WOOF! Newsletter

February 06, 2013

Is It Time to Upgrade Your Network? – Part 1: Things to Think About

Slow Internet speeds? Dropped connections? Errors popping up on workstations? Your network is showing signs of age. In this WOOF! Bill Wester, a 20-year networking expert, talks network hardware & upgrades to think about.
By Bill Wester, Networking Consultant

In today’s world, your network is a major portion of your life. It is the lifeline of your business, and possibly a big part of your personal life.

If a network is not in top shape, you open yourself to security risks and you lose out on speed, a good user experience, working on the go, and other capabilities.

Unfortunately, many of us just take the network for granted. Until it breaks down.

Your Network Connects Everything. Is it Still Able to Handle Everything?

From cloud-enabled file servers to ERP/CRM applications to email to websites, the network connects every aspect of your work. You access it via Ethernet or wireless, using cellular technologies like 4G or LTE, in the office or at the coffee shop. These connections take you to a server physically connected to high-speed network access.

Everything you touch travels across a network.

This is why it’s vital that YOUR network stays up to date. An up-to-date network gives you and your work life the best experience possible. An aging network gives you slow speeds, security issues, and breakdowns.

There are several areas you can focus on to help your user experience be the best it can be. I’ll discuss them in a series of articles, starting here. This is Part 1, “Things to Think About” regarding your network’s current state.

Are you missing out on better work performance due to an aging network? This article will help you determine that.

A. Speed: Which is Faster, Your Home Internet or Work Internet?

Speed is the key to a fantastic user experience. Nobody wants to wait to download files, or a new app on our smart phones. We need information now, so we can take actions quickly and make the right decisions.

To that end, how fast is your network connectivity to your office? Is it faster than at home? If it isn’t, then you need a faster connection at work. High-Speed Internet Technology has moved forward dramatically in the last 5 years.

DSL used to be a fast link. So was an expensive T1 circuit, at 1.5Mbits/sec. In today’s world this is very slow. Most of us have an option for our homes to have cable TV connectivity – and the performance of cable modems is light years ahead of a T1 line. DSL is also much faster now, commonly operating at 6Mbits/sec. But cable can be even faster… up to 20 or 50 Mbits/sec!

This same technology is now available for business locations. And you should be asking yourself, how fast is my office connected? Could I upgrade my office to a very high-speed connection, above 10Mbits/sec, cable or otherwise?

Faster speeds make a dramatic difference in your user experience, since most things today are hosted in data centers on the internet backbone (the cloud). Talk to us about the internet options available for your office location.

The Internet connection is not the only determinant of speed in your network, though. Usually there’s a firewall, switches and wireless access points too. Each component must be checked for performance issues.

B. Use Business-Grade Network Hardware for Business Environments

Are you using business-class network hardware, or consumer-grade devices?

Every business has to weigh the costs of high-tech devices vs. the return they offer. Many times, we may recommend a more expensive device than you can purchase at your local electronics store. The reason is that these devices are "business class" – meaning that they are not designed for consumers, but for businesses that require high availability and extensibility to compete.

You may think, “Well, the ‘DLink’ or ‘Netgear’ router I use at home works just fine for me. Why not use that at my office?”

It is important to understand that these consumer-grade devices are low cost for a reason: They are not built to scale to enterprise levels. They are only meant to support a very small number of devices and that allows them to have fewer components inside them, lowering the cost.

For example, an access point for home Internet use may have 16mb of RAM and 1 wireless radio – enough to support 10 computers. A business-class access point may have 512mb of RAM and 2 wireless radios – enough to support a max of 512 computers!

Further, consumer-grade network devices are designed to run for 1 year before warranties start to expire…and breakdowns start to occur. Business-grade devices are designed to run for much longer, up to 3 years at full capacity.

