David Strom

Buying Your First Network?

By David Strom

A small businessperson doesn't have to be left out in the cold when it comes to

networking his or her computers. Contrary to popular belief, networking is not something for

the super skilled, the fanatic fringe, or for a specialized integrator. Most of the process can be

done by normal business people without the need to learn a new language and new skills. 

In many cases the decisions to network a small (say, under $1 million in annual sales)

business are easier: setting corporate standards doesn't require satisfying stakeholders in

multiple departments, purchase authority is clearer, and the needs of the work group and the

corporation are one and the same. 

Most networks are small (less than 50 nodes per file server) anyway: this is partly a function

of history, when file servers couldn't handle more nodes, and partly a function of how

important small work groups are in the purchase decision. Indeed, Novell's most popular sizes

of server software are less than 50 nodes per server.

Given this encouragement, here are ten questions to answer before you decide to take the

plunge into networking. We assume you've already got some computers running some part of

your business already. 

1. What's the business benefit? Is networking going to get your receivables down? Cut

inventory? Improve profits? Improve customer relations? Reduce response time? That's the

carrot that lots of high-priced consultants would dangle in front of you, but examine it

carefully. Sure, many of these benefits are hard to quantify, but if you can't find one business

process that benefits from networking, then skip this article: you are fine with whatever

computing gear you've already got. 

Examine these claims not as a technologist, but as a business person. Perhaps the best method

is for you to put on your consultant's hat and take a careful look at your business processes.

2. What's the purpose of networking, anyway? Most people want to share something amongst

their complement of computers: files, printers, modems, whatever. But is this sharing going to

work, or just something that you and the CEO have cooked up? Does your staff see the

benefits of sharing this gear, or does everyone already have their own printer and modem and

think they are doing just fine?  

There are several motivations for networking besides sharing computing resources: backup,

communications, and data access. Of these three, backup looms largest.  "People buy a

network just for backup, especially our law firm clients" said David Horowitz, a principle

with Landmark Data Systems, Inc., a New York City-based network integrator (212 685 4800

x 202). "Backup really is the best reason for a network, even better than printer sharing," said

Dwight Scott Miller, network manager for Kent Moore Cabinets, Inc. of Bryan Texas

(409-775-2906). "I consider it a hanging offense to put company data anywhere except on the

server without permission in advance. Then I backup the server twice, taking one copy


3. Does it really pay? Now that you know your benefits, start to look at the costs. But here

you'll have to investigate the actual technologies involved. For example, let's look at one of

the most-often mentioned benefits of networking: sharing expensive laser printers. However,

printers come in all shapes and sizes, from $800 to $8,000. Deciding on which is the right

one for you or which one hooks up to your network is not simple. So put technology aside

for a moment, and approach the situation from pure economics: 

Does it make sense to invest $10,000 in various network gear to share a $1,000 laser printer?

Not from this description. "If all anyone wants to do is to share printers, get a $200 switch

box and you've solved the problem," said Horowitz. Does it make sense to invest $15,000 in

various network gear to share a more expensive laser printer, because the $1,000 models can't

hold enough paper to last more than 15 minutes and don't have multiple bins to hold

envelopes or letterhead? Maybe, depending on how much you value the time of your staff

going to the printer, and how easy the printer is to incorporate on your network. Can't really

evaluate these technologies? Stick with the cheapest HP printers you can find and do some

live research: you'll find out what works, and what is needed, without having to hire a

consultant or buy gear that won't fit later on.

However, it might be difficult to quantify everything, such as the cost of software piracy and

its associated legal liabilities. "Companies should think carefully about prevention of and

monitoring piracy," says Jonathan Ezor, an attorney with Kramer, Levin, Naftalis in New

York City (212 715 9365). Ezor recommends being explicit about other legal matters, such as

the right to monitor electronic mail conversations and the contents of individuals' hard disks. 

4. Which type of network is right: peer to peer or central server? A peer to peer network

means that anyone and everyone can become a file server whenever they feel like it. "It is so

flexible, you can apply your own structure to it," says Steve Anner, a computer systems

consultant to Mayes & Associates, an accounting systems consultancy in Chattanooga, Tenn.

(615 629 4022). However, this flexibility has its price: namely, support. For example, what

happens if Sid the server goes on vacation for a week? If he turns his computer off and locks

his office, you don't have his server available. 

If you have relatively simple file and printer-sharing needs, want to get started with

networking with a minimal investment of gear and expertise, and already have purchased a

mixture of PCs running DOS and Windows, then check out products such as Artisoft's

Lantastic or Novell's Personal NetWare. 

If you have the luxury of having 100% of your PCs running Windows and each PC is using

100% Windows applications, move up to Microsoft's Windows for Workgroups software,

which has the peer to peer networking services built-in. While Workgroups works with a

mixture of Windows and straight DOS nodes, it isn't as easy as with Lantastic or Personal

NetWare. "If you have a DOS application that you want to share over the network, forget

about using Workgroups," says Landmark's Horowitz.

And if you have only Macintoshes, you already have all you need with the software that

comes with System 7 to run a simple peer to peer network. "An all-Apple collection should

stay that way, if possible," says Kent Moore Cabinets' Miller.

But if you think the following situations will happen in your corporation, then stay away from

peer to peer networks and go straight for a central server: 

-- You have any branch offices or your staff travels frequently, 

-- You really want to keep critical corporate data in one place and make sure that it is secure

and backed up every night,

-- You want to make use of client/server databases,

-- You want to share large graphics files over the network, 

-- You have a mixture of Macs, Unix workstations and PCs,

-- You have more than 35 machines.

