.

 

Setting up your computer network for a small office takes a small amount of planning but is important in today’s connected world. You just don’t want to be messing about once furniture and computers are in, and people have work to do. Invest a the time (and possibly a little expense) now to save a lot in redesigning it later.

For more ideas check out our articles listing for other great tips and tricks to make your small or home office more productive.