The networking needs of small and midsized businesses (SMBs) are not radically different from those of larger companies. Instead, the distinctions come in the scale of their requirements and the resulting cost.
Companies of all sizes want to share information and printers, as well as be able to handle voice, data and Internet hookups from the same basic infrastructure. Rather than having a network of hundreds of PCs, however, SMBs might need a few dozen -- at least initially. Also, most smaller companies don't have network specialists on staff, so the network might be configured by the office manager, the chief financial officer or an outside consultant who does the initial installation and perhaps the ongoing maintenance, too.
That was the case at Americana Community Bank, a 100-year-old business in Chanhassen, Minn.
In 1999, when the bank went shopping for a network, it could not share files, and it didn't even have voice mail or e-mail. The bank's technology manager, who doubled as the compliance officer, approached a local technology consultancy to help find networking gear. The consultant then engaged a local technology reseller, HickoryTech, and together the three constituencies selected Nortel Network Corp.'s Business Communications Manager as the platform to handle data and voice, with the added benefit of IP telephony.
Today, the bank has 62 PCs connected on the network in five locations statewide, according to Sam Bauman, Americana's new IT director. There's a router at each office and those connect via a switch to the PCs. Another difference is that Bauman is the full-time IT director, charged with handling help-desk, maintenance and infrastructure issues. HickoryTech is still running the Nortel system.
"We're happy, and we're pretty much stable," Bauman said about the network. No major additions or changes are planned for any time soon.
Americana's setup is typical for a company with fewer than 500 employees, said Maribel Lopez, vice president at Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass. Lopez said SMBs have a wide range of technical capability and budget requirements. While the networking requirements of medium-sized companies approach those of larger firms, out of the roughly 23 million businesses that comprise the SMB segment the overwhelming majority have fewer than 100 employees.
But whatever their size, most SMB networks include switches, routers and a network interface card for each PC that needs to be connected. This can be in a wireless or wired environment, depending on the company's needs. Also, a firewall is essential for security.
Because they often don't have full-time network administrators, SMBs typically buy well-made gear that will stand up to wear and tear but isn't overly complex. In this way, the equipment is more like home-networking gear -- it works, but doesn't have "a million features that they don't need and don't want to pay for," Lopez explained.
Some networking vendors have put together hardware and software bundles, including installation and service, geared specifically for SMBs. Major vendors include 3Com Corp., Nortel and Cisco Systems Inc. Up-and-comers include Dell Inc. -- the major PC supplier to SMBs that's now partnering with other vendors to sell networking gear -- and Hewlett-Packard Co., which is catering more to the SMB crowd after acquiring Compaq Computer Corp.
Lopez said, "Vendors are realizing that they can't just provide something that's lame -- they need a functional [networking] product that's just easier to install and manage."
Payment, structural options
Another key differentiator for an SMB might be a leasing arrangement, Lopez said. Customers generally do not own the equipment at the end of a lease term, but in an outright purchase they do. Then again, a lease allows buyers to upgrade the equipment at or near the end of the term -- for an additional fee, of course. Although leasing is more flexible in many respects, customers have no equity in their own IT gear.
"Maybe I don't have $5,000 to spend on networking right now," Lopez said. "But if I have a lease program with monthly payments, I can then roll out a new network infrastructure for a lot less capital outlay."
Finally, a key design criterion for SMBs' networks is modularity. "It's not hard, it just requires more foresight," Lopez said. "So you buy a product that's scalable from five users to 50. Then maybe you put a few of these together to be able to get to 200 users. It's the notion of future-proofing your network."
Another way of being modular is through software. Some vendors allow businesses to buy, say, their five most-needed software features. As the business grows and their requirements change, they may get the next five features for a relatively small fee.
Around 25% of all SMBs are opting for Voice over Internet Protocol, a way of handling both telephone and Web access over the same set of wires, Lopez said. The ability to add and move phones and workstations easily -- accomplished through software, as well as by adding more physical connections -- is also critical for most companies. But not everyone may need advanced teleconferencing or complex management software right away.
Overall, most SMBs are focused on growing their business, and they should buy the technology to keep up with that growth.
"You invest in stuff when you can afford it and make sure you're not buying a Cadillac when all you need is a Ford Escort," said Jeff Batton, director of marketing and interim chief financial officer at Printing for Less, an on-demand printing services firm with 95 employees.
Based in Livingston, Mont., Printing for Less has seen its business go entirely online since it was founded in 1996. In addition to working with a service provider that makes sure its Web site remains functional around-the-clock, it now has redundant servers and other gear to ensure that the IT systems needed to complete a customer's job never go down.
"We're now fully redundant," Batton said. "I'd say we're world-class, but not cutting-edge. We want to make sure we're not falling behind, but at the same time we want to be sane about our investment."