With all of the advances on the internet, any business that can’t use its web services can’t do very much and is seriously limited in its productivity. Whether you need to email appointment confirmations or process credit cards, if you can’t connect, your business productivity will lose all momentum. Small business owners are in a unique position when it comes to connectivity solutions: they need more reliability than a standard home router will afford, but they probably can’t afford Cisco’s enterprise solutions. Let’s look at some mid-range networking solutions for small and medium businesses.
When I started Nerds On Call in 2004, I ran the call center out of a spare room in our home. Our budget was tight so we used our home DSL connection and an off-the-shelf 4-port D-Link wireless router to maintain everything from the customer database to appointment scheduling and webpage. It was a terrible headache – every time the signal dropped (which was more often than it should have been), all of our systems would get disconnected. Try being in the middle of entering a customer’s information or updating something and boom! Everything would be lost and we’d have to start over.
Fortunately, we were soon able to move to our first “real” office later that year; we were able to set up a network that was significantly more reliable. First, we bought a Sonicwall router. Sonicwall, which was recently purchased by Dell, offers a number of networking solutions for small- and medium-size businesses. They range from around $400 for entry-level routers to $2,000 plus for units that support a greater number of users and incorporate more security.
Sonicwall is better from traditional firewall routers in that it offers integrated anti-virus and anti-malware software and the ability to use the device to control content access. This means that instead of depending on your employees to police their own behavior or installing anti-virus solutions on each computer, you can use the hardware firewall to filter adult content, online games, or suspicious attachments. This security also covers VPN access, which is very important for businesses that allow customers or employees to access the internet through their business network.
Sonicwall also offers multiple levels of reliability. Their beginning router, the TZ 100 Wireless-N (about $380) has an automated failover system to divert traffic when needed over redundant connections so your network access isn’t interrupted. No more putting your whole business operation on hold when you need to power-cycle your modem.
With Sonicwall having such a huge range of options, consider talking to a computer or network professional to help decide which version is best for your business. A lot of Sonicwall products cost an additional monthly or annual fee to keep phone support, VPN access, and the aforementioned anti-virus services running. While I think that they offer the best solutions for small- and medium-size businesses, you should definitely research the costs to maintain the features you need, as with any business expense. Sonicwall devices are also complicated to configure so you might want to budget for professional installation.
We ended up running cable everywhere in our office so that as many systems as possible can be hard-wired to the router. While Sonicwall controls access to the network, my experience is that the more parts that compose a system, the harder it is to keep it running straight. A wireless connection requires not only a wireless router but wireless adapters on each of the computers using it, which greatly increases network complexity. Ethernet allows for the greatest amount of stability on the network.