This is a key differentiator between the devices we currently use in business networks (at your office) vs. the consumer grade components you can find at Best Buy or Fry’s. Scalability, performance and reliability are the key to a network that provides a great user experience every time. And you never have to power-cycle it to get it to work!

C. Configure Network Switches & APs for Maximum Performance (or Get Stuck Behind Bottlenecks)

Switches connect users’ wired connections to the network. They are key components, in that they provide the connectivity between the devices and the users. They also provide power (power over Ethernet) and connectivity for devices like phones and Wi-Fi access points (APs).

The AP is another key component of a great user experience. Older access points use the first generation of wireless technology, called 802.11b. This technology operated at 10Mbits/sec, and often became clogged by too much traffic. New standards available today push Wi-Fi connectivity to a new performance level of up to 300Mbits/sec! Access points at these speeds (called 802.11n) allow for connections to the network up to 30 times faster!

Switches have moved on as well. Five years ago, the fastest switch technology available was 100Mbit Ethernet. Operating at, you guessed it, 100Mbits/sec. Today most switches offer 1Gbit/sec connectivity. Some even offer 10Gbit or 40Gbit/sec.

This would allow for a much, much faster connection to the internet and to your servers. The greater scale practically eliminates bottlenecks, and your new laptop can work at maximum speed all day long.

D. Is Your Firewall Helping Your Network Experience, or Blocking It?

Firewalls have also moved light years ahead in the last few years. In the past, firewalls were complex devices that used software to do most of the "heavy lifting" and were a slow bottleneck in the network.

Today that has changed so much. The firewalls we use can handle multiple hundreds of megabits per second, and also can handle many more sessions than the old firewalls. This allows your network to take advantage of the high-speed connectivity offered by modern switches and high-speed Internet, while still keeping your network secure from threats on the big bad internet.

A truly great user experience means you should never even know a firewall exists in your network.

E. Network Connectivity: How Fast Can You Access Data?

Connectivity is another key area that has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. We can now offer site-to-site VPN connectivity from firewall to firewall, allowing you to have a presence in multiple locations. And hard VPN's from site to site, meaning you can now access your data at the other offices without using a VPN client on your laptop or smartphone. Or even have a VPN from your home directly to your work/office network for the ultimate in connectivity. All at a reasonable cost.

If you need even more connectivity power, many carriers today offer MPLS connections between your offices. MPLS is a "provider VPN" technology, allowing your offices to connect without using a firewall to create a VPN. This provides a very fast, cost-friendly user experience, and eliminates the need to create complex VPN networks.

Time to Upgrade? 6 Questions to Help You Decide

You be the judge. Ask yourself these questions:
  1. Is my wireless connection as fast as my wired connection? Is Internet access slow on my tablet/smartphone? (If you’re not sure, try using www.speedtest.net)

  2. Is my home network connection faster than my work connection? (www.speedtest.net again)

  3. Would it be easier to do my job if I had VPN connections to different offices, or to my datacenter?

  4. Are my switches more than 3 years old? Are they out of warranty?

  5. Are my firewalls more than 3 years old? Are they out of warranty? Would a checkup make sense?

  6. Have we experienced a security breach or serious network attack in the past year?

Thinking About Upgrading Your Network? Call Us for a Consultation

Take a hard look at your network and see if it is currently meeting your business needs. If you feel it is not, then maybe it’s time for a network discussion with PlanetMagpie.

This is Part 1 of our “Upgrading Your Network” content series. Make sure to subscribe to our mailing list to be notified when Part 2, “Things You Need to Know” is published.

Bill Wester is a 20-year networking expert. He’s worked for major Silicon Valley companies like Extreme Networks and Sun Microsystems. Currently he works with PlanetMagpie as a Networking Consultant, architecting networks, upgrading Internet connections, and improving network security. Bill received his B.S. in Computer Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and his Executive MBA from the University of California at Berkeley, Haas Business School/Columbia University. He can be reached at 408-341-8770 or ITconsulting@planetmagpie.com.