What You Need to Know About Networking

By: Alex Lakatos

Because networking is a relatively young science, it borrows language from other disciplines. Many networking terms come from the realm of physical transportation—terms such as bridge, hub, port, routing, and switching. That borrowing is apt. Just as the transportation revolution, and especially the advent of the railroad, was an economic catalyst of the Industrial Age, networks are the economic catalysts of the information age. And just as railroads need a solid infrastructure, so do networks. The foundation technologies of networks are routing and switching.

The BasicsIn its most basic form, a network consists of two pieces of electronic equipment that communicate data back and forth, connected by a third piece of equipment that enables that communication. A printer attached directly to a computer via a parallel or USB cable does not comprise a network; it becomes a network if the printer and computer are both attached to a switch or router. The Internet provided the impetus for most companies to adopt a network infrastructure. Even the smallest businesses need network-enabled Internet connections to send and receive e-mail, advertise and sell products and services online, interact with customers, and connect with suppliers. Moving to a networked environment opens new possibilities, including online business applications and collaboration opportunities. Data security also becomes a central consideration with a network. While switches and routers have evolved and the lines between them may seem blurred, one simple distinction remains: Switches reside within a local-area network (LAN), while routers are needed in a wide-area network (WAN) environment. It's analogous to an old-fashioned office phone: Switching is like dialing a four digit extension to reach someone in your building, while routing is like dialing 9 to get an outside line, and then dialing a seven- or ten-digit phone number.

Systems-Based SolutionsGrowing companies, especially those opening new offices, can opt for integrated foundation solutions that are secure, solid, and compatible with future technologies.

Rather than purchasing separate products for individual functions such as routing, switching, security, and Internet gateways, companies can choose a "systems-based" solution that provides everything a business unit needs to fully and securely connect to the Internet and the company as a whole. A systems-based approach to routing and switching lets all workers, even those at different sites, have the same access to business applications, Internet Protocol (IP) Communications, and videoconferencing as their colleagues at headquarters. Networking solutions for satellite offices tend to be modular in nature, allowing you to install just the features you need for a particular office. Modularity also enables you to upgrade equipment (rather than replace it altogether) when needs change or an office expands. An added benefit of this systems-based approach is that technical staff at headquarters can centrally manage the network, which keeps staffing counts low while providing reliable service to employees in all locations.

What to Watch ForSeveral trends in routing and switching are of particular interest to SMBs:

• Increasing need for Internet connections: Fully 70 percent of North American SMBs were planning to increase Internet connectivity and bandwidth during the next year, according to an April 2004 Forrester report.

• Improvements in routing and switching gear: For example, switches with in-line power, which allow placement of wireless LAN access points and IP phones anywhere there's a network jack, without external power.

• Managed networking technologies (especially switches): A managed switch allows the user or administrator can access it, usually via the network itself, to adjust or monitor its operation.

Bottom-Line BenefitsRouting and switching technologies can have a positive impact on your company's financial outlook. The Net Impact Study 2003, sponsored by Cisco Systems and conducted by Momentum Research Group found that companies that combined sophisticated network infrastructures with network-based business applications, and were willing to reengineer their business practices to take best advantage of the technology and actively measure the results, reduced their annual operating costs by more than 20 percent. What's more, they measured a 20 to 25 percent increase in customer satisfaction. Making informed purchase decisions about networking technologies can also save money in the long term. For example having a network that can support advanced technologies such as IP communications can deliver savings to SMBs in several areas:

• You can install a single network for both voice and data.

• You need to purchase and maintain only one set of equipment.

• You can reduce or eliminate toll charges between network sites

What To Do Next Chances are good that you already have some networking technologies in place. The next step, then is to determine whether you have the right foundation for your company’s needs, both today and in the future. What you plan to do with the your network should drive your equipment purchase decisions. For example if you intend to run IP telephonyBusiness Management Articles, you need to buy routing and switching equipment that can support it.

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