Back in the pre-PC days, mainframes were the center of the computer universe — and the well of all data. The rise of the personal computer gave people new power to do their work, but it also created lonely islands of info. Enter the network. Simply put, it's connecting PCs so that workers can collaborate on data, share printers, scanners and Internet access and centralize services like e-mail and Web security.
Here are three things to know now about networking your computers:
- Once, a full-time tech was nearly a requirement for even a small network. But most PCs now come out of the box ready to talk to one another.
- Wireless networking options suitable for a small business are making even the hardware part a snap.
- Increasingly, too, Web applications and managed hosting will allow some to skip complex networking and simply use the Web as a connection.
Make sure you really need a networkIf you have two or three machines in a small office, a full-blown network may well be a "nice-to-have" you can avoid for now. If the machines are physically close together, say a few dozen feet along a single wall, you could get away with some cables and an inexpensive router, a small switchbox that directs data traffic. Cheap but effective!
The right hardware is a mustMost computers, whether PC or Mac, now come with networking hardware installed. It will be cheaper and simpler to buy new than to drag older machines into the networked world.
Cut the cordUsing built-in wireless networking in laptops can save you money and trouble, but be sure that occasionally-slower performance won't hurt your productivity. Wireless is a breeze if you do office tasks and Web but problematic for graphics-heavy design or engineering shops.
Reduce your riskNetworking professionals have a sly hobby of riding around with their laptops looking for unsecured networks. After riding along on your Internet access for an hour, they'll send you a note shaming you for leaving the door wide open. And they're right.
Networks are so 1996The next generation of digital connectivity assumes you need total, even global mobility, and that associates, partners or clients could be in distant time zones. Thus the launch of Web-based collaboration services which mimic much of what a real-world network does, only via the Internet. If you can operate Web-based mail like a Yahoo! or Hotmail account, you can do this just as easily.
- Bringing your hardware and operating system up to date is the absolute first step. It will make everything else about networking nearly automatic, and PCs are dirt cheap now.
- Be realistic about your own technical ability. Some systems come together right out of the box, some don't. However, any mildly geeky nephew or friend in IT should be able to hook you up as a favor.
- Laptops, increasingly, are becoming the tool of choice over desktops, particularly for roaming executives. Make that choice — desktop or laptop — first. It will help decide what flavor of network will serve you best.
- Think hard before swallowing a salesperson's line about your need for a server. It will run you thousands and probably last fewer years than a used car. If your company manages major data second by second, it's probably a must. If not, almost certainly you can do without one.
- Warning: Do not let your broadband provider charge you monthly "networking fees." Nothing about your network requires any effort from the phone company.