WOOF! Newsletter

February 02, 2012

What Connects Your Office? A Primer on IT Communications Hardware

It's easy to overspend on communications hardware if you don't know the ins and outs. These are the technologies that bring the Internet to your office, and make communication within the office possible.

When you click "Send" on an email, do you know how it gets where it's going?

There's a whole layer to the modern office most people don't think about: the cables & connection types that connect you to the Internet. And, the Internet to your PC.

Several newer clients asked us what kinds of communications hardware we'd recommend. They didn't want to overspend on bandwidth, or build their network without enough growth potential (good thinking, from both angles).

This month's WOOF will give them – and you – a primer on the types of communications lines used in businesses today.

Internet Line Types (From the World to Your Office)

Every office network needs an Internet connection. What kind of line you use determines how fast you access the Web. These are the most common line types used to connect to the Internet today.

ISDN – An older standard for always-on Internet connections via phone lines. It's rarely used nowadays (if you're on ISDN, you've way overdue for an upgrade!).
Speed: 64Kbps—128kbps

DSL/Cable – DSL uses phone lines for high-speed Internet connections. Cable uses coaxial (copper) cables, similar to lines used for cable TV.
Speed: 0.75Mbit/s—9 Mbit/s (DSL) or 20Mbit/s (Cable)

T1/T3 – A dedicated connection, leased from a telecom company or ISP. T1s and T3s use multiple channels to speed up Internet access: 24 channels on T1, 672 on T3. They're typically used by businesses or ISPs.
Speed: 1.544Mbit/s (T1), 43-45Mbit/s (T3)

Fiber – Fiber-optic lines transmit data through thin glass cables. Fiber acts like the Web's spine, since it can connect servers over long distances. Fiber will connect to copper lines (Comcast and AT&T U-Verse do this) and to Ethernet (for most business Internet connections).
Speed: 12 Mbit/s—50 Mbit/s

  • Fiber-optic lines use a standard called "OC" to measure their bandwidth. OC-1, for instance, rates a fiber connection at 51.84Mbit/s.
  • We upgraded the PlanetMagpie data center to an OC-12 connection in late 2010. Ethernet lines run from it to our network and our customers.

Connection Types (Around the Office)

What would those Ethernet lines do? They form a LAN, a local network, to share the Internet connection between computers. All offices run on a LAN or WAN (wide area network).

There are two parts to consider when we're talking LAN hardware: The physical LAN connections in your office, and the WAN protocols used to communicate with other offices.

LAN Connections

Ethernet – The communication standard for most offices today. It governs communication between the servers and individual computers. Chances are your Internet comes through an Ethernet cable running to an Ethernet port in your network's server room. Most offices use either 100Mbit/s Standard Ethernet, or 1Gbit/s Gigabit Ethernet.

Wireless – You might think a "wireless network" replaces Ethernet. It doesn't; it's an add-on to Ethernet networks. Wireless connections are broadcast via radio waves, from the same routers that handle Ethernet & separate devices called access points. Wireless connection speeds range from 11Mbit/s (Wireless-B) to 300Mbit/s (Wireless-N).

  • NOTE: Consumer-level Wireless Access Points aren't fast enough for corporate use. Companies like Juniper Networks, Extreme Networks and Cisco make access points that, while more costly per unit, are designed for business speeds and better coverage. They also reduce consulting costs, by staying secure & stable.

WAN Connection Protocols

These are mechanisms encapsulated by the network connection. They expand on the "internal" network by connecting different locations together.

SIP – Session Initiation Protocol. SIP creates voice and video communication sessions over the Internet. This is what powers Voice over IP (like in Lync Server), video conferences, even some online games.

VPN – Virtual Private Network. VPNs use the Internet to provide local network resources (for example, server access) to people in remote locations. It's popular, but security must be in place to prevent unwanted break-ins.

VPLS – Stands for "Virtual Private LAN Service." It enables separate locations to operate like they're all on the same network. It's a step above VPN, because it can link several large locations together, by leasing segments of a large Internet pipe.

MPLS – MPLS is a step above VPLS. Like VPLS, it connects several big offices to the same network. But MPLS is a dedicated pipe; your company is the only one using it. It's ideal for running fast enterprise-level VPNs.

Why Should I Know All This?

Knowing the pieces of the network puzzle helps you build a better one.
At some point your network will have to change. Either a breakdown occurs, or you need to grow. When this comes up, remember:

  1. Don't under-buy for communications. A network has to handle internal traffic, Internet, AND break-in attempts by hackers. (An IT consultant will help you build future growth into your existing network.)

  2. On the same token, avoid over-buying! It's easy to overspend if you aren't careful: too much bandwidth, too many servers.

  3. Walk into contracts prepared. Internet provider salespeople are there for the sale; they'll lock you into an expensive contract if you aren't aware of the options.

  4. (Note: Many Internet provider contracts automatically renew without notice. Check yours. This can trap you for years if you're not careful!)

  5. Instead of dealing with Internet providers directly, work with an IT consultant. Your IT consultant should be agnostic in terms of providers and not recommend a single provider. Your IT consultant can help you obtain bids, meet with the providers, and make sure you get what you need. The cost of the consultant is small compared to the cost of the contract you’re negotiating.

  6. Refer to this primer beforehand, so you'll have an idea of what to ask for!