Remember, these are just general rules of thumb. There's lots of room for variation. Some

advocates of peer networks, such as Mayes & Associates' Anner, actually run them configured

as central server-based networks and have fairly sophisticated functions such as modem pools.

"The advantage that is most important to us is ease of use. We didn't use it because we can

make every station a server. In fact, we have limited our network to three servers," said

Mayes & Associates' Anner. 

Others, such as Kent Moore's Miller, " wouldn't use peer to peer networks in any group larger

than behind one door. Geography is the deciding factor here, not group size."

5. What should run on your server: NetWare, Vines, Appleshare, or Unix? Choose Appleshare

if you have only Mac clients on your network and don't plan on ever getting any PCs

connected. Choose Unix if you can get all the networking support you'll need from a vertical

market systems integrator that can supply you with a complete set of applications to run your

business. Whose Unix? It doesn't matter, as long as your integrator supports it and you trust

that he or she will be around in the long haul (say the next three years). Choose Banyan's

Vines if you want to run a widely-spread out set of branch offices with minimal

administrative staff, and your business depends on these branch offices communicating


Choose NetWare for all other reasons, and especially if you want to mix Macs, Unix

workstations and PCs on the same network or want to run applications that use Btrieve such

as Platinum's accounting software. And choose NetWare 3.11 for most of these applications.

Should you get involved with Novell's latest offering, NetWare 4.0? Not yet. "I'd advise an

existing Novell 3.11 user to go slower with 4.0 than I would a new user," says Miller of Kent

Moore Cabinets. "A tyro wouldn't have to unlearn any bad habits from a prior release." The

4.0 software, which started shipping this past spring, does have lots of compelling reasons:

easier administration tools, a single directory structure not unlike what Vines has had for

several years, and a more secure method to run server-based applications such as databases

and electronic mail. However, it is too new for most small businesses: Novell still hasn't

trained many of its dealers and third-party products will take some time to be converted over.

Better to wait a year until these details are attended to. 


6. How much is a file server going to cost? You need a machine that has enough storage,

memory, processing power, tape backup, and power supply backup. Given that system prices

are dropping faster than the prime rate, go with at least a 486/50 PC or 68030/25 Centris

Macintosh (the numbers refer to the type of processor and the speed that it runs at) and at

least 500 megabytes of disk storage and 16 megabytes of main memory.  With the PC

servers, stick with the name brands: Compaq, Dell, IBM, AST, and Zenith. "If these are too

pricy, then stick with Novell-certified brand names," says Landmark's Horowitz.

You'll also need a tape drive and software (Maynard, Tecmar, and Palindrome are three

leading vendors here) and what is called an uninterruptible power supply (American Power

Conversion and Tripp Lite have very complete lines) to keep power to the computer in the

event of blackouts. Add up all these components together and we are talking about $7,000

total, without including the price of the networking software. 

7. What are your branch offices going to use? No sense designing a network for just

headquarters and then retrofitting the branch office a year later. Build the network with the

branch offices in mind and start off with remote connections as part of your plan, even if you

don't implement them until Phase Two. How will your traveling executives and salespeople

connect to the office when they are on the road? Will they just want to send and receive their

electronic mail or will they actually want everything at their fingertips that they have in the

office? "Bringing remote offices on-line is not trivial," says Kent Moore's Miller.

8. What about your plumbing? Putting new wire in your walls is not cheap, especially if you

inhabit an older building and all you've got is existing telephone-type wiring. "Stay away

from this, older phone cables are not the right thickness and don't have enough twists in it per

inch to be the right cable for your networks," says Horowitz, who has had many jobs fixing

wiring problems in old buildings. "In some cases we've had to recable entire offices." This is

something for a contractor, but make sure your contractor has done your type of network

before. If you have to install new wiring, go with a scheme which requires two pairs of wires

to each desktop.  "If you can put all your computers in one room, go with coax," says Kent

Moore's Miller.

If you are buying new wire, don't scrimp: get the best you can afford, since many networking

problems can be traced to poor wiring jobs. If you are moving into new space, wire every

place up ahead of time: you'll need it eventually. At one company I worked, they decided to

save money and wire up a department at a time. Corporate finance was scheduled for the first

network: but just as soon as the wiring job was done, finance moved down the hall to space

that didn't have any wire. 

9.  Token Ring, Phone-Net or Ethernet?  Choose Phone Net if you have all Macintoshes and

don't ever plan on getting PCs. Choose Token Ring if you want to connect to anything IBM:

mainframes, AS/400, or RS/6000. Choose Ethernet for everything else. If you've followed the

suggestions above for wiring, then you'll want to get what is called the 10BaseT flavor of

Ethernet for your network adapters and hubs. There are other choices for Ethernet, but you

want to steer clear of them unless "you have less than 10 nodes, in which case coax is fine,"

says Landmark's Horowitz. Plan on spending about $50 per node for Phone Net; $250 per

node for Ethernet, and $500 per node for Token Ring. This includes the network adapter and

per-node cost of the hub, but not the cost of wiring the walls.

10. Who runs this network, anyway? Now that you have some idea of what is involved in

getting a network, you'll have to face your most difficult decision: who is in charge? Find the

person with the right mix of skills: someone who is interested in technology yet who has the

right bedside (or deskside) manner to explain things carefully to the masses. "With over 20

nodes, it is almost a given that there must be a career computer jockey in the saddle. Retread

mainframers who have not undergone ossification of the cranium make damned good network

managers," says Kent Moore's Miller. "They have the business expertise as well as the

fascination with the technology that will make your LAN a joy to own instead of a business

blocking headache or a techie-nerd playground."

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David Strom David Strom Port Washington, NY 11050 USA US TEL: 1 (516) 944-